Cynefin Framework

We can improve our partial representation of the Real World by making the following additions:

Split the Order system into 2 domains: Complicated & Obvious. Add 1 domain in the middle called Disorder, the state of not knowing where you are.
This is the Cynefin Framework. It is a Sense-making Framework.

Liminal Cynefin

This is the liminal version of the Cynefin Framework. Liminality is a key concept in anthropology. The green shaded areas are transitional spaces when switching states. An example would be a manager wishing to informally chat with front-line workers. To send a signal he wants to be “one of the boys”, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves and sits at eye level with everyone. This ritual of changing dress happens in the liminal space.

Operating surgeons frequently talk about the liminal space between life and death. The surgeon and team begin in the Complicated domain. Operating procedures have been established by experts and devices can measure how well the patient is doing. If stable conditions continue, then success will be the outcome.

What happens if alarms start going off indicating a sudden drop in pulse or heart beat? The situation has surprisingly moved into the green liminal space between the Chaotic and Complex domains. In this space the team quickly agrees on an action plan. They move into the Complex domain to try different things. Once they find a solution the team moves into the liminal space between Complex and Complicated to confirm the solution does work. They stay in the liminal space until stabilization emerges. Then can they move back to the Complicated domain to finish the operation.

Cynefin Dynamics

Moving around the domains is called Cynefin Dynamics. The manager’s informal chat is the horizontal loop between Complicated and Complex. It is commonly used by Agile project teams to test their work. In the Complex domain teams confirm if clients and users are satisfied before carrying on with the next iteration. The learnings are brought back into the Complicated domain.

In the surgery case, the team faced an unexpected shallow dive into the Chaotic domain when the patient’s vital signs indicated distress. Time was of the essence. Any attempt to move back into the Complicated domain to do a root cause analysis would be too slow and result in certain death. So the team moved into the Complex domain and used heuristics to quickly find an answer. Heuristics are simple rules applied during times of uncertainty. They are based on years of knowledge and practical experience.

This loop can also be used deliberately as a process for constructive disruption. The leader can introduce something that disrupts the status quo or norms to “shake up the troops.” The disturbance occurs in the liminal space between Chaotic and Complex. The troops are now ready and stimulated to explore and generate new ideas in the Complex domain. This Cynefin Dynamic loop essentially is the process of serious creativity expressed by Edward de Bono is his work on Lateral Thinking.

The arrow heading down to the Obvious domain is the adoption of a solution as a “best practice”. It’s an arrow not a loop because no feedback is needed — after all, it is a best practice so what more is there to improve? The diagram illustrates the dangers of following best practices that no one reviews to see if they have become outdated. Over time there is a slow drift towards the Obvious/Chaotic boundary as workers become complacent or create workarounds because the best practice no longer works. A tipping point is reached when the situation plunges over the boundary. A change in state called failure emerges and the outcome is an accident, an unintended negative consequence.

Robustness and Resilience

Commensurate with other paradigm shifts, system design thinking is changing from building Robust systems to including Resilient complex adaptive systems

The Cynefin Framework provides a different way to examine robustness and resilience.