Dealing with complexity in the Never Normal

My conversation with Dave Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at the Cynefin Company

Dave 2021

Ever since I came across the Cynefin sensemaking framework, I’ve been deeply intrigued with it, as well as with its maker Dave Snowden, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at the Cynefin Company. Anything that can help us better understand the complexity of life and all things organizational, is pretty essential in these challenging times and so I really wanted to share Dave’s vision and approach in this Never Normal newsletter.

The Cynefin Framework

In our current period of high uncertainty and complexity, leaders can sometimes find it difficult to set a course of action. And that makes the Cynefin framework extra relevant, as it has been specifically developed to help them understand their challenges and to make decisions depending on their context. If a situation is clear, for instance, they’ll need to react very differently than when their context is chaotic and they have very little information about it.

It sounds deceivingly obvious, but still too many leaders disregard their context and that can have far reaching implications. Some of the benefits of the framework are that no one wastes energy in overthinking what is actually pretty routine on the one hand, but also that we never try to fit the complex into standard solutions on the other.

The Cynefin framework distinguishes 5 different domains: the clear, the complicated, the complex, the chaotic and, in the middle - where you don’t yet understand your context - the confused. Each of these domains, then, offers different types of constraints and different preferred reactions. For instance, while leaders in a chaotic context must first act, then sense, and then respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond, in that order.

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Since there’s no better way to let you discover the framework than by listening to Dave himself, here is a video of him doing so:

20 years in the making

The wonderful part about Dave’s framework is that it took him no less than 20 years to develop it into its current form, with many different iterations since the first edition (and many probably to come). He was originally inspired by his late friend Max Boisot’s I-Space framework (visual below) and from there started to build a whole theory of knowledge management which eventually evolved into a two by two matrix. The fact that he worked on it for so long and still keeps working on it, is probably where its power and success lies. And why his seminal article ”Complex Acts of Knowing – Paradox and Descriptive Self Awareness”, evolved to become the ninth most cited paper in knowledge management.

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Max Boisot’s I-Space framework

A science-based approach

Dave has always been deeply suspicious of management gurus and their oversimplification of all things organizational. He condemns how a lot of these experts tend to gather 10 or 15 successful cases and then derive practice from that, confusing correlation with causation: “especially when things become highly uncertain, case studies are the last thing you need to rely on because they're what people say happened in the past”.

Instead, he uses natural science as an enabling constraint, because “complexity in human systems needs to be a transdisciplinary study, which has to bring in anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, material engagement theory, constructive theory, theoretical physics etc.”

We proved that human beings can create order.

One of the most important things Dave managed to accomplish with his framework is to contradict the currently over-popular idea that everything is complex. “With Cynefin, we proved that human beings can create order. And that there's nothing wrong with that. Processes are very valuable. But they also only work for linear, structured, ordered systems. They do not in a complex context.”

Dave’s company was actually one of the few to thrive during COVID-19 times, because the pandemic truly made people understand the importance of dealing with complexity in intelligent ways. It’s also why he was able to develop a field guide for the EU to help decision makers navigate times of crisis using the Cynefin framework as a compass. And we do see leaders everywhere waking up to the fact that trying to understand the successes of other companies (which operated in very different contexts anyway) will not help them make decisions in chaotic and complex situations. They ought to be looking into methods and tools that were developed on the basis of natural science on human cognition and on systems.

Complex methods & micro-change

It was interesting to learn how the Cynefin Company handles complex situations with methods that are in themselves also complex. For instance, rather than having one systems analyst tackling a complex IT problem, they work with “entangled trios”: for instance, a young programmer working together with a systems architect as well as a user. And it’s never just the one trio, it would always be a group of different trios at the same time.

And that was a returning theme in our conversation: many little steps at the same time. The same went for a big residential care home project in the Netherlands where they organized continuous capture of self-signified micro-narratives in order to detect weak signals of abuse.  

So, first, what is a “self-signified micro-narrative”? It is a short personal story that respondents offer as an answer to a question from researchers which they (the respondents) can then categorize within a pre-existing frame. These micro-narratives are then clustered into a map of common narratives which can offer insights into the specific attitudes, perceptions, or motivations concerning the question being analyzed. The method allows for an examination of dominant behaviors, emerging trends and weak signals.

As a concrete example, the Cynefin Company used that same micro-narrative method in South Wales, where children's ethnographers gathered stories from a depressed industrial area which were then compilated into a narrative landscape. The minister then looked at the latter and told them “I need more stories like these and fewer stories like those”.

This offered a unique theory of change because no one talks about idealized qualities here. Instead it’s a really pragmatic method centered on “more like this, fewer like that”. After that, transgenerational pairs - teenagers together with people from their grandparents’ generation - were told to come up with ideas for change, to create “more stories like this, fewer stories like that”. And if the ideas were plausible, they were put in a trio with somebody from local or national government who could then help make the idea work. The result was a whole portfolio of micro projects rather than the traditional grand strategy overdesign promising wonders in three years’ time.

