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Cynefin Applied: Adapting to Changing Contexts

Key Takeaways

  • Our current disruptive context requires new ways of thinking and acting.  Sense-making, and the ability to tailor our actions to particular contexts, are critical skills for our times.
  • Cynefin is a sense-making framework that enables decision-makers to make sense of their contexts in order to act in it appropriately. 
  • Cynefin adopts the principle of bounded applicability, i.e. that different tools and methods work (and don’t work) within particular domain boundaries. Methods and tools are not context-agnostic. 
  • We need to learn how to go beyond following recipes and start thinking and acting like chefs who can adapt to changing contexts.
  • The Spirit of Cynefin is about embracing messy coherence; enabling descriptive self-awareness; and attuning to different contexts including questions of timing, anticipation and flow between domains.  

The book Cynefin: Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of our World by Dave Snowden describes the Cynefin framework and explores how it has developed over the years. It also provides stories where people who have applied Cynefin share their experiences.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Cynefin: Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of our World.

InfoQ interviewed Sonja BlignautZhen Goh and Dave Snowden about the Cynefin framework.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book together?

Sonja Blignaut & Zhen Goh: We realised in May this year that the framework was coming of age in October.  We felt that a book to celebrate this event would be a gift to Dave, and also add value to the international community of Cynefin enthusiasts. Cynefin has always been about community, and complexity is about valuing diversity, so it felt apt that the first Cynefin book be created by a diverse community of authors. In many ways the book celebrates the expertise and goodwill of our global community of practitioners and thinkers. In addition, we felt that the disruptive times we are in makes the need for effective sense-making much more acute and that the time was right to broaden the reach of this work.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Blignaut & Goh: This book has two primary audiences.  Firstly, it is intended for anyone who needs to navigate uncertainty and make sense of complexity.  However, we also wanted to give something back to our Cynefin community, by capturing some of the personal stories that make the history of the framework so rich.

We wanted to create something that maintained the authenticity of Cynefin in an accessible style. The decision to put the chapters together in the way that we did was deliberate - the brief to all authors was, “Imagine you were speaking to a group of people around the dinner table about Cynefin, and how you use the framework”. We hope the book makes Cynefin easy to understand, and accessible to everyone who is navigating uncertainty. 

InfoQ: When and how did Cynefin start, and how has it grown over the years?

Dave Snowden: The framework has its origins in knowledge management and was initially inspired by Boisot’s I-Space.  It developed initially into a more general theory of organisations and then expanded to cover decision support, leadership and a range of other subjects. The British Cabinet Office used it to assess the role of religion in the Bush White House to take one novel example.  It was called Cynefin for the first time 21 years ago in Liberating Knowledge,a Confederation of British Industry Handbook that I edited. Shortly after it moved into the five domain model that most are familiar with today, initially in a three-part series of articles on innovation, and then in the award-winning and much-cited paper Complex Acts of Knowing.   Since then the framework has evolved to include liminal aspects, including the aporetic or paradoxical central domain.

InfoQ: How does Cynefin look and what purposes can it serve?

Blignaut & Goh: Cynefin is drawn with organic curves rather than the straight lines of a matrix.  It has five primary domains (not four quadrants) that are different in nature, not in value. It is a meta-framework that can be used in many different ways.  Primarily it is used for sense-making and decision support.  Recently in response to the COVID crisis, it has become a key framework to help manage uncertainty and crisis. The latest version of Cynefin helps decision makers understand the type of confusion they are facing and find appropriate ways forward.

InfoQ: How can we know if we're dealing with a system from the complex domain versus the chaotic domain? How do these domains differ?

Snowden: The complex domain is one where all actors and objects are entangled in many ways that cannot be fully understood.  Everything is connected but the impact of change cannot be predicted.  One simple heuristic is to ask: Does the evidence support conflicting hypotheses about what we should do and we can’t resolve what is the right thing to do within the time frame for action?  If the answer is yes or maybe, then it is complex.

In chaos the system is fragmented.  There are no meaningful constraints so it is de facto random.  That means chaos is not a natural state for any human system and the lack of constraints will be resolved very quickly.  However, if we can manage to temporarily remove constraints between agents (the liminal aspect of chaos from complexity) then we can use the nature of the system for distributed decision-making.

InfoQ: What happens when there's a transition between domains, for instance when a system transitions from complicated to complex or vice versa?

Snowden: The nature of the constraints change (either accidentally or on purpose) and consequently the nature of the way we can know and interact with the system changes as well.  In using Cynefin it is important to break the system down to ‘grains’ that are themselves irreducible and then deal with the grains appropriately - if in doubt assume it’s complex. 

