Cynefin Complexity

The Cynefin Framework

Last time in the onboarding series I wrote about complexity through the frame of relationship between cause and effect in the world.  Today, I want to introduce Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework1 which underpins what I mean by complexity.

Ordered Systems

So far, I defined an Ordered System as a system where a relationship between cause and effect can be determined. The relationship could be clear or discovered through analysis. When the relationship is clear, that is a Clear System.

For a Clear System, the sense-making heuristic is sense-categorize-respond. We sense the situation, we categorize it (because cause and effect are clear), and we respond using the Best practice available for the category we selected. The constraints are Fixed, do not change, and will probably never change on the timescale under consideration (whether we act or not).

When the relationship between cause and effect can be discovered through analysis, that is a Complicated System.

For a Complicated System, the sense-making heuristic is sense-analyze-respond. We sense the situation, we analyze it (because cause and effect can be determined through analysis), and we respond using one of the Good practices available.2 The constraints are Governing constraints, “…[they] provide limits to what can be done. In terms of our policies and processes, these are hard-and-fast rules. They are context-free, which means they apply to everything, regardless of context.”3 Because we enforce the constraints, the constraints do not change (similarly to Fixed constraints), and will probably never change on the timescale under consideration (whether we act or not).

Chaotic Systems

When the relationship between cause and effect cannot be determined, that is a Chaotic System.

For a Chaotic System, the heuristic is to act-sense-respond. We act to establish order, we sense where stability lies, and we respond using Novel methods attempting to turn chaos into complexity.4 There are no constraints. “Chaos is caused by a lack of constraints; meeting constraints will cause it to dissipate. Think of fire burning until it runs out of fuel or oxygen. This is what makes Chaos transient and short-lived; it will rapidly grow until it meets constraints, at which point the situation resolves (but not necessarily in your favour).”5

Complex Systems

When the relationship between cause and effect can only be determined in hindsight, that is a Complex System.

For a Complex System, the heuristic for sense-making is probe-sense-respond. We probe via multiple parallel and independent safe-to-fail experiments. We sense whether our probes are working, and we respond using Exaptive6 practices. If a probe is working, we reinforce it. If a probe is failing, we should dampen it. We should not conduct the probes in the first place unless we’ve identified amplification/reinforcement and dampening strategies ahead of time. The constraints are Enabling in the sense that they constrain what probes we can conduct (as opposed to any probe imaginable if there were no constraints). The constraints will change on the timescale under consideration due to our own actions (probes) and external factors.

A Cheat Sheet

Liz Keogh has a very useful shortcut for estimating complexity to get you started7:

5. Nobody has ever done it before.
4. Someone outside the organization has done it before (probably a competitor)

3. Someone in the company has done it before.
2. Someone in the team has done it before.

1. We all know how to do it.

What Do You Think?

This was quite a lot of dense exposition. If you feel something could use more clarification, let me know in the comments.

Next Up

I’ll continue sharpening the definition of complex through the framing I call the Economy of Thought.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin_framework. Accessed on 9 Mar 2021.

2 It is worth noting that given you have the appropriate expertise, there are likely multiple good approaches to take. Pick one.

3 Keogh, Liz (2019). “Constraints and Cynefin”. https://lizkeogh.com/2019/12/09/constraints-and-cynefin/. Accessed on 9 Mar 2021.

4 Snowden, David J.; Boone, Mary E. (2007). “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”. https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making. Accessed on 9 Mar 2021.

5 Keogh (2019).

6 Exaptive in the sense that we are using our existing capabilities and exapting them for novel purposes that they were perhaps not originally intended for. Think of using a piece of paper to keep a chair from rocking back and forth.

7 Keogh, Liz (2013). “Estimating Complexity”. https://lizkeogh.com/2013/07/21/estimating-complexity/. Accessed on 10 Mar 2021. Accompanying illustration is based on one of Keogh’s presentations.