In a recent exchange on Twitter, I was asked about my use of the Cynefin Framework. For the uninitiated, this is a way of thinking about and making sense of different types of challenges in organizations. The Cynefin Framework has been developed and popularized by David Snowden, and was the subject of his HBR article with Mary Boone in 2007 (“A Leader’s Framework For Change”). The framework describes four principal domains: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. Mr. Snowden suggests different patterns of inquiry, sense-making, and response, depending on which domain we seem to be in at the time.
My response about using Cynefin referred back to thinking and teaching I first developed in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2003 I was working for a bi-state transportation authority that operated trains and bridges in the greater Philadelphia area. Post- 9/11, we were rightly concerned about the possibility of an attack on one of our facilities. In fact, a person was arrested and tried, after sneaking out under one of our bridges and taking numerous photos of the walkways and service passages. Later that year, I was asked to give the opening talk at the Eastern States Transportation Network’s annual conference. The main keynote speaker after me, was to be a New York City Police Captain, who was in the World Trade Center as a first responder on 9/11. He was going to talk in detail about the experience, and what we might learn from his experience.
As I thought about the challenges faced by the first responders on that awful day, I realized that there were several recurring patterns:
- Information was often incomplete or inaccurate
- The facts as known, were changing very rapidly as the situation developed
- The changes in what was known, were often changing to a significant degree
- Options that were viable at one time, became impossible without warning
- The information held and interpreted by different people, also varied considerably
Given these circumstances, how could an emergency responder know what to do in the moment? How could a responder gather others, make sense of a rapidly and dramatically-changing situation, and decide what to do next?
My answer, and my remarks to the conference group, was framed by the initials in the title of this post: F.A.R. F-FLEXIBLE, meaning we know many ways. A-ADAPTABLE, meaning we can change our behavior in response to changing circumstances in our environment. R-RESILIENT, meaning we can accept a measure of adversity, and still persevere towards our objective. Over all of these, was the capacity to listen closely to the ideas of others, and decide on action together.
At the time, I had not yet heard of Cynefin, or Dave Snowden. That came a few years later. But in learning about Cynefin (and a tip of the hat to my friends at the Plexus Institute, who hosted article co-author Mary Boone), I quickly realized that the suggested pattern for the Chaotic domain – ACT, SENSE, RESPOND – matched up to both the experience of the 9/11 responders, and to my suggested F.A.R. skill set.
One other thing I have noticed about being in the Chaotic domain, is the sense of time’s passage. As the pace of change becomes rapid, turbulent, and unpredictable, our ability to consider and experiment with options, diminishes. Yet it is possible, as Ralph Stacey and Patricia Shaw describe, to “enter the living present.” An article in the journal Strategy + Business a few years ago, explains this in terms of the modern physics discovery associated with an ancient Greek conundrum, the Quantum Zeno Effect. Put simply, a heightened state of mindful awareness can effectively slow the apparent passage of time. In the midst of a crisis, that extra moment of sense-making, might make all the difference.