Hammers, Nails, and a Cynefin Critique

Through Twitter, I have come to know a fantastic diverse network of people around the world.  Twitter has helped me to meet people whose work I have studied and admired, and to meet others exploring similar ideas in their own work.  One person I have come to know personally, as a result of twitter’s connections, is Dave Snowden.  Dave’s work was knwon to me first, through his widely-cited HBR article with Mary Boone, about the use of the Cynefin framework.  In the past few years I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Mary (at a Plexus Institute event in D.C.), and meeting Dave for a chat earlier this year.  While I can not claim to be an expert on the Cynefin framework, I have used it in my own work and teaching for several years now. 

A recent post on twitter by Roger Sessions, pointed me to a blog post by Tom Graves.  Tom’s post was a critique of the Cynefin framework, and suggested a variety of limitations.  While no framework or method is perfect, my knowledge and understanding of Cynefin suggested that Tom may have made a number of mistakes or misrepresentations in his post.   My hope and intention in writing a reply, is that other readers will explore the Cynefin framework, and come to understand its structure and use.  I look forward to further comment and dialogue with my blog readers, and through Tom’s blog (and of course, more on twitter!).

You can find Tom’s post and various replies (mine included) at:  http://weblog.tetradian.com/2011/10/29/using-cynefin-in-ea/comment-page-1/#comment-69939

The text of my reply is also copied here:

There is a well-known saying, that “to the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, our view of things is significantly narrowed by the limits of what we know or understand. To this I’d add a corollary: “to the person who only knows the hammer and nail, anything they don’t understand may seem useless.”

In the original post above, there is a critique of the Cynefin framework, largely popularized by Dave Snowden, and the subject of the award-winning HBR article from 2007 that Dave wrote with Mary Boone. Through the lens of my own knowledge and understanding of Cynefin, I felt that the original post above, is significantly flawed. I believe there are a number of points made by Tom that are incorrect, and bear further explanation and exploration. Below are a few of my own points on Tom’s post, and the Cynefin framework:

1) Tom writes that the “core purpose” of Cynefin is sense-making in “complex contexts.” this is not my understanding. Rather, it seems to me that Cynefin describes all possible domains in which problems/challenges/issues may appear in organizational life. The framework’s “purpose” appears intended to help us understand the differences in the ways that patterns and knowing emerge in each domain. From this, we can respond with our own patterns of inquiry, analysis, and action, that are best-suited to the dynamics of the domain we are facing. the “core purpose” then, applies to our interaction with all domains, not just “complex contexts.”

2)Tom describes the methods of Cynefin as mainly being “for narrative enquiry and the like.” As I note above, I believe a plain reading of the HBR article and other Cynefin info, suggest that Cynefin is intended to help us not only inquire and understand, but to understand what is happening in the context of a given domain’s unique patterns/dynamics, and thereby, take action that has a better chance of achieving our objectives.

3) Tom writes that the Cynefin methods are only available to those who take dave Snowden’s course. I have not yet taken the Cognitive edge accreditation course, but it is clear from the Cognitive Edge website that the methods of its practitioners are open source. There is a library of these with detailed application notes, on the Cognitive Edge website: http://www.cognitive-edge.com/method.php

4) Tom notes that most people on viewing the Cynefin diagram, only “see two axis..” I don’t have data on this, and it may be true. But my understanding of Cynefin again implies that these five domains are all present in the world, and that under changing conditions, we may find ourselves moving from one to another. Cynefin then, would appear to be a framework for viewing a muliti-dimensional and dynamic reality.

5) Tom dimisses the small “squiggle” at the center bottom of the Cynefin diagram. He admits he doesn’t recall what it represents. I believe this is intended to portray a “fold” or Cusp. That is, the way that under certain change conditions, we can suddenly and significantly go right over the edge from a simple to chaotic domain. As I understand it, this sort of cusp catastrophe dynamic is not present in the other domain boundaries.

