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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Michael Cheveldave on Complexity Theory and the Cynefin Framework

Michael Cheveldave on Complexity Theory and the Cynefin Framework


1. Hi everyone. My name is Todd Charron and I am an Agile editor here at InfoQ and I am joined today by Michael Cheveldave. Hi, Michael!

Hi Todd.

Todd: So you are here at the Lean UX conference. That may seem a little bit strange for the kind of stuff you guys work with, coming in here, so maybe tell us about yourself and what you do and what kind of work you are talking about at this conference.

Michael Cheveldave, I am Vice President with Cognitive Edge, I work closely with Dave Snowden, Dave Snowden is the founder of Cognitive Edge. We specialize in developing methods and practices dealing with complexity theory. Dave Snowden and me entered as collaborators in developing the Cynefin framework he originated is getting popularity in its application to areas of risk, corporate strategy, and dealing with helping managers in need work with complexity theory and how to manage that uncertainty. So what brings us to Lean UX is Will Evans, who is the organizer of this conference, took our training, I think approximately 18 months ago, prior to that some of his colleagues, and he got really intrigued of how applied complexity theory can really help people working in the Lean UX space.


2. And so, now that you have been to the Lean UX conference and seen a kind of what's going on, how does it fit in?

I think complexity theory – because it's a theory that spans many areas that deal with uncertainty, the more emergent properties and unpredictable behaviors of large populations – I think in processes like creating designs, understanding user experiences, a lot of these they have very much the attributes of being a complex adaptive system. So if we take for example things that, trying to understand, to say, the emergent negative attributes of, say, people with ill intention in terrorist activity versus understanding the impacts of development efforts in third world countries, What you have is an asymmetry at play there. You've got a small organization or a group, you're a government agency or a development team for a development aid group, trying to understand the motives and behaviors and experiences of a large population, that's inherently complex problem. So we bring methods and techniques informed by cognitive science, complexity theory that really fuse the concepts of how to actually approach and deal with this uncertainty.

Todd: Some one of the workshops you did today, that I actually got to attend was one covering a kind of introduction to Cynefin framework. Tell us a little bit about how that works.

Ok. So Cynefin framework is an ontological framework that looks at three types of systems: you've got ordered systems, complex systems and chaotic systems. And the framework itself has been developed as a decision support tool, a sense-making framework that allows organizations of any type to make sense of their environment through those three ontologies. And so what the framework allows groups to do is actually create multiple models depending on their context, to make sense in their environment. Many aspects of our environments are ordered and structured in human systems, and humans actually have created order and structure, but there are many aspects which are highly complex if you take corporate culture, for example, motivation, how that reinforces across large groups, is an emergent property. So the Cynefin framework just helps groups and organizations make sense of their environment through these three ontologies and allows them to arrive at decisions far more quickly.

Todd: So can you give us an example of how maybe an organization that you worked with, how they applied it and whether allowed them to do that. Maybe they weren't able to see otherwise.

One example is, let's say I am working, I am doing my work in safety, for example, and the motivations of safety. Safety has been managed in industrial environments for many years, as rules, training, explicit procedures, but the habits of safety and just understanding how attitudes and behaviors are influencing people's perceptions on unsafe practices could be actually not affected, in a positive way, with more rules and more procedures and training. So what we do in those cases we use the Cynefin framework, to understand in those environments, where the rules and procedures perhaps have been applied to excess over-constraining system, and advising managers on how they can relax those constraints in a safe way and inherently make the entire system safer and operative.


3. [...] How does one kind of get from that to something you would do something about? How does that work?

Todd's full question: And so, when we did it in the workshop, we kind of looked at things, and I know we ran out of time, and we were able to see some of the things that you see forming whereabouts they would fall out, but how does one kind of get from that to something you would do something about? How does that work?

