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Have you thought about the how the environment are you in is behaving, whether that be Simple, Complex, Complicated or Chaotic? …and what that means for how you make sense of situations and make decisions?  Importantly, if you knew how your context was behaving, would you consciously manage your strategy and make your decisions in a different way?

This thought provoker provides an example of a small organisation explicitly applying three different strategy management processes to its diverse strategic themes, and the thinking behind those choices as systems with quite different characteristics.  Regular readers will know I bang on about, a number of themes: strategy as ae emergent learning process, organisations being complex social systems beyond their organisational boundaries, and how strategic thinking should include assessing how we manage, as well as what we do.  This is all closely related to the diversity and challenges we experience in our organisations today. 

1     A practical example: one Hospice using three different strategy approaches

For a practical application of this, a few years ago I was helping a Hospice in the Scottish Highlands, Highland Hospice, with some of their strategic thinking. 

Core strategy: caring for people and managing the hospice itself

Their strategy for the core hospice care was relatively straightforward and applied best practice.  It requires little change, perhaps irregular (possibly annual) reviews.  As far as they were concerned it was a relatively smooth-running system, with obvious individual care implications for each person and family involved.

Supporting medical and care communities across the Highlands

The clinical staff also provided help and support to medical and healthcare practitioners across the highlands, through video coaching sessions, face to face visits and support over the phone.  This extended the range of support of the hospice across the extensive and highly dispersed highland care and medical communities.  Individual communities would require different help and approaches, within a range of options.  This was more of a complicated system.  One size did not fit all, but they could be accommodated. The more they expanded this service, the more it became more systematic, but it always needed to be adapted for each communities’ specific needs, and a personal touch.

Enabling, creating and supporting compassionate communities

A third aspect was how to create and support ‘compassionate communities’ across the highlands.  This was about enabling the people in their communities, often very isolated, to support one another, and seeding capability and the support they needed to be better at what they naturally wanted to do.  They already had some communities doing this, each with its own characteristics. This was an emerging idea that needed further testing, refinement and development.  It also required the engagement of communities, alongside the collaboration of other services such as social care and the health system, locally and nationally.  They had to try out ideas, see where support might come from.  They were also challenging the scope of what a hospice traditionally did, and how it was perceived by people who donated to it and funded it.  They had to bring their own management team to a common realisation of the importance of the challenge, creating a compelling imperative for change and support for the initiative.  This is clearly a complex system, constantly adapting, with many players, in diverse situations, with varying boundaries and scope.  Importantly, it had potentially large benefits for those communities it could help. 

Managing the diversity of their strategy in diverse ways

They realised that they needed to think about, and manage, their strategy in specific ways appropriate to that theme’s context.  One was relatively straightforward (simple); one quite more complex, adaptive and emergent; one in-between that was primarily complicated.  Note the terms used here…. I return to them…. 

2     The underlying thinking: Sense making, strategy processes  and decision making

This is where sense making comes in.  Sense Making (making sense) precedes decision making (making & taking decisions).   Make sense of what you are experiencing, and the context you are operating in, so you then know how to choose an approach to your strategy and how to make and take decisions in the appropriate way and can act accordingly.  Below, I summarise a sense making framework called Cynefin (it is Welsh). For those seeking to make more sense of it, I provide links below to more details material.

3   A sense-making framework – Cynefin

So, how do you identify (make sense of) the type of context you are in and therefore choose appropriate decision-making characteristics? A really useful way is to understand the behaviour of the system (context) you are in and therefore adapt your approach.

A simple system has clear and obvious cause and effect. 

A simple system has clear and obvious cause and effect.  The system is predictable and repeatable: relationships are self-evident.  Simply categorise what is going on and respond with ‘Best practice’.  The appropriate decision process is “Sense, then categorise, and then respond with best practice”.

In Complicated systems cause and effect exists, but is not self evident

In a complicated system, cause and effect exists, but is NOT self-evident.  Multiple components have multiple effects. Therefore, multiple approaches could all work.  You need to understand (analyse) what is going on and apply ‘A Good Practice’, that suits your environment.  The appropriate decision process is “Sense, then analyse, then respond.”

A complex system has no clear or obvious causality

A complex system has no clear or obvious causality.  The context and the way things, (people / organisations / the external world) behave often changes.  Unfortunately, repeating an experiment will give different results at different times.  You need a way to find out which causal relationships are working now by conducting multiple experiments.  The ones that work, you support and amplify. The ones that do not work, you moderate (kill off).  Your strategy for action emerges from the ones that create the desired responses in the desired direction and speed, while they work. 

The appropriate strategy emerges (‘Emergent strategy’). The appropriate decision process is “Stimulate the system to create reactions, Sense how it is reacting and, as you learn, Respond by amplify what works, and dampen what is adverse.  Keep testing and learning”.

In chaotic systems cause and effect can not be determimed

The chaotic system is where cause and effect relationships can’t be determined. When chaos is not created deliberately, you need to act quickly to stabilise the situation.  In other words, start making decisions… decisions that will bring some sense of stability and direction to the activities. (For example, think multiple uncertainties, triage, and having a basis for you actions.).   The appropriate decision process is “Act to create some order, then Sense (to work out what is happening), Respond (by refining those decisions).  

The state of disorder of confusion

The full model of Cynefin also includes a fifth state: disorder or confusion.  This state is ‘not knowing’ or ‘not realising’ what system you are in.  It is characterised by being in one type of system but operating from a different type of system and not getting the sort of results you expect, and not knowing why, or not knowing how to adapt.  This client clearly realised that parts of their strategy needed managing, socialising and developing in different ways. 

Much of what we encounter as important and challenging to manage falls into either complicated or complex.  Parts can be simplified, as best practices, but be careful. “One size fits all” approaches can fit like a glove: baggy in five places.  Over-simplified processes can eventually fracture catastrophically and drop off the cliff into chaotic.  I am sure you have seen this happen…

4 Key messages about the variety of systems we encounter

I use this underlying thinking a lot with clients: Usually implicitly, sometimes explicitly. Approaching strategy as an emergent learning process in a complex social system, and thinking about how we manage, fits well with the environments many of my clients operate in, and particularly the types of challenges I get called into help with. 

5 Some further reading

This sense-making description is based on the Cynefin framework, developed by David Snowdon of Cognitive Edge. To watch a couple of short entertaining and informative introductory videos,

Cynefin has been around for quite a while.  Snowden has moved on to develop a way of making sense of complex environments using a narrative capture approach, which is also very fascinating stuff.