While I am new to the concepts and methods of enterprise architecture, I have been working with concepts and methods based in complex systems dynamics for over 12 years. No framework is perfect, or necessarily useful in every situation. But I believe that the Cynefin framework relates to universal organizational dynamics, and is not as constrained and limited in the ways that Tom suggests. I look forward to further reply and dialogue on these matters. Thank you!

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4 Responses to Hammers, Nails, and a Cynefin Critique

  1. Tom Graves says:

    Hi Bruce

    Many thanks for pointing to my post, and for your comment there: you’ll find my reply at http://weblog.tetradian.com/2011/10/29/using-cynefin-in-ea/comment-page-1/#comment-69943 .

    For people reading this blog, I would have to say you do seem to have missed the point somewhat. I was talking about applications in enterprise-architectures: you appear to have taken it as a much more general critique about Cynefin per se. I would happily agree that Cynefin has long-proven applications in certain aspects of ‘Complex-domain’ strategy and enterprise-context. However, those applications in general do not touch on the kind of real-time concerns and real-time sense-making / decision-making that we in enterprise-architectures and elsewhere would tend to describe as ‘the Chaotic domain’ – and that, as explicitly stated in my post, was the primary area of concern regarding the limitations of Cynefin.

    I would also politely suggest that it’s likely I’ve been using Cynefin for quite a lot longer than you have, and, from what you’ve said, have certainly been involved in enterprise-architectures and the like for considerably long than you have. I’ve also been professionally involved in design, development and applications of tools and methods for sense-making / decision-making and the like for almost four decades now – again, possibly quite a bit longer than you have. It might be useful – or perhaps at least respectful – to take that experience into account before being quite so quick to dismiss that critique?

    Thanks again, anyway.
    – tom g.

  2. complexified says:

    From Bruce Waltuck (complexified blog owner)

    Hello to all,

    Since my post to Tom Graves’ blog, in response to Tom’s comments about the Cynefin framework, I’ve received a good bit of correspondence. My intention was to bring more discussion to the points that Tom raised, and to thereby lead to a better understanding of Cynefin for all concerned. To that end, I am publishing below, some responses to Tom’s posts, which came to me directly through correspondence from Dave Snowden.

    NOTE: The text below is from Dave Snowden. I have edited Dave’s comments, mainly for clarity, and to eliminate any personal comments meant privately for me. So the [bracketed] texts, and the ellipsis marks (. . . ) are a result of my edits. I hope, Dave, that these edits are satisfactory. Dave writes:

    To be accurate Tom…

    – …the squiggle on the bottom. . . represents a type of boundary, shown as a cliff in the HBR article (which you say makes no mention of it).
    -You state that only unordered domains are value creating, when Cynefin does not privilege one domain over another.
    – You say that Cynefin cannot be used as a categorization model but directly link to a comment I made on your blog which says it can.
    – You say that we have stopped using Cynthia’s tetrahedrons, when in fact they are still in presentation and training material.
    – You say that the only Cynefin strategy for chaos is to “get. . .out” when the innovation methods call to deliberately enter that domain.
    – You admit that you know little of the CAS literature, but claim authority over a framework designed around CAS?
    – [seemingly] you take a. . . 17th Century position when you say science is based in the complicated domain.
    – You confuse complexity theory with chaos theory and so on.

    You post prolifically. . . and I have followed you for years, but I have yet to see you report any actual use by you of Cynefin. . . .You went on one course in Australia as I recall, and you were far from the first non-IBM person to attend (another factual error from one of your posts). . . .

    You’ve also take to . . . statements, like suggesting that SenseMaker® is a simplified adaptation of a public domain US Government project. I have no idea where you got that . . . but the US government work was a partially working prototype, subsequently the SIngapore Government invested just under $2m to create operational software and we are just coming to the end of a major redevelopment in V3.0

  3. Pingback: Is simplicity proof of foolishness or genius? « In dubio

  4. David Salusbury says:

    We have found the framework useful in our analysis of change and culture in the Canadian government setting. The name–“habitat”–is an excellent one, reflecting the several states of our multi-faceted habitats on this planet. No model is perfect, yet the Cynefin gives us enough to get key messages across very effectively.
    David Salusbury
    McGill, Montreal

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