How F.A.R. is Your Leadership?

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.



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2 Responses to How F.A.R. is Your Leadership?

  1. Hi Bruce

    Sorry, but F.A.R. doesn’t begin to do it for me: flexible and adaptable are practically synonyms, and resilience means much the same thing. Furthermore, there are important things to say about leadership in a crisis that are not captured in these words at all.

    My wife taught me these things. She is a cautious sailor by nature… but excellent in a crisis. There were just the two of us on board when our forty-foot yacht was knocked down mid-Atlantic by a micro-burst (something we’d never heard of at the time). I was injured. Lightening destroyed both autopilots (so much for back-up systems) and high seas snapped the paddle on our wind vane self-steering device. She insisted we do nothing until we’d both rested. So we heaved-to and went to bed! Four hours later and much refreshed I quickly fixed the self-steering and we continued our passage uneventfully. But, if I had attempted the repair while still in shock, I might well have compounded our problems by dropping vital tools or parts overboard.

    So the first thing to do in a crisis is recognize that you have been taken by surprise. If you know this can “throw you off-balance”, then the second thing to do is nothing… until you have taken the time out to restore your equilibrium and equanimity. Only then should you proceed logically and carefully to solve the problems.

    This is an important lesson because unscrupulous people create surprise to catch us off guard. It was the central theme of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine”.

    Saddam Hussein was never an Al Qaeda supporter. Many believe America’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq post 9/11 was hasty and ill-conceived. Obama claims it has cost over $1 trillion. How much better that money and those lives might have been spent if the nation had taken time out to ask “What can we learn from this?” rather than “How can we get even?”


    • complexified says:

      Geoff, I appreciate your comment. A few points in further response:

      Flexible and Adaptive: Yes, in ordinary usage the words may be similar. In this case, I am making the distinction between Flexible as KNOWING several ways – prior knowledge, perhaps able to be deployed in response to change, and Adaptable as CHANGE CAPACITY – the ability to synthesize information in response to change, and craft new ideas to survive and thrive.

      In regards to your sailing experience, I would say it actually supports my notion of F.A.R. In the moment of your incapacity, and in the midst of sudden unforeseen and even unknown forms of conditions, you had to make some assessment, and take some action. Your very lives may have depended on your capacities to make sense of the information at hand, analyze it in the context of what you knew, and act in response to the immediate crisis. Did you know more than one way to respond to this sudden situation? Yes. But you also knew you’d been hurt. Were you able to adapt your thinking and behavior to the conditions at hand? Even though by your own admission, the emergent conditions were of a sort not previously known to you? Were you able to accept a measure of this adversity and stay focused on your objectives (survive and arrive)? I would say that yes, you did. Your decision, made in the midst of this seeming chaos, was one that took the rapidly changing situation into consideration as best you could. You met the challenge of dealing with unknown and perhaps unknowable circumstances with a decision that you hoped would work (though you do not say what might have happened had a new onset of raging weather occurred during your rest). You persevered and prevailed.

      As to restoring one’s “equilibrium and equanimity” in the midst of a crisis, or proceeding “logically and carefully” to solve the situation, I would say this is ideal but not always possible. One consequence of crisis is the lack of time to fully explore possibility and options. The first responders in the World Trade Center on 9/11 did not have the luxury of time to “do nothing” until they could solve their many challenges with logic and care. Moreover, even as they attempted to use what knowledge and logic they had, conditions and information were both rapidly changing, and incomplete at best. In fact, the effect of the crashed airplane on the tower’s infrastructure was unknown and unknowable even to the experts. From my personal discussions with 9/11 responders, and with other emergency first responders, one particular challenge in chaos is the lack of time to think and plan. These phases of response may be severely hurried because of the nature of the emergency. I would suggest that anyone in such a situation should ideally take the one deep breath, seek their best mental clarity and presence, then think, decide, and act as quickly as the situation seems to demand. We know we will not always get the right answer in the moment. Hopefully, we find an answer that works, as you did when you were struck at sea.


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