Dave Snowden

Simplicity after understanding

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I'm not a huge fan of De Bono but one quote from him is just perfect: Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.   Far too many people render complex ideas simplistic in a well meaning attempt to simplify them without taking people through a process of understanding.  I can see why people do this for marketing purpose although I am not a fan of it.  Over the years I've seen no end of people attempt to hitch a lift onto things they only partly understand by making the claim that they are making my ideas simple.  Ok they have to make a living but they are doing no one any favours.

Now I try not to get too precious about this.  Its very common for people when they first come across Cynefin to see it as a two by two classification matrix.  I'm OK with that as it has high utility in that form and its a familiar way in to a wider understanding of complexity.  But as people get more involved and particular if they have the sort of enquiring mind that goes with intelligence and a willingness to learn, they start to realise there is a lot more to Cynefin.  Again that's good, it passes my back of a napkin test: if you can't draw it on the back of a table napkin from memory any framework has little utility.  The really simple frameworks then move you greater and greater depths of meaning as you explore them further. 

Hopefully that is true of Cynefin.  As people get more into the framework they realise three things:

  • The fifth domain of disorder is key to strategic use of the framework.  Of recent months I have extended that domain into two: authentic and transitionary.  You can see a first representation of this in the picture.  The centre of disorder is a dark space of inauthenticity that you really don't want to fall into, the outer space allows you to transit between domains, but it involves a perilous transition.
  • The boundary between simple and chaos is a cliff, you fall off it when you get complacent and to climb back up takes a lot of energy.  This picks up on Thom's catastrophe theory by the way.
  • The real value comes when people understand the dynamics of moving between domains, shifting the environment so good things happen with less effort.  You manage the situation so that its easier to use the techniques authentic to the domain, or the transition between domains.

Its this third aspect of dynamics that I want to talk about.  There are three dynamics that I would consider as authentic to proper management.  That is to say, three that should be constantly present in any organisation or project.  There are of course many dynamics – have a look at the Kurtz/Snowden paper for more – some good, some bad, some contextual in value.  However the three are important and probably the best way to move away from the categorisation error that characterises early encounters with Cynefin.  So lets run through them, and they are colour coded for ease of use.

  • The operational dynamic is show in red and represents the shift between complex and complicated which should be a constant feature of any environment.    As you relax constraints you enable emergence of novelty, as you increase constraint you make novelty or exploration more difficult but you increase the chance for exploitation.  This constant cycling between exploration and exploitation, between complexity and complication is the most stable position for any organisation and should be the easiest to maintain.
  • Unfortunately the lets make it all explicit dynamic shown in green comes into play.  It's the temptation to make things standard, to shift from an oscillation between emergent and good practice, to enforcing best practice.  Now there is a space for this shift, but once something is down there in simple it ain't coming out again.  Taking too much stuff down there leads to complacency and catastrophic failure.
  • Then we get the innovation dynamic shown in blue.  This works over longer cycles than the operational one.  As a body of knowledge becomes more and more the domain of experts there is a growing danger of entrainment of thinking over the longer term.  This requires a cyclical process of disruption in which expert knowledge is taken on a shallow dive into chaos (a near complete relaxation of constraint) to allow a novel pattern or patterns to evolve which shifts into the complex domain.  I previously called this the Dynamic Learning Cycle and its more fully described in one of the early Cynefin papers.  This is not a deep dive by the way – that is an act of desperation when all else is lost.  Avoiding getting falling to that extreme is a good idea.

So an understanding of the dynamic nature of the framework and the transitionary nature of chaos and disorder is the first step after a basic understanding has been achieved.   I'm relaxed about when this happens, but I do tend to loose patience if someone persists in offering “simple” presentations of only four domains after many years, especially when they make claims to be an expert on the subject.  In those circumstances the De Bono quote is a consolation. Those who confuse making things simple with being simplistic deserve sympathy not condemnation.