Cynefin, knowledge and learning: what can you do to avoid disorder in 2017?

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I’m a huge fan of Snowden & Boone’s (2007) Cynefin model. The seeds of Cynefin can be found at the heart of many of the knowledge and learning models and frameworks I’ve developed for organisations. The Cynefin design is both exquisite and elegant, a model in an age where management ideas are becoming a compendium of dead ideas (Economist, 2016).

For all its beauty and elegance, I believe that its application in organisations is hindered by a lack of understanding of its most powerful of domains, disorder. First, let me start with an overview.

When introducing Cynefin, I find that people become attracted to the four main domains (simple, complicated, complex and chaotic). These domains help to explain a given context, which guides management and leadership practice – note, the following is an applied adaptation of Cynefin, using applied adult learning theory and guidance from the IRGC (International Risk Governance Council):

Cynefin model (adapted)

  • Simple – one right answer (which side of the road should you drive on in the UK?).  Conflict (debate) is a waste of resource and, therefore, should be avoided through the use of established behaviours, processes and structures. Knowledge is seen as being available, complete and secure.
  • Complicated – better or worse answers (which is the quickest route from New York to Los Angeles by road?). Conflict (debate) is guided by experts who help negotiate decision points, lowering the risk of making a ‘worse’ decision. Knowledge is available, though limited, and engagement with expertise is necessary to develop depth, completeness and, therefore, security.
  • Complex – emergent answers (how will robotics, Artifical Intelligence and machine learning impact employment in Europe over the next ten years?). Conflict (debate) should be sought, as it is necessary for sense-making in scenarios where outcomes are uncertain. Knowledge is widely dispersed and, therefore, wide-ranging engagement with expertise is necessary to develop depth, completeness and security.
  • Chaotic – the search for answers is pointless, as they are unknowable (what was the root cause of the 9-11 attacks in New York?). Conflict (debate) is forced upon you and is, arguably, wasted in terms of a search for ‘truth’ – knowledge is fragmented and cannot be connected, expertise does not exist (false truths (insecure knowledge) fill the void of secure knowledge – e.g. President Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories), and, therefore, inherently incomplete and insecure.

The problem, I find, is that leaders and managers identify with the domain concepts but struggle to then apply Cynefin thinking in practical terms; the root of this challenge being hidden in ‘disorder’ (D), located in the often-missed space between domains.

Disorder occurs when a person fails to make sense of the domain they are operating in, creating a mismatch between their actions and the nature of the environment they are working in (e.g. staff at the coalface creating conflict, where they fail to adopt a necessary behaviour, process or structure when there is only one right answer – the conflict is unnecessary, negatively impacting safety, time, quality and cost).

It seems that common sense should prevail and people should understand that they are in the simple domain, do the right thing (sacrifice incomplete/insecure knowledge that is causing conflict) and move on. However, such an assumption, that people clearly understand the domain they are operating in (i.e. they actually understand that they are working in a simple domain in the first place), limits Cynefin thinking and its effectiveness in organisations.  The problem here is that managers and leaders assume that people can make sense of shifting operational domains when they all too often don’t! When this happens, unnecessary conflict or a lack of appropriate conflict, slows knowledge flows, drains resources, increases the risk of incomplete or insecure learning, and, ultimately, impacts safety, time, innovation, quality and cost in organisations.

The challenge, therefore, is to design/develop/stimulate behaviours, process and structures that help people to make sense of their domains and guide their actions to reduce/engage with conflict, increase the depth, completeness and security of knowledge and learning, and create a positive impact upon safety, time, innovation, quality and cost.

Two questions to ask yourself if you want to accelerate knowledge and learning in your organisation:

  1. What impact does disorder have upon safety, time, innovation, quality and cost in your organisation?
  2. What behaviours, processes and structures do you need to help avoid disorder?



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