Four Tables Contextualisation
The Cynefin Framework is used to understand and take action in different types of systems confronting decision makers. Cynefin is a sensemaking framework in theoretical form – to operationalise the framework, it needs the domains, sub-domains and boundaries to be defined by fragments (such as day-to-day experiences of people) to create context that is relevant to the organisation. Four tables Contextualisation is a lightly facilitated workshop based Method used to create and operationalise Cynefin models for decision making. A completed Cynefin model that is contextualised to the environment and operations of a community, team or organisation provides a new shared language with which decision-makers can discuss situations, perspectives and possible actions. It can be used to talk about interpretations of current conditions based on gathered data, to evaluate strategic interventions, and to constructively manage conflict and bring about consensus, without removing conflict. Cynefin is fundamentally considered a sense-making framework, which means that its value is not so much in logical arguments or empirical verifications as in its effect on the sense-making and decision-making capabilities of those who use it.
- This workshop can be used to introduce people to the concept of contextual (or multi-ontology) decision making and is typically used for strategy sessions or for conflict resolution (where it has proved very useful).
- Sensitise team for boundary transitions, to improve anticipatory awareness – tools which alert us to changing circumstances in our environment and organisations.
- As an alternative to traditional strategic planning which place excessive emphasis on ideal future states.
- Aid in conflict resolution between different groups with opposing views.
- Embed lessons from organisation’s past in decision making through metaphor based language.
- An effective way to induct new recruits into a community, team or organisation.
- A completed Cynefin model that is contextualised to the environment and operations of a community, team or organisation. This model “provides a new shared language with which decision-makers can discuss situations, perspectives and possible actions. ... It can be used to talk about interpretations of current conditions based on gathered data, to evaluate strategic interventions, and to constructively manage conflict and bring about consensus, without removing conflict.”2 Note that the process of creating a contextualised Cynefin model is in itself an intervention. The heightened awareness of current state, biases and potential attained amongst participants is the highest achievement of the exercise.
- There are many things people can do with a completed contexualised Cynefin framework (which is what they now have), including:
- They can summarize the items in the different domains with "exemplar" fragments, narratives and heuristics.
- They can explore sub-domains within each domain (extreme, typical, and the two boundaries with other domains), clustering items in those areas, and then optionally also identifying some exemplar fragments, narratives and heuristics for the sub-domains.
- They can talk about Cynefin dynamics and come up with narratives in which situations move from one domain to another, using the fragments they have already placed on their contextualised Cynefin framework. Descriptions of dynamics can be based on things like: events in the past, present or possible future; different perspectives on situations or forces; different aspects of situations or forces.
- They can use the contextualised framework to indoctrinate new people into a common culture; and they can use the terms of the framework (exemplar fragments, for example) to create a meaningful shared language for situational assessment ("this is like the Battle of Harudin extreme-visible-order fiasco").
- They can use the contextualised framework to negotiate meaning with other groups who have created their own contextualised frameworks, possibly using some of the same fragments.
- They can use the framework to generate action plans to tackle the issues under consideration. The facilitator can provide pre-printed action forms to all groups after the development of the framework (use different forms for each domain - for example, forms for the Complex domain should focus on safe-fail initiatives). After each group has 10-12 action papers, ask them to bring them together - possibly use dotmocracy to finalise prioritisation of initiatives.
Using four groups is desirable as you increase the contrast between views and you can combine and recombine groups to increase the number of perspectives that are taken into account. However in its simplest form this can be a one person process! Ideally a group of five to six is a working minimum though.
Things You'll Need
- Action name
- Person or group responsible
- Description of action
- Expected outcome (option to say not known)
- Anticipated cost and resource
- Completion date
- These will be used for probes in the complex domain or complete actions in the case of un-order. Ideally print on four colours of paper. If you can print on post it notes of A5/Quarto size even better and if you can set up to print on the day you have more flexibility. As a guide, here are the action forms used by Cognitive Edge in each domain of the Framework:
- Action form for Simple domain
- Action form for Complicated domain
- Action form for Complex domain
- Action form for Chaos domain
- The first thing you need when creating a contextualised Cynefin framework is a diverse field of narrative fragments (fragments). A fragment is anything that can be used to make sense of a situation, anything that bears consideration with reference to the matter at hand. There are several different ways to gather fragments:
- just talk and write them down as they come up
- tell anecdotes and write fragments down as they come up during the telling of stories
- review already collected anecdotes and write down fragments found in them (or derive fragments from other things found in anecdotes - motivations from characters, for example)
- use collected stories to create fables (see Story Construction) then consider things within those stories (characters, events, forces, turning points) as fragments
- get fragments from a Future Backwards exercise (turning points, or any hexagons from that exercise)
- use any diverse field of artifacts created by a divergent Cynefin process, or generate fragments from any rich set of constructs created by a convergent Cynefin process
- No matter how they are collected, fragments should have these characteristics:
- they should be concrete, that is, about real events and real people and real perspectives. One way of keeping fragments concrete is to gather them from narratives in one way or another.