And there was that red thread again, of cleverly combining small steps rather than putting all of your hope into one grand strategy: “Complexity is all about making micro changes in the present and micro nudging the system so that its evolutionary potential can be realized.”

Though suspicious of overly simplified methods and scenarios, Dave is at the same time also pretty level-headed about complexity: “My experience is that most people at C-level understand complexity intuitively because they live it. They haven't got to be at board level without understanding it.”

That intuition is why they for instance respond so well to “dark constraints” which is a reference to dark matter: “you can see the evidence of a constraint, but you don't know what the constraint is”. The reason why Dave’s team introduced that term into their lexicon was to give language to things that most C-level people “feel” rather than “know”, so that they can at least discuss it. “Consultants want everything always to be certain, but it can be really useful to talk about uncertainties, about emergence in a clear language.”

Distributed leadership

Individuality has always been an important feature of our North Atlantic (Dave does not want to use ‘Western’ because there isn’t an East and a West according to him) leadership models. “Social atomists believe that the individual is the primary unit of analysis. And so they train their leaders as individuals. This individuality, for instance reflected in Protestantism, in fact lies at the root of capitalism and the justification of individual selfishness in every other domain.”

“Societies in Latin America, Europe, Asia, or the Celtic fringe of Europe and Southern Europe, on the other hand, are communitarian. In their view, individuals only have meaning within the context of the societies in which they were born and grew up. The science is now backing that up. We're social creatures, not individual creatures. Multiple paths influence what you are and you are only partially aware of those.”

Dave believes that the concept of collectivist ontologies is fundamental. This is where we’ll all be evolving in the future, because it’s the most adapted to our reality. He loves to tell leaders in Singapore (where he had some projects running) that they should send their elite scholars to universities in Latin America and Africa, not in the States, because that's the future.

Leadership becomes a set of interactions and processes.

That is why Dave and his team are also working on distributing leadership into combinations of three roles in order to allow decisions to be made at a lot quicker. They believe that the approach takes about 60 to 70% of the bureaucracy out of a system. Leadership is no longer a matter of an individual leading, here, but it becomes a set of interactions and processes. This approach may sound strange at first, but we all have seen great leaders in big organizations surround themselves with people who compliment their weaknesses. Dave’s approach is merely a formalization of that into a process. And there is a lot of room to play, here, as well. One of the three roles, for example, could be an avatar, or even a committee rather than a person.

Distributed leadership does not only make the decision process faster, it also makes it better: “Human beings actually did not evolve to make decisions as individuals. We did evolve to make decisions in extended family groups and clans and tribes. That’s why, as clans we're really good at decision making. As individuals, we're really bad.”

There is a natural limit to this distributed leadership, of course. “Three people from very different backgrounds can have a quick conversation and make a decision. If you go above five, they organize into their tribes and it becomes very difficult to get a decision. Three is the optimal number. And the theoretical maximum is five, which is actually the average size of the adult members of a family group going back for thousands of years.”

Leadership emerges

Dave also likes to warn people against talking about leadership competences and desired behavior because they have no causal capability. He does not believe that “leader X is good at Y because of his competences Z and A”. Good leadership and competences emerge, according to him. It's the context of work which produces them. “That means that you need to set up processes so that people get similar experiences and similar encounters over time that will allow them to develop in different ways. And distributing leadership into roles is a very efficient method for that, which he and his team already facilitated in many healthcare and government organizations.

Taylor wasn’t that bad

We also talked quite a while about scientific management, which a lot of people get wrong, according to Dave: “People just forget how bad it was before Frederick Taylor came along. He actually humanized the workplace. His view is not perfect by today’s standards, obviously, but you need to compare with what went before. He introduced lifetime employment and proper apprenticeships. He talked about trust and responsibility without bureaucratic control.”

We are switching back to an ecological metaphor for management, which is much closer to how complexity works.

“But in the eighties and nineties, management theory transitioned to systems thinking, particularly to systems dynamics and cybernetics. There was a switch from a military framework under Taylor into an engineering metaphor. They have a bad reputation today, but military frameworks are actually quite flexible. And that engineering metaphor gets encapsulated in business process re-engineering at the hard end Senge's learning organization at the soft end. And all of a sudden engineers are trying to define what the system should be and trying to define targets in advance to handle uncertainty. Whereas up to that time people managed things. They sometimes made long-term plans, but not that frequently. The budget cycle wasn't as dramatic as it is now. But today, the interesting part is that we seem to be switching back to an ecological metaphor, which is actually much closer to how complexity works.”

What I perhaps loved most about our conversation was the uncovering of all the nuances of complexity. Not everything is complex, even if that increasingly popular narrative would have us believe that. We can create order, depending on the situation. And other situations can perhaps not be ‘solved’ in ways that we would like them to, but we can certainly manage them, if we understand how to respond.

I think that this realization is highly relevant in times when too many people seem to be retreating in some sort of paralysis, even some kind of planned helplessness when it comes to tackling some of the huge challenges that await us. And I think that the Cynefin framework and Dave’s many methods (you can find some of them open sourced on the Cynefin wiki here) are a really useful place to start.