On the Cynefin framework

This page is published under the terms of the licence summarized in the footnote.

 

Note first

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is remote from general system theory.

Its definitions of “complex” and “complicated” have nothing to do measurement of operational system complexity.

Its definition of “chaotic” is tenuously related to chaos theory.

It is a tool for problem domain analysis – for choosing how to approach a business problem.

It is a sense-making framework is for those wanting to make a “management intervention”.

So, it is a framework for those working in the meta system that studies and defines the operational systems.

 

Making "management interventions" is at opposite end of systems thinking from general system theory.

General system theory and cybernetics are about the analysis and design of core services and processes – of repeated deterministic behaviour.

The information-intensive and software-intensive organisations addressed in enterprise architecture

·         can be both complicated (internally) and complex (if you don’t know the internals) in Snowden's sense

·         might lead in the long-term to either linear or chaotic outcomes.

 

So the 4-way classification of problem domains in the Cynefin framework may be useful.

But it is not a classification of systems, and is only cosmetically comparable with Ackoff’s 4-way classification or Avancier’s 9-way classification of systems.

The Cynefin framework

Cynefin is a Welsh word covering habitat, place, experience, culture etc.

The name is a reminder that our behaviour is influenced and frequently determined by our place, our experience, culture etc..

In other words, our behaviour is shaped by our internal state, which was in turn shaped by past events.

 

Dave Snowden says The Cynefin framework is:

·         not a categorisation of systems (though it does tend to be regarded that way).

·         at the problem analysis end of “systems thinking”, rather than the system theory end.

·         a “sense-making framework”.

·         a self-organising tool, a guide to choice between human processes, a methodology classification.

 

The Cynefin framework is commonly shown like this, with Disorder in the middle.

Complex

Probe - Sense – Respond

emergent practice.

--------------------------------Dis

Chaotic

Act - Sense – Respond

novel practice.

Complicated

Sense - Analyze – Respond

good practice.

order-------------------------------

Simple

Sense - Categorise – Respond

best practice.

 

 


Snowden says when first placed in a situation, we tend start in the central Disorder domain and then decide which kind of behaviour to adopt.

We can reasonably move from any domain to an adjacent domain, but not from simple to chaotic

Mistakenly behaving in the simple way is dangerous; it can lead us over the cliff from simple into chaos and failure.

 

This sense-making framework is for the meta system that is the human problem solving process, for the methodology to be adopted.

Given a task, a problem to solve, or transformation to make, we can use the framework to decide how we or other people best behave.

The problem domain is

The path from cause to effect (event to result, input to output)

Our behaviour pattern should be

We should

Simple (ordered)

Obvious

Sense - Categorise - Respond

apply established best practice.

Complicated (ordered)

Requires analysis, investigation or the application of expert knowledge

Sense - Analyze - Respond

apply a good/expert practice (any of several)

Complex

Can be recognised after testing, but not determined in advance,

Probe - Sense - Respond

experiment and test what practice works

Chaotic

None, there appears to be no relationship

Act - Sense - Respond

act fast using a novel practice to reach order

Disorder

Unknown, we don’t know which of the above 4 domains we are in

 

work out what domain we are in!

 

E.g. in a Complicated situation, one might decide to use an expert practice like TOGAF or VSM.

The framework could be used to justify this decision to managers.

 

Elsewhere, Snowden defines his terms another way (as reported by Conrad Taylor).

 

Ordered systems

Complex systems

Chaotic systems

Agents are

constrained by the system

lightly constrained by the system

unconstrained and independent of each other.

The behavior of the agents is

predictable.

to modify the system through interactions with each other and with the system environment, so they ‘co-evolve’..

analysable using statistical analysis and probability.

Comments

Most management theory is predicated on this view.

A better model for understanding markets, and organisations.

We have tended to assume that markets are chaotic; but this has been a simplistic view.

Beware terminology clashes

In other contexts, Snowden’s terms meaning different things. For example:

 

Mapping the Cynefin framework to Avancier’s system classification scheme

Avancier’s scheme classifies an operational system by scoring it on nine dichotomies, nine scales on which systems might compared.

Once you think an particular methodology will be useful, Avancier’s scales offer ways to categorise the operational system that is to be described.

The scales might help us choose between TOGAF and a more socio-systemic problem analysis tool.

But Avancier’s scales are intended more for educating architects about the nature of systems than for advising managers.

 

The four of Avancier’s nine scales that look related the Cynefin framework, and may be lumped together as offering a hard-soft system dichotomy.

HARD?                                                    SOFT?

Facile

Easy transformations / services

Difficult transformations / services

Complex

Predictable

Inputs have predictable effects

Inputs have unpredictable effects

Unpredictable

Rigid

Fixed components & processes

Refactorable components & processes

Malleable

Static

Constrained, rule bound

Adaptable, self-directing, evolving

Changing

 

Focusing on the four most relevant scales, I propose a rough mapping between the two schemes as follows..

Cynefin problem domain

Avancier’s system scales, applied to a human problem domain

Simple

Predictable

Facile

Rigid

Static

Complicated

Predictable

Complex

Malleable

Static

Complex

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

Chaotic

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

The tools are different. So the mapping here is done for fun.

 

Mapping the Cynefin framework to Ackoff’s system classification scheme

Curiously, when I attempt to map Avancier’s system scales to Ackoff’s system classes, the result looks very similar!

Ackoff’s system class

Avancier’s system scales

Mechanistic

Predictable

Facile

Rigid

Static

Animate

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Static

Social

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

Ecological

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

(Bear in mind that deterministic means predictable in theory, predictable means predictable in practice.)

 

So, it appears possible to map Cynefin to Ackoff as below.

But actually, the two schemes are unrelated; the Cynefin framework is looser, more generic, and used differently.

Cynefin problem domain

Ackoff’s system class

Simple

Mechanistic

Complicated

Animate

Complex

Social

Chaotic

Ecological

 

Further reading:

http://cognitive-edge.com/uploads/articles/Origins_of_Cynefin.pdf

http://mandenews.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/test3.html#comment-form

You can find references to Dave Snowden’s writings on Cynefin in Wikipedia.

 

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