Last Thursday I posted a bit on Cynefin. Developed by David Snowden and others, the Cynefin Framework can be a helpful tool for engaging reality’s varied flows, especially the flows — sometimes floods — from known to knowable to complex to chaotic and betwixt and between.
Cynefin is both a strategic and an operational tool. Depending on one’s strategic perception it calls for adjusting how reality is engaged. For example, dealing with what is known is a matter of sensing, then categorizing, and responding appropriately. We choose a response to match our understanding of what is happening, our prior experience with what is happening, and how we have previously dealt with this category of event.
In contrast, a complex context presents a novel environment that needs to be probed in order to sense what is happening and then we respond to that understanding… often an incremental understanding that comes from multiple probes (some helpful and some not). Snowden argues that chaos does not allow for investigatory probes, but requires full-fledged actions and adaptation as we move with reality’s cascade.
In a comment to last week’s post John Plodinec suggested that Cynefin reminds him a bit of the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) framework developed by John Boyd. I agree. The two frameworks are especially helpful when applied together.
I use Cynefin to understand the context in which I find myself. I use OODA to better understand myself. Simultaneous application helps me adjust effectively to unfolding reality.
The principal impediment to recognizing a shift from a complicated context into complexity or from complexity into chaos is my own orientation, my own readiness and (un)willingness to recognize reality.
By clicking on the illustration a larger version will appear in a new window
My orientation has significant influence on my observation. Instead of seeing unfolding circumstances I often “see” a prior circumstance. Instead of receiving outside information, I may depend on inside information (often inside my own mind). Instead of interacting directly with the environment, I interact with data-feeds, indirect reports, and other representations of reality rather than reality-itself.
Not surprisingly given this warped view of reality my decisions (conscious or usually not) can produce actions wildly mis-matched to reality. In mistaking a complex context for a merely complicated context, my decisions and actions amplify the complexity. By mistaking a chaotic situation for a complex situation I undertake tentative decisions and actions that merely delay the bolder steps that are the best bet for stabilization.
Snowden warns that mistaking chaos for a known — and controllable — situation is often the precursor to catastrophe. This is an error to which experienced experts are, paradoxically, especially susceptible.
The Orientation element of the OODA framework (inside the blue in the illustration) consists of what Boyd suggests are five anchors… predispositions… core capabilities…
- Genetic Heritage: We see, hear, smell, taste, feel and think within the limits of our species.
- Previous Experiences: We tend to expect what we have previously experienced.
- Cultural Traditions: We tend to process new experiences with concepts derived from our social experience.
- Analysis and Synthesis: Boyd especially emphasized the speed with which we can analyze and synthesize, greater speed providing greater potential advantage.
- New Information: Our receptiveness to novelty can profoundly affect every other aspect of orientation.
The more open I am to new information, the quicker I am to analyze/synthesize new information, and the less constricted I am by genetics, culture, and prior experience the more resilient I am likely to be in dealing with complexity and chaos.
Another way of saying the same thing: My resilience is advanced when I can take thoughtful action even when seriously doubting my own judgment. The more complex and chaotic the context, the more self-doubt is productively adaptive… as long as I take action, monitor outcomes, and adjust as best I can. Will this work for a group? For a community? For a region? For a nation?
Can a society increasingly organized around specializations affirmatively embrace self-doubt? We usually speak of self-doubt as a problem. Yet Jim Collins found that Level 5 Leaders “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” What is humility, but self-doubt courageously deployed?
I constantly stumble over pronouncing cynefin (it’s Welsh and sounds something like “kuh-ne-vin”. Whenever I ask someone if they know about OODA they seem to think I’m asking about a breakfast cereal. So I’m going to start writing and talking about “The Snoodan Frameworks” (Say Snowden with a kind of Scottish brogue or Scandinavian sing-song.)
We’re about one-third or so through a series on catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties that started with a post on May 18. The series will continue next Thursday or Friday.