The thing is, once you make sense of an environment and if you are in what we call the complicated domain, which is one of the ordered domains, that is the valid domain of applying an analytic technique supplying experts. If you identify as a group, a collective group, certain aspects are complex, then you don't try to engineer your way, as if you're mapping it to a future state, you're engineering an outcome, you shift to becoming action-focused in the present, and you run multiple safet-to-fail experiments to perturb the system, hopefully in a desirable positive direction. What you do is, because there's safe-to-fail probes, as if you see the predispositions of the system shifting into a negative direction, you move quickly to dampen those effects, and you adjust your probes, and set experiments accordingly. So it's really an action-oriented approach in the present, and the framework helps you understand where to apply that technique.


4. [...] Can you tell us about that?

Todd's full question: Now there is one thing that you touched on in the workshop, which you know, having looked at the framework before doing the workshop, was not quite obvious but was fascinating when you talked about it, which was the relationship between obvious and chaos and flipping between them and what that means. Can you tell us about that?

Yes. So the boundary between obvious domain and the chaotic domain is unique one and that's a cliff. So if companies, organizations, become complacent, in other words they become too confident in their structures and systems, and think everything is ok, that boundary of complacency is an indication that they might be on a potential tip into chaos and any shift in the market structure will indicate that – one example I used in the workshop is look at Nokia and Rim, the comments that they made, as the dominant mobile phone providers during the period when iPhone 1 was released. Just in those comments they made you can sense that their complacency of being a dominant market leaders, right, was blinding them, in other words their success was blinding them that the threat was coming up with the new offering. You can also see that same boundary to look at how countries that are going through transitionary phases and turn into revolutionary periods, where their governments are being underthrown, is you often find control of the military, is that sort of oscillation, potential oscillation between chaos and hard rigid order.


5. And so, you know, you mentioned a challenge a kind of going from chaos, a challenge of grabbing the military and trying to enforce order, how should organizations be looking to kind of move from these different areas?

Oh yes. If you look closer at the Cynefin framework, chaos is bounded by obvious, the simple or at least what we used to call the simple domain and complex. What we encourage is systems will naturally stabilize into the complex domain after they are temporarily chaos. Chaos is a temporary state. So what we do is, we make leaders aware that if you are in a crisis, in a chaos situation is that there are two options on introducing stability: how do you stimulate that bottom up, self-organizing stabilization, which tends to have far more resilience, there's a high energy and a high cost to try to stabilize into the obvious domain, and that's where that metaphor of a cliff is.

Todd: So, tell me a little bit about Cognitive Edge.

Cognitive Edge is a company that is developing tools and methods and software. We have software products called sense-maker to help organizations gather very large volumes of narratives, user experience is one example that we used in this conference, but what it does is it actually distributes the interpretation of these narratives to the people that shared them. So it's actually been described probably, reasonably accurately as one of the first pure plays of qual and quant, that provides the quantification of large volumes, and that allows the qualitative side of it, of the assessments of the stories on individuals. So we're developing software tools, methods and techniques, and we also provide training, we have open-training courses around the world. Next courses are Johannesburg, Toronto, Copenhagen, and we offer different courses to practitioners to train. So we've convened a network of practitioners, people who want to practice complexity theory using Cynefin, other tools sense-maker, and a lot of them become members in the network, so they have a network of practitioners in different practices to advance this field.

Todd: And so, what is exciting for you now? I mean you probably have been doing this for a while and there is always something else you're learning.

What really excites me is actually scaling up the practice in significant ways and I am sensing a shift in management thinking, more complexity, managers at more levels, very senior levels too, are getting an inherent understanding of complexity, so they are getting interested in the academic theory behind it. But more excitingly is the application of theory with practice. And that is what we're specializing in, I mean it's really exiting seeing the impacts that the thinking and practice of the methods is having.


6. And if somebody wants to learn more about Cynefin or Cognitive Edge, where do they find that information?

Yes, best way to find us is on the web, and look us up, become a basic member for free and check our newsletter.


7. And just one last question on Cynefin, where is the best place to get started on actually learning about that?

I would say a good entry-point is probably the Harvard Business Review, cover article in 2007, Dave Snowden authored that with Mary Boone. It's got a leadership focus on it that gives a really nice introduction to the Cynefin framework and the concepts.

Todd: Thank you very much doing this, Michael.

Thank you.

Jul 03, 2014