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Decision Making in a Complex Environment – The Cynefin Framework

April 11th, 2011

I’m very pleased that Harold Jarche posted a video of Dave Dave Snowden explaining the Cynefin framework. I’ve been fascinated with this model for some time and having Dave Snowden, the originator of the Cynefin Framework explain how can be used was a real treat.

The Cynefin model is a sense making framework. It can be used to understand complex situations in which your organization is struggling. It is different than a categorization model where you plop data from your situation into a two by two matrix and sort out your decision based on how the matrix categorizes your data.

With complex situations (which the non profit sector is deeply mired in)  the categorization model doesn’t reveal the nuances that can jump up and bit your analysis on the backside. The Cynefin model lets the data stand on its own and the model rises to the surface through the data, enabling you to make sense of it and then you can decide on your course of action.

I tried the Cynefin model out on a few situations that I’ve being involved in. Specifically, these situations related to organizations considering my recommendations about integrating social media into their operations. Reading Harold’s post got me thinking more about looking again at those situations but this time I’ll do it through the Cynefin model.

One additional point. In Harold’s post, he talks about not following a cookie cutter approach for organizations tackling tough social problems. He also lists some key points from the book Getting to Maybe . The Getting to Maybe list is a handy reference to keep in mind as you watch the video.

  • Rigid protocols are counter-productive
  • There is an uncertainty of outcomes in much of our work
  • We cannot separate parts from the whole
  • Success is not a fixed address [what I call perpetual Beta]

I read this book and loved it. It was my first in-depth read of understanding community and social change through a complexity framework. With this framework, I see communities rich in  complexity and recognize how small, innocuous events or initiatives can lead to very positive developments or conversely trigger chaos and crisis.

My Experience

Generally, I think many organizations make their decisions about social media operating from the complicated and simple domain. They add a few social media tools and attempt to engage their stakeholders. The organization my bring in experts to get the process in place. However, once social learning activities begin within and outside the organization, the organization moves more into the complex domain where experimentation and probing are the modus operandi.

The organization isn’t familiar with the changes brought about by social learning activities. There are things going on that were totally unexpected. They are in new territory and not sure of the rules. The organization is clearly in a complex environment. This is Cynefin’s complexity domain and there is a challenge for the organization to employ new skills to move the organization forward.

I think the authors of Getting to Maybe call this “Cold Heaven” a place where ” success is not a fixed address or what Harold Jarche calls perpetual beta. This must be a harrowing place for leaders because in this domain they are relying on their trust that social media and social learning will result in greater returns on performance of the organization and staff.

Here are my two “test” cases for using the Cynefin Framework. Definitely this post is helping me make sense of out of complex situations. Please let me know if you have learned anything from applying the framework in your organization.

Show Me an Organization That is Succeeding
Often, organizations ask me to give them examples of similar organizations that are showing success in using social media.  Looking through the Cynefin framework I now see this “wish for proof” as operating from the simple domain where cause and effect prevail. My sense is that knowing that others have succeeded with social media adoption can be encouraging (useful) but it won’t remove the nerve wracking experience of discovering that you are now in new and unknown territory. Cold heaven or life in perpetual beta. From personal experience this nerve wracking feeling becomes the norm and not so scary.

Here is another example of how the Cynefin framework is helping me see complex situations differently.

Social Media is Just Extra Toppings

The situation relates to an attempt I made to introduce a social media and social learning program or workshops with the local colleges in my area. I developed a proposal and eventually I had a few email discussions (that’s all) about my proposal with the Department Head. Eventually he let me know that he believes social media is an interesting set of skills for students to acquire but not enough of a priority to include in the curriculum. My sense was  that he viewed social media as an add-on set of skills, that could be learned on the job.

Looking at his response through the Cynefin framework, my guess is that his decision to not take me up on my recommendation was made because he saw the process of instructing students as one of marshaling resources and experts (teachers). His decision making was embedded in Cynefin’s Simple and Complicated domains. The Department Head categorized my offer and came to the conclusion that my social media pitch was interesting but they have enough resources and experts in place for their students.

Through my Cynefin lens, now I see that I could have discussed more fully how the tidal wave of social media usage is impacting their organization and how social media is now such an essential part of their core business of preparing students for work. Of course, I will also need to talk more about how network and social learning is becoming an integral expectation of employers.

Writing this post has helped me learn to communicate more clearly about the organization’s multiple places of habitation as it considers what to do about integrating social media learning and programs in the organization.

I hope these two examples give you a sense of how the Cynefin framework has helped me make sense out of a complex situations.Do you have an situation where the Cynefin framework helped you deal with a complex situation? Please share, I would love to hear from you.

Related Posts:

The Cynefin Model – Making Sense of Complexity

Dealing with Complexity and Systemic Challenges in York Region

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