- fragments should be diverse, that is, they should show a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints. This is something you have to see and react to in practice; it's hard to describe or predict in advance. If people are tending to all write or say the same things, use methods of complex facilitation to shake things up.
- fragments should be coherent, that is not wildly diverse. They should be recognisably connected to one broad overarching theme or concern which relates to why you are doing the exercise in the first place. This theme often takes the form of a question, like "where is our customer relations philosophy going" or "why don't we see more innovation in our sales force".
The participants are introduced to the Cynefin framework with the emphasis on decision making. They should then be divided into groups, with at least four people in each group. A number of groups with members who are familiar with the Cynefin framework and the domains will be formed.
The introduction can be supported by the example of the magic roundabout against traffic lights; the children’s party story etc.
Avoid examples unless they come from a completely different field – you don’t want imitation without understanding
Ask each group to generate a number of fragments in each domain. There are several different ways to gather fragments:
– Use a structured brainstorming process and write them down as they come up
Outcomes: Each group has a Cynefin framework, populated with relevant fragments categorised by consensus into the different domains
Fragments might be communities, products, actions, motivations, forces, events, points of view, beliefs, traditions, rituals, books, metaphors, anecdotes, myths, and so on: they are any items that are important to the sensemaking process.
The items are related to one theme or issue of concern, which should be broad but not infinitely so. To keep items concrete, we rely heavily on narrative methods. These provide a rich context that allows patterns of experience rather than opinion or belief to emerge If there is a dispute about where something sits, then it should be split into smaller elements and placed in the appropriate domains
Ask each of the groups to split evenly between Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic and then combine
For example, the “simple” people from each group form into a new domain group, bringing the Simple items from each of their groups work at the previous stage (similarly for each of the other three domains).
Outcomes: Reconstituted domain groups, comprised of individuals each representing one of the original groups. Each representative to have brought the relevant fragments from their group for that domain.
It’s very important not to indicate that one domain is more important than another as you don’t want the power seekers going for a domain for reasons of power. This form of separation allows members of the group who are uncomfortable with un- order to avoid those domains and do something they are more comfortable with. Do not be tempted to intervene to use your expertise to determine who should be in each group.
Each domain group then allocates their fragments into the four sub-domains (by consensus)
Each domain group then defines a number of relevant heuristics and an exemplar story for each sub-domain to define that sub-domain for the issue at hand The exemplar stories can be historical events from the organisation itself, or events from other organisations. All members of the group need to be able to relate the narrative of the exemplar events
Outcomes: Each group now possesses a populated domain, with fragments in all sub-domains plus heuristics and exemplar items to define those sub-domains.
We usually suggest two to three heuristics for each domain
You may show them the original Cynefin framework complete with the sub-domain definitions however only do so with agreement of the groups not to copy The heuristics for the sub-domains define what that sub-domain means for the issue at hand. What do the fragments placed there have in common? What agreements did the group reach to place the fragments there?
Boundary groups now combine and consolidate to define the boundary conditions.
Outcomes: Completed contextualised Cynefin model.
The boundary groups need to review the heuristics on both sides of the boundary to ensure they are distinct.
Do's and Dont's
Project stories on walls using digital projectors while participants are working in groups, to provide inspiration and examples
Ensure that you have participants split across four (or a multiple of four) tables. It provides for easier combinations of participants into subsequent groups (domains, boundaries)
Social construction is a high energy session and the facilitator should plan on time off afterwards
Fragments should be concrete, that is, about real events and real people and real perspectives. One way of keeping fragments concrete is to gather them from narratives in one way or another.
Fragments should be diverse, that is, they should show a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints. This is something you have to see and react to in practice; it's hard to describe or predict in advance. If people are tending to all write or say the same things, use methods of complex facilitation to shake things up.
Fragments should be coherent, that is, not wildly diverse. They should be recognizably connected to one broad overarching theme or concern which relates to why you are doing the exercise in the first place. This theme often takes the form of a question, like "where is our customer relations philosophy going" or "why don't we see more innovation in our sales force".
The best preparation for workshop participants is to send people fragments you currently have. Ideally these would be stories from colleagues, customers or other members of the community. If you don’t have these, then any sort of assessments of the current situation are useful. Ask people to go onto the internet to identify a photograph from Flickr or video from YouTube which best conveys their understanding of the current situation that the organisation finds itself in.
If there is disagreement on the placement of a fragment in a certain domain: Point out to participants that they can bifurcate or trifurcate (split into two or three different fragments). Usually the disagreement concerns different interpretations of the same fragment but people reasonably agree that the two interpretations belong in different domains. Rather than eliminating interpretations, they should include both (or all three) by creating new fragments. If genuine agreement can’t be reached suggest to people that they note the disagreement on the fragment itself and move on – its the overall pattern which matters, not individual fragments.