“Cynefin in Welsh literally means habitat or place but what it actually means is, it is a place of your multiple belongings. It is in this very sense that you are rooted in many paths that profoundly influence what you are but of which you can only ever be partially aware. This is the very definition of a complex system. There are thousands of modulators influencing the development of the system that in turn influence what you are but you can never fully identify what those modulators are …” – Dave Snowden
Last April, as we were madly racing to adjust to a pandemic-induced business environment, I wrote about a powerful decision-making model called the Cynefin Framework. One year later seems to be the perfect time to revisit this concept and deepen our understanding. For leaders, it has been a year of loss, reinvention, redefinition, chaos, change, blurring boundaries, and “many paths that have profoundly influenced what we have become but of which we are only partially aware.” For an overview of the model, please read my article from last April:
The Cynefin Framework can be instrumental in helping leaders during this time of uncertainty. How? It is a sense-making model, not a categorization model. A categorization four-box model is a framework that proceeds its data. A sense-making model is so much more powerful during times of great change and cultural shifts because the data proceeds the model, and the framework emerges from the social interaction and data to help us make sense of it. Listen to this talk with David Snowden, Cynefin Framework, Co-Creator:
Last April, I wrote about a Decision-Making Framework Exercise to help you identify the most fitting domain and the most helpful behaviors, for a leadership decision you were facing. If you have not done that exercise yet, it is the best way to familiarize yourself with this powerful model so read last April’s blog by clicking above and walk through that exercise. Once you have completed it, here are some specific worksheets you can use for planning decision making steps to lead others through a particular context your team or organization is facing:
Simple Domain – Identified by a situation with repeating patterns and consistent events. There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship evident to all and one right answer exists. These are the known knowns and fact-based management is apparent and effective.
To lead through this domain, delegate, automate, use best practices as much as possible. This is not where you want to be spending your leadership energy but it is important to properly categorize projects as simple or they can be resource drains. The following worksheet will help you with this:
Complicated Domain – This domain is characterized by discoverable cause-and-effect relationships that are not immediately apparent to everyone and more than one right answer is possible. These are the known unknowns. Fact-based management is effective.
To lead through this domain sense, analyze, respond. Bring in the experts and listen to all sides and conflicting advice. The following worksheet will help you outline actions needed for a complicated project:
Complex Domain – This domain is characterized by no right answers and emergent and instructive patterns. This is a project with flux and unpredictability full of competing ideas and there is a need for creative and innovative approaches. This is the unknown unknowns and pattern-based leadership is most effective.
To lead through this domain, it is best to increase communication and interaction by probing, sensing and responding. Create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge and generate ideas and encourage dissent and diversity. Monitor engagement for emergence of new thought. Use the following worksheet to help you plan your leadership through a complex domain:
Chaotic Domain – This domain may feel most familiar after the past year. It is characterized by no clear cause-andeffect relationships so there is no reason to search for the right answer. This is a highly turbulent domain where many decisions need to be made and there is no time to think. These are the unknowables and there is high tension. Pattern-based leadership is essential.
To lead through this domain you must act, sense, and respond. Look for what works instead of seeking the right answers and take immediate action to establish order. Provide clear and direct communication but don’t quiet the emergence of new thought by taking too much command and control. The following worksheet may help you plan for chaos whether you enter this domain purposely in the name of innovation or accidentally in the name of crisis:
There is no denying, after the past year, that we are all a part of a complex system and that the events of the last twelve months have shed light on the fact that many paths profoundly influence what we are “but of which we can only ever be partially aware.” After working with leaders for many years, and particularly this past year, there is one constant. No matter what the domain, or problem or unknown obstacle one is racing toward, leaders who are clear about their core values, and can live them every day, regardless of external factors, weather the storm and in many cases, thrive. In the face of complex and chaotic challenges, values-driven leaders excel because they know there is potential for growth in these domains that can take them and those they lead, much further than the simpler, less turbulent domains.
“True values are not taught and declared, they evolve through the acts and interaction of the living, they are understood at a near tacit level by those who live them.” Dave Snowden
I hope, as Snowden so eloquently said in the video above, your ‘places of multiple belongings’ have kept you safe, healthy, and even thriving in the past year. I also hope for less stormy skies ahead as it would be nice to have time to reflect on all the chaos and complexity that we have endured to look for the emergence of new leadership pathways and breakthroughs. You have walked these uncharted pathways and lived through this and I applaud you.