Goh: An example of this is the topic of employee well-being, which is a topic that is discussed in the chapter by Marion Kiely and Ellie Snowden. In this chapter, they describe a method for building a Cynefin model based on different aspects of how employees experience well-being. Well-being is a complex issue, and cannot be solved by linear approaches. Stories are a great way to surface the complexity of the issues as they are being experienced by employees, and a portfolio of safe-to-fail experiments (not focusing on one sole change program) can be created from these stories which meet the system where it is. In their chapter, Kiely and Snowden share a beautiful anecdote where Marion was working with the housing department of a local authority which was experiencing particularly high stress levels due to the late payments they had to deal with. They often had to chase up late payments from tenants in person, and had to deal with upset, and sometimes abusive, tenants. One of the ideas that emerged from their Cynefin session was to experiment with giving 1 or 2 weeks of free rent around Christmas time if tenants could make payments on time in earlier months. They tried this on a small scale, and used the results from the pilot to make decisions about where and how to scale it. 

The experiment did not target employee stress directly, but worked with the broader issues in the system that they could take action on. Well-being is too messy and entangled to deal with in a single program. The experiment approached it from an aspect of the entangled problem that was a “grain” (in Dave’s language) which was not in itself reducible, but which provided some level of granular traction to take action on. 

InfoQ: What are the three organizing principles of Cynefin?

Blignaut:  The three principles are: 

  1. Embrace messy coherence
  2. Enable descriptive self-awareness
  3. Attune to timing & flow
  1. Embrace messy coherence 

This principle of messy coherence enables us to accommodate much diversity of approaches, methods, and tools within Cynefin. Coherence comes from understanding the boundaries of their applicability.  When we apply this principle, we …

  • Play in the tension between coherence and difference. Too much difference and things become incoherent. Too much coherence and things become too homogenous. Cynefin uses this inherent tension as generative, creating a space for the novelty to emerge. Most of our methods work to generate this space by embracing and sometimes intentionally creating ambiguity, paradox, and aporia (generative confusion).
  • Avoid premature convergence and binary thinking.  The world abounds with false dichotomies: management vs. leadership; agile vs. waterfall; purpose vs. profit; theory vs. practice … the list goes on and on. We embrace - And-And rather than Either-Or - which means we seek out, or play in tension, rather than creating binary options or false dichotomies. Cynefin values contextual ambiguity, dialectic, and even paradox. We attempt to avoid prematurely converging to one particular idea or solution, and we try to play in ambiguity and a broad option field for as long as we can.  
  1. Enable descriptive self-awareness and self-discovery

Cynefin is about proactive meaning-making and sense-making. We seek to understand the evolutionary potential in the present and discover how to enable novel connections and act appropriately. We are making sense in order to act, not to gain reflective insight only. Attaining a state of descriptive self-awareness, where individuals or systems "see" themselves and their context differently, often leads immediately to actionable insight. A Cynefin-informed approach, therefore, entails creating the conditions that enable such awareness. When we tell or advise, we are undermining this process.

"It sometimes takes patience and confidence to communicate to clients the value of emergent methods; this gets much easier as one sees the methods working in practice and can compare the efficiency and effectiveness of these fine tools with the blunt edges of recipes." - Dave Snowden

When we apply this principle we always consider the potential for unintended consequences.  We can also never forget that complex systems are open systems; whenever we interact with them, we become part of that system. The systems we deal with are typically complex socio-technical systems, and in these systems, there is no such thing as an independent or neutral observer or consultant. When we enter a system, we become part of it; its dynamics influence us, and in turn, it changes in response to our presence. A team is not the same once a coach arrives, even if all that person does is observe. When a consultant turns up, the system changes. New connections and meanings form that change prevailing systemic patterns in unpredictable ways. Because of this, every diagnostic is an intervention, and every intervention is a diagnostic (if we are situationally aware).  

  1. Attune to timing and flow 

Time matters in human systems. The patterns we can observe today were shaped by the initial starting conditions of the system and many years of evolutionary change. 

This means that while complex systems are inherently unpredictable and non-causal, they have dispositional states i.e., they are predisposed towards certain behaviors. If we understand these dispositions and follow those “natural contours,” the energy gradient for change is lessened. 

When we apply this principle we consider:

  • Time  & cadence - Cynefin is about embracing the here and now; we learn from the past, but we don’t rely on it to predict a future; we are evolving into a future, but we are not aiming at an idealized future state. We search for the evolutionary potential in the present, and when opportune moments arise, we take them.
  • Flow & patterns - Cynefin is a flow concept. It recognizes a continuous dynamic flow of many entangled patterns through time. Meaning is something that emerges from tangled connections over time. Our meaning-making is active and “in the moment.” The narrative becomes important here as it is a primary human meaning-making mechanism. It is how we make sense of our experience over time.
  • Liminality - People often forget that Cynefin is a dynamic framework, and that the system states in Cynefin are dynamic and things move between them. The liminal zones between domains are transformational. Here we are able to suspend judgment, keep our options open and enable the emergence of novelty. 

