Exploring the Cynefin Framework

In the third segment, we’ll look a bit more in depth at Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework and how it relates to ingenuity.  You can listen to the audio below. There is also a transcript if you would like to refer back to this segment.

Your mission is too important and your resources too precious.

Work with ingenuity!




Transcript Below: The transcript below is not meant to replace listening to the audio, but serves as a reference for post-listening learning. Please forgive any errors due to the skill level of the A.I. robot that created this transcript. 



I hope you can see the power. In that 10 minute video. Hope you can see the power in understanding the four types of systems, how they interact, and how you behave, and your teams and organizations behave inside them. Simple systems are known, there are clear cause and effect relationships. It’s easy, therefore, to have best practices drive the work. Every time I go, as long as my air conditioner is working, well, every time I go, and I push the button to turn on my air conditioner, it is going to turn on. That’s a simple process. As long as there’s nothing wrong with me. And there’s nothing wrong with my air conditioner.

That simple system, the interaction between me and the button is always going to accomplish the same result. It’s a best practice. It’s settled, at least until it’s not which Snowden also talks about as that space between order and unordered. But let’s just keep going. What happens if something’s wrong with my hand, or the air conditioner, then I might not be able to turn the air conditioner on, let’s go with the air conditioner.

I tried to turn the air conditioner on, it doesn’t work. Now we’ve entered it, we’ve entered a complicated system. I don’t know how to fix the air conditioner. But somebody does. And that somebody with the right tools and the right resources can both discern. Look around, poke around, find where the problem is. That’s the sensing, analyze that and then respond, fix it. Do what’s necessary to make the air conditioner work again. It’s complicated.

That means it takes special knowledge to both understand and fix the system. But it’s only complicated, which means the same solution will work every time. If my air conditioner isn’t working. And it’s part x that’s the problem. Every time we replace part x, it’s going to work. Simple systems are easy. The cause and effect relationship is super easy to find. And to repeat. In a complicated system. It’s knowable, the cause and effect relationships are knowable, but there is a level of expertise required, I likely can’t do it myself. This is why our whole society all the way back to Adam Smith. And the specialization of work is built on expert knowledge that helps us deal with different complicated systems. Something could also be wrong with my hand. I cannot fix that myself. But maybe a physical therapist can maybe an occupational therapist can maybe a surgeon can. It’s complicated, but it’s fixable.


Now when we move to complex systems, the world changes. There are no direct cause and effect relationships. We cannot predict how something is going to work. Let’s take family dinner, family dinner one night can go smashingly family dinner can be the chef’s opportunity to alchemize the food and to bring the food to the table and to invite the others in the family to the table and perhaps everyone’s had really good days and they’re in really good moods and all the sudden there’s amazing conversation happening and laughter and and special moments and family dinner on Tuesday night at 630 is stunning, amazing book Brilliant. Let’s do it again tomorrow. Except tomorrow, there are variables that happened to all the people who will show up at family dinner that could not be predicted. Someone’s grumpy, someone sad, someone burned the food, someone got home late, someone never showed up.

And all of a sudden, the amazing elements of Tuesday night evaporate on Wednesday night. And you cannot predict it or control it. Why? Because a family is a complex adaptive system. You cannot predict the cause and effect relationships. So, you’re sitting with your family, and one of your sons looks unhappy at the table. And so you as Dave Snowden reveals in the Canarian framework, probe, hey, Drew, how’s it going? Not good. And he slams his fork down on the plate. Now you sense and then you respond. Now, you would need to know Drew to know if it would be a good thing to continue, or good thing to back off. But you probe first, because you can’t control the cause and effect relationship, then you sense Uh huh, Drew’s not in a good spot. Right. Now, you know what I’m going to do, I’m just going to back off, or you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to, I’m going to do X, and you respond, and you don’t know, in a complex system, how your response is going to be met. It might go famously, but it might crash and burn. And then there’s the chaotic system, right?

This is crisis management. This is the this is the pandemic moment. This is there’s no cause and effect relationship perceivable there’s no way that you can know what’s going to happen next. And so the fire that’s blazing through the house requires you to act first, then sense then respond. You don’t have a whiteboard session, when your living rooms on fire you get out of the house. Then, of course, in the middle, we have the disoriented moment. Which space are we in? Or are we in multiple spaces?


And then of course, there’s the cliff at the bottom. Where if you’re not careful, your simple systems can crash and burn, can you say Kmart, and it can all of a sudden turn into chaotic systems, because you weren’t paying attention that your best practices were cracking. Now there’s a little more of a tour with some examples of this incredibly important framework. We spend our days in all of these, maybe hopefully not as much in the chaotic, but clearly in the simple, complicated and complex.

This is where we spend our days. Now, if you’re working in a simple system, you can have a simple solution. In fact, you can just have that be, you know, a best practice. If you’re working in a complicated system, you may need help identifying what’s wrong, what to do about it, and how to move forward. But there is a way forward. And if you do it in a complicated system, then you are likely to get the result you want. But over in the complex adaptive system. There are cause and effects going on. But you cannot repeat them. You cannot predict them. You can only probe to see what’s going on. See what’s going on as best you can and then respond. And it’s in the complicated and the complex and the chaotic that we most need ingenuity.


We need some ingenuity in the complicated although some complicated systems really don’t need ingenuity, I don’t need the guy fixing my air conditioner, to try to come up with some ingenious new way to fix the part that’s broken. Hey, you know, I just kind of I put up I, what I did is instead of using the part, I just took a coat hanger and flipped it around and tried to ground it to this into that, let’s see if it works, I don’t need that. At that point, I need the air conditioner technician to use the right part to get the right situation to occur with my air conditioner. But there are other complicated systems where I probably need some ingenuity, particularly when humans are involved.

Maybe we need some ingenuity to change a spreadsheet so that it shows data in a different way. Once we figure out how to show the data, the data is going to show it’s complicated, but we’re going to be able to do it. Once we get into a complex adaptive system, all bets are off. We don’t know how our solution is going to go until we launch it until we start in. And this is why in the complex and the chaotic. But let’s just focus on the complex right now. This is why in the complex system, which we work in every day, solutions are vulnerable and temporary. That is important to understand, as we now move in to looking at the elements of ingenuity.

Because if we understand that all of the ingenuity and the ingenious energy and engagement that we want to bring to solving something is going to eventually fail, run out of steam become vulnerable and temporary, it can help us approach that moment with the same amount of passion, but better expectations, plan on it not working long term. So that when it fails, we’re not frustrated by the failure oh, maybe a little bit. But really what we are, is expecting that at some point, our solution will no longer work. Why? Because we’re living in a complex and adaptive system that we cannot predict or control how the relationships are going to affect each other. So we solve and we watch. And when it becomes vulnerable, or loses its steam. We do it again. And again. And again. And this is why ingenuity is so critical.

Because it’s a skill that’s required. So often in a complex adaptive system. You have to be able to move and shift strategically, quickly but in a smart fashion. And so the skill of ingenuity is not just something we need every once in a while. We need it every day depending on what we face. Now we understand the gear that we’re wearing. Now we can look at what it means to be in genius, what it is and what teams are doing, what people are doing, when they bring in genius solutions to the systems in which they work.