Cynefin: We need to teach this in school!

Using the wrong tools

You probably know about his metaphor: Using a hammer to drive in a screw. While I knew about the idea of using the wrong tools to solve problems for many years, I only recently learned about the Cynefin. This framework describes this situation much more profoundly and has been an eye-opener for me. Having been a victim but also a perpetrator of „using the wrong tools“,  I can’t wait to write this blog post. Because so much pain has been created.  So much effort, money and motivation has been wasted. And even worse, it continues everyday. We need to change this! You need to learn about the Cynefin-framework and you need to pass on the word.

I will only scratch the surface of the framework, but that might already sufficient to change the way you see the world. At least that‘s how it was for me when I first got in contact with it. But before I start to talk about the framework let me provide some of my very own examples that should explain  why we need to learn about it:

  • Several years of time and lots of money wasted trying to develop a new revolutionary product for a large German firm; treating this as project to implement some fixed scope without regularly asking for feedback and quickly pivoting.
  • A large, company-wide transformation project managed with a project plan containing some thousand tasks.
  • Countless well-thought-out strategies and large re-organisations failing or not fully reaching the desired and planned outcomes
  • Neglecting what we already know of good-practices in project management when building an office 
  • Hours and hours of heated discussions about the best way of working

And these are only me own personal experiences… So, without further ado, let me quickly present you the the Cynefin-framework. I will come back to these examples and some notes on digital transformations later.

The Cynefin-Framework

This is how the Cynefin-framework looks like. You can see four quadrants. Unlike many other models, it does not have dimensions, i.e. there is no x or y axis. It‘s basically these four quadrants and some area or space that separates these area. I will not talk about these borders and why some of them are thicker and some are thinner. Let‘s keep it simple. Four quadrants. The titles of them all start with with the letter „C“. They are called CLEAR, COMPLICATED, COMPLEX, and CHAOTIC.

What can we find in these quadrants?

Let me quote Sonja Blignaut from the book „Cynefin. Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of our world“. She writes „At its most basic, Cynefin allow us to distinguish between three different kinds of systems:

  1. Ordered systems that are governed and constrained in such a way that cause and effect relationships are either clear or discoverable through analysis;
  2. Complex systems where causal relationships are entangled and dynamic and the only way to understand the system is to interact; and
  3. Chaotic systems where there are no effective constraints, turbulence prevails and immediate stabilizing action is required“.

Let‘s start with Clear: Clear is the domain of best practices, the solution to a problem is visible to everybody. The relationship between cause and effect is obvious or has become obvious. Some examples might help: How about  the work in a call center: a customer calls, the agent listens and then quickly chooses a corresponding script to help the customer with a solution to the problem.

Another example could be building a family home. A house. That‘s not a simple task. But it has been done a billion times before. We have best practices. The domain is fully understood. There are even catalogs in which you can choose your dream home. By the way, clear or obvious or simple does not mean easy. It can still be difficult and hard work. Moreover, building a special opera house like the one in Hamburg does not fall into this domain. 

Now the Complicated domain.  Here, the solution is not visible to anyone.  You need expert knowledge. This is the expert domain. An extreme example could be flying to the moon. There was a massive amount of expert knowledge and analysis required to master this enormous challenge. Yet the relationship between cause and effect, although complicated, could finally be understood. Or how about building cars. Engineering work. Another example from the IT world would be the global roll out of an ERP system. This is clearly not an easy task, yet we have good practices for that. We can build methodologies for that. We can have process charts, templates, role descriptions, artifacts. We might build a physical or commercial model. We might even be able to analyse and estimate the work and offer a fixed price since we know how to control and manage the work.  Problem solving in the complicated domain is not easy. But if you get enough brain power, if you get your best engineers and experts onto the project, you will be able to find a good solution. Maybe not the best one. This is because the relationship between cause and effect can be analysed and understood.

Now, this is all different in the Complex domain. Here, the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect. What does that mean? Well, the impact is enormous. No matter how many experts you assigned to a problem, no matter how smart they are, no matter how hard you try, you are not able to derive a solution. Well, in fact you might be able to create a solution, and you might convince yourself and others that this is the solution. But as the cause and effect relationship in the complex domain is only visible in retrospect you are simply fooling yourself and others. And this is happening everyday. And I can confess: I have been a great fool myself.

To make this article concise, I am skipping the Chaotic domain. The interested reader will have no problem to finding out more about Cynefin and go much deeper.

For now, let’s focus on the implications: Like many of us, I have been socialised with the belief that through proper analysis we can find a solution. Being trained in mathematics and engineering I would look at a problem („sense“), then take it apart, understand its properties („analyse“) and finally develop a solution („respond“). With proper training and some years of experience, I have become an expert in my field (e.g. project management) and became good at applying the practices. Where is this approach located in the Cynefin framework? Well, you guessed it right, it’s in the Complicated domain. So far so good. But the problem starts when we apply our good practices in the complex or chaotic domain. Here, the cause-effect relationship cannot be known in advance. Thus, we need a very different approach. In the complicated domain, we first need to try out something („probe“), then we see how things develop („sense“), and from the feedback we have received, we continue or change our approach („respond“). In a nutshell, this is what agile methodologies are all about. They emphasise on fast feedback and acting upon it.  So coming back to the initial metaphor, we get into trouble when we apply the wrong tools (think „hammer“) in a specific environment. Most often I see this as good practices from the complicated domain being used in the complex domain. That might be project and program management methods used in complex product development or for transformations. But sometimes also (yet, less often) when we use agile methods in situations where we already have good practices in place.

Moreover, knowing the Cynefin-framework, the discussion we often have during a digital transformation becomes much easier. As it is not about which way of working is better. Is agile better than waterfall? Or the other way around? This is fundamentally the wrong question. It’s rather if the set of tools or approaches are well suited to the domain. 

I wished I would have known about Cynefin much earlier.  This would have saved myself and my teams a lot of wasted effort (being the person using the wrong tools).  Or it would have given me the confidence and the arguments to say out loudly that something is going deeply wrong (being the victim). I wished we all would learn about the Cynefin-framework. So why not discuss it in school? Until we are there, please help to save ourselves lots of wasted effort. Please have a look at it yourself and tell others about it.