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I have worked from a perspective of organisations being complex social systems for a long while.  A few years ago I came across a framework that was really good at explaining how different types of systems have quite different characteristics that determine how decision making should change.  It explained a lot of why I do what I do, even though I was thinking about this sort of thing before I came across the framework. 

The framework is called Cynefin.  It was developed by David Snowden of Cognitive Edge.  He calls it a “Sense making” framework, in that it helps you make sense of the context you are in, so you can act and make decisions appropriately. 

I find that the work I do for clients, sits predominantly in the Complex adaptive systems part of the model.  This is a retrospective analysis of what I do, however it does explain a lot.  Below I have summarised the main points of each system within the framework.  Other articles talk more about how I use this sense making framework and you can use it as well.

1.1   Cynefin: A sense-making framework

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. This is how the Cynefin framework sets out teh diverse types of system.

1.1.1   The simple or obvious system

A simple or obvious system has clear 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”.

1.1.2   The complicated system

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.”

1.1.3   A complex system

A complex system has no clear or obvious causality.  The context and the way things, people, organisations, the external world, behave often changes, unpredictably.  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”.

1.1.4   The chaotic system

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, any decisions. The appropriate decision process is “Act to create some order, then Sense (to work out what is happening), Respond (by refining those decisions).  

1.1.5   Confusion and operating from a different system

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.  

1.2   Overview across systems & contexts

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…

This highlights the cliff between simple and chaotic.  The other borders are softer, as a context of system can be slightly complicated, or have characteristics that are both complicated and complex.  The trick is recognising which aspects are which, and not falling into the trap of treating the whole system as the simpler form.  Otherwise the more complicated/complex parts will come back and bite you.

1.3   Some entertaining reference material

Source material on Cynefin from David Snowden, Cognitive Edge:

This Cynefin framework 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, called “Sensemaker” which is also very insightful, fascinating and useful stuff.