Bill Dettmer, author of a number of great TOC books, including The Logical Thinking Processes (my review), has brought together his long view on systems thinking in general with Dave Snowden's Cynefin Framework in a new article, Systems Thinking and the Cynefin Framework: A Strategic Approach to Managing Complex Systems (pdf, local copy - it will be posted to Dettmer's website in a few weeks). From the abstract:
Systems and their external environments can be classified as simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. This taxonomy is known as the Cynefin Framework. It provides an orderly way to evaluate the interaction of organizational systems, their external environments, and the myriad of management methods and tools available to decision makers. A significant number of organizations today qualify as complex. Their environment may change in short but irregular, unpredictable cycles, requiring the organization to adapt internally accordingly to avoid degradation. But the majority of available management methods and tools have been designed to succeed in simple and complicated domains, not complex. The failure to identify and understand the underlying assumptions about these methods made this limitation inevitable. That is about to change.
And the reason this "is about to change" is that the Cynefin Framework provids a better way of thinking about our situations and the assumptions behind various management methodologies.
The first half of the paper provides a lot of background, both for management thinking & tools in general and then on the Cynefin Framework specifically. Dettmer talks about management tools in their evolution and some of the assumptions that underlie them: like the assumption of analytical thinkers that the whole can be understood by understanding all the parts. This overview and that of the Cynefin Framework were very familiar to me. I've been listening and reading Snowden for many years, but it was good to read Cynefin from a slightly different perspective that Dettmer brings to it.
The interesting-to-me material resides in the second half of the article: thinking about the implications of Cynefin for management thinkers and people who deploy management tools. The short version is something Dettmer highlights as he summarizes Cynefin:
Consequently, the tools and methods that work well in the simple and complicated domains tend to be less effective (or completely ineffective) in the complex and chaotic domains.
Cynefin gives us a way to look at the world and ask questions. Where does my current situation fall in the framework? Be careful not to categorize here, as the lines between the various elements of the framework are blurry, and it is easy to shift from one region to another - sometimes without noticing. What would it take to shift the current situation into another region? What would make it become more chaotic? What might push the situation to something in the complicated or simple regime? Would that be a good thing?
And not only can you look at the current situation with these questions, but the common responses can be considered in this light too. Does approach XYZ work best in a simple domain? Then don't try to use it when your situation is complex or chaotic. For example, process mapping with the intention of taking action against that process (for improvement) only make sense when the process is relatively stable and understandable.
Dettmer picks up a number of management tools and looks at them in a Cynefin light. He takes up the Logical Thinking Processes from TOC, Boyd's OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop, Brainstorming, and then some of the tactical approaches as a group. He also tries to show how each of these approaches covers slightly different ground from the Cynefin perspective. Of course the do. It's important to remember this - and to see this as it applies to your own situation.
People have been thinking along these lines - using Cynefin to help think about their interventions - for some time. It came up in the Kanban training I attended last month, where we were encouraged to think about how the Kanban methodology fits into environments where it is being deployed. Kanban is a simple-seeming idea, but the concept helps organizations sense and respond in a way that fits more into complex environments. And I have seen people taking up the Cynefin call in a variety of perspectives. I even see on the main Cognitive Edge website that guest blogger Bob Williams has been thinking in a similar direction, such as in Sensemaker, Evaluation and the Logic of Interventions. Dave Snowden has been saying some of these things too, but it is always good to have other people interpret and re-interpret the ideas into slightly different contexts. It helps to strike more nerves - hopefully the right way.