InfoQ: Over the years, Cynefin has been applied in different areas. Can you give examples of how this has been done?

Blignaut & Goh: In the book, practitioners from all over the world share their application experiences in fields which range from Healthcare to Law Enforcement, Corporate Strategy to International Development and Government to Personal Well-Being.  

For example, our editors, Boudewijn and Riva, share Riva’s personal 48 year journey with Type I Diabetes, and how Cynefin has helped her create an approach to diabetes management that helps patients to thrive with (not in spite of) the disease.  Realising that managing Diabetes is complex, has freed up many people who are living with the disease from unnecessary pressure and guilt.  

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Chris Bolton from the Welsh Audit Office shares how they have used the framework to inform government policy and intervention. In his chapter, Bolton reflects on how Cynefin disrupted established ways of governance, and introduced the importance of safe-to-fail probes and cultivated the tolerance within the audit office (a notably conservative, risk-avoidant bunch) for what they have translated into “audit speak” as “well-managed risks”. 

InfoQ: How do decision-makers use Cynefin to come up with solutions or actions?

Snowden: They start by determining what aspects of their current situation sit in which domain and what movement they want to achieve between domains.  They use the framework to create context appropriate actions.  In the ordered domains the pathway(s) will be clear; in the complex domain you carry out parallel short cycle safe-to-fail experiments to see what is possible.  They may also seek to avoid premature commitment by creating paradoxical situations or using distributed situational assessment to identify outliers and overall patterns of what is possible.  Cynefin is not about creating recipes but about facilitating chefs.

InfoQ: How do Cynefin and Wardley mapping complement each other?

Snowden: Our equivalent in Cynefin of Wardley Maps are the Flexuous Curves or Apex Predator theory.  In effect Wardley Maps are a powerful way of representing the evolutionary potential of where you are and how things might move between Cynefin domains.  A project is currently underway to develop a more advanced (sic) mapping between the two and potentially use SenseMaker® to create or populate Wardley Maps. 

InfoQ: What can we learn from Cynefin when it comes to consulting or advising organizations?

Blignaut & Goh: The Spirit of Cynefin is founded in naturalising sense-making and learning with a system. Most traditional consultancy has been built on providing solutions and answers. Cynefin, however, teaches us that in complexity we have to come with questions, and journey with clients to see and make sense of their intractable problems in new ways so that answers emerge.  One of our principles is to meet systems where they are and to create descriptive self-awareness i.e. hold up a mirror, not provide solutions.

Cynefin also recognises that no tools, methods or answers are universally applicable.  It makes us aware of the concept of bounded applicability - the importance of understanding the nature of your problem as it sits within your own environment; and the methods or tools that are useful in your particular context.  For example, in predictable project contexts where the scope is defined and everything is known, Waterfall approaches to project management work well.  However, in complex contexts with fluid user requirements and many unknown unknowns, we need to adopt more Agile approaches.

InfoQ: What will the future bring for Cynefin?

Snowden: I foresee more extended use and some development of language along with a growing range of related tools and methods.  The big changes of recent years (liminal, exaptive, aporetic) have to a large extent resolved the tensions within the framework.   My focus is now on creating other sense-making frameworks and methods.

Blignaut & Goh: We are planning to publish another book soon on the wide variety of Cynefin methods that have been created over the years.  We foresee broader adoption of the thinking, especially taking into account the need for decision-makers to respond to the disruptive effects of 2020.

About the Book Authors

Sonja Blignaut is a thinking and sense-making partner for leaders and change-makers who need to better navigate uncertainty.  She is based in South Africa and has a background in the natural sciences.  She is a sought-after speaker and recognised authority in Complexity, Cynefin and Organisation Development, has almost two decades of consulting experience, and is certified in various individual and systemic coaching methods. She looks after the commercial business of Cognitive Edge and is also founder and managing director of More Beyond in South Africa.

Zhen Goh is an active proponent of “knowledge is a martial art”. She is currently a senior consultant with Cognitive Edge, and enjoys working in the fringes between the commercial and non-profit lines of Cognitive Edge. Her work is transdisciplinary in nature. Zhen believes that responsible business and research has to advance societal improvement. She is a Social Anthropologist by training, and has co-authored a book on Cynefin for the Japanese market. She is currently preoccupied with exploring the intersectionality of ancient Asian philosophy and Western philosophy. 

Dave Snowden divides his time between two roles: founder chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, and the founder and director of the Centre for Applied Complexity at the University of Wales.  His work is international in nature and covers government and industry looking at complex issues relating to strategy, organizational decision-making and decision-making.  He has pioneered a science-based approach to organizations drawing on anthropology, neuroscience and complex adaptive systems theory.

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