CYNEFIN FRAMEWORK CRITIQUE

So, what are my issues with this model?

The first is the way it uses terms.

The second is the way it conceptualises knowing.

As you see it uses four categories: my issue is with their use of these terms as they are not well defined and they conflict with much of the other literature on this issue. As a result I do not agree with their way forward (proposed interventions). Here are some examples:

Simple – In my world these are linear issues and the cause and effect links are easy to see.  They say “Simple contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Often, the right answer is self-evident and undisputed.” However to me this is only possible if you remove the context and draw the boundaries very tightly around the problem. This does provide a quick solutions but it is also often the cause of unintended consequence that will blight your progress. “Best practice” applied unthinkingly is often the cause of organisational failure.

Complicated – They say “may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it.”  In my world complicated systems still have linear cause and effect relationships but they are not necessarily easy to follow. In theory this includes rail systems, oil refinery, aeroplane but this fails to see such systems for the complex system they actually are. Again this is done by drawing boundaries around what you want to consider and not considering the non-linear bits. They say “Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts.” But a Ferraris does not go anywhere until you add a driver; driver are not interchangeable (everyone is different) and so the system that operations is actually complex! Software in such systems also now adds similar complexity.

Complex – In my world these are non-linear system (as are most human systems). They say “In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest … The rainforest … is in constant flux … and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts”. Yes but this has not asked a question needing an answer. This is therefore an internal inconsistency in their thinking. It is also not consistent with what is said a few lines later where they say “Leaders tell the team: This is what you have; find a solution”. So, in these circumstances, the right answer will be ferreted out!

Chaotic – They see this as “disorder” but what is disorder? … They say “In a chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist—only turbulence.” This fails to recognise that often we just fail to see the patterns that actually exist (compared to the other occasions when we see patterns that do not exist) … This is actually about crisis management and I do not agree with his synopsis of 9/11. Also randomness can be a resource: the art of military generalship is one example of where chaos can be used to one’s advantage.

In my view their thinking muddles [1] what is known, [2] what in practice can be known in time to make a decision, [3] what can only be known with hindsight and [4] what can only be known in theory [perfect world paradigm].  You can see much of this muddled thinking daily in discussion of the current COVID pandemic. Just to exercise this muscle, try using these categories to evaluate what you hear or read. If the knowledge exist, then try to work out how it gets from where it exists to where it is needed (the technical term for this is “structural secrecy”.) Structural secrecy is another common cause of organisational failure.

I see that a better (clearer) way of labelling their categories may be Known-knowns, Known-Unknowns, Unknown-Unknowns and Unknowables. But I have problems with this as well. One thing they have missed is Unknown-knowns: this is knowledge that exists but is not in the right place and not used. This is often an issue of “organisations that fail to learn”. Failure to use such knowledge has led to many sub-optimal outcomes!

Summary of the Fundamental Flaws:

  • Chaotic seen as being unordered on which order must be imposed which, from my experience of crisis management is the wrong approach to take. Crisis management is about pattern recognition and options.

  • Mixed what is known (in practice) v. With what is (theoretically) knowable through science. [Prefect World Paradigm]

My approach is about try to understand [1] the linear and non-linear components of a system, [2] what boundaries you are using for what you consider and what you ignore, [3] what is known and what can be known, [4] the patterns of activity that exist and what is driving them and [5] what do you have set aside “just in case” (resilience).

Last Update: 04 Nov 21

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