On dealing with complexity and chaos

An interview with knowledge management expert, chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge and father of the Cynefin framework, Dave Snowden, about coping with complexity and chaos.

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April 14, 2020

Dave Snowden is a Welsh management consultant, researcher in the field of knowledge management and the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a Singapore-based management-consulting firm specialized in complexity and sensemaking. I love his Cynefin framework, so I was particularly glad when we serendipitously ‘met’ over Twitter and he agreed to a nexxworks Innovation Talks podcast interview.

What follows are some of the highlights of our conversation, but please do listen to the entire podcast as we talked about many more things, among which education, generalists, idiots banding together on the internet and even rebellious beards:

A framework to help you understand the world

It would be close to sacrilegious to talk to Dave without delving deeper into his Cynefin framework, so let’s tackle that first. You’ll see immediately that it’s unlike other frameworks: just like life, it’s a bit messy (as the lines between the parts are not clearly defined but the boundaries are phased) and there’s a fifth part in the middle – called disorder – that defies the idea of the nice and simple quadrants that so many consultants tend to love and overuse:

Visual from Cognitive Edge

In essence, Cynefin is a sense-making framework designed to help us understand the world so that we can act in it without constant friction. It is there to help us decide what type of system we are in, what type of methods and tools we can use there and how we can move between the domains.

Ordered: obvious and complicated

The ordered systems – obvious or complicated – both have a high level of constraint. In the OBVIOUS part, the relationship between cause and effect is clear to any reasonable person. Example: in the UK, people drive on the left. In other, normal, countries, like Belgium, people drive on the right. So there's a clear relationship between cause and effect and all reasonable people buy into it. In the domain of the obvious, you can always apply best practices. You just simply categorize things and respond accordingly.

In the COMPLICATED domain, things are only clear to experts, not to laymen. In these types of situation, you have to bring in expertise, commissioned analysis or research to find out what you should do. A simple example would be when a car breaks down. Most people do not know how they have to fix it, but they do know who to call when it happens. The point about both of the ordered domains is that there is a right answer and it is knowable (complicated) or even be known (obvious).

Unordered: complex and chaotic

In the CHAOTIC domain, there are no (effective) constraints and behaviour is de facto random. Chaos doesn’t last long in human systems as it’s a part of our nature to impose order wherever we can.

But chaos is not necessarily something that needs to be avoided at all times. Used deliberately and in a controlled manner, creating chaos by removing all constraints can be a way to stimulate innovation or distributed decision support. It’s just important to realize that this approach will take up a lot of energy. Of course, accidental chaos as we get during natural or manmade disasters is an undesirable state and the goal then is to move to another domain as quickly you can.

In a COMPLEX system, then, everything is connected with everything else in some way, but these connections are not fully knowable. Dave used Alicia Juarrero’s ‘bramble bushes in the thicket’ simile to explain this: “in a dense woodland filled with bramble bushes, you know that there are separate plants, but you simply can't separate them. The connections are far too complex.” Just like that, complex human systems have what Dave calls “dark constraints” (‘dark’ as in ‘hidden’, like in dark matter and dark energy): you can see the impact of something, but you don't know what the cause is.

In essence, a complex system is unpredictable and lacks linear material causality. Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because every significant change —a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux. To better understand the difference between a complicated and a complex domain, I refer to Dave’s HBR article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making:

It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. 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. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.

The biggest danger with a complex system is that, with the benefits of hindsight, anybody can attribute causality that’s often incorrect. People tend to subtract ‘lessons learned’ in these situations and then wrongly conclude that they figured out how it works and will get it right the next time.

When you (don’t) know you don’t know

So Cynefin has five domains, among which four already mentioned: clear and complicated – the ordered parts – and the unordered domains of chaotic and complex. The fifth and critical part, that lies in the center of the framework, is the DISORDERED or confused space: it’s what happens when you don’t know which sort of system you are in. That can be legitimate: for instance, when you have just been confronted with a new situation and you know that you don't know which type it is or how to best respond. But you want to do something about it. But it can also be illegitimate, when you think that you know what you are doing and you are not prepared to listen to people who say that you are wrong.

A quick recap before we go any further: the essence of Cynefin is that it helps you work out which domains you're in and which methods or tools work best there. For instance, process re-engineering may work wonders in the obvious domain but will be a horrendous fit for the others. In a complicated domain, you may want to use an audit, and call in the experts. A complex system on the other hand, could benefit from social network stimulation, using self-organizing teams and a reward framework. And when there’s chaos, acting as quickly as you can and then learning from what went right and wrong could save the day.

For those people who love their frameworks and matrices (you know who you are), I’ll just casually drop the Rumsfeld matrix here as well (Which is related to the Johari window but I won’t post that here as there ought to be limits to the amount of frameworks or matrices used in one piece), which might be a help in estimating the uncertainty of some of your projects. Dave and I did not talk about that in the interview, but it could be useful for those who are intrigued by the concept of ‘knowing what you don’t know’ he did refer to (ie known unknowns):

Visual from profjohncole.com

Cynefinnovation (I know, … it’s bad, but it’s my text and I can do what I want)

Cynefin can be used in pretty much any environment, but since this is nexxworks, I had to ask Dave about its use for those of us who are toiling away in innovation.

“Depending on which type of innovation, it can reside in every domain of the framework, except for the clear one, of course”, he answered. “The complicated domain is very useful for incremental innovation: it’s where experts are looking into products and services in order to improve things or add new features. In the chaotic domain, the adage “you should never miss the opportunity to exploit a good crisis“ perfectly applies. Chaos can be used to invest in complete novelty.” That is why wars (or pandemics) always trigger so many completely new inventions.

“In the complex domain, we can recognize exaptive innovation”, Dave continued. “Exaptation is a concept from evolutionary biology. For instance, dinosaur feathers evolved for sexual display. But when enough dinosaurs fall off cliffs, the ones with lots of feathers glide and so we get flight. Simply put, exaptation is a trait which evolved for one function being used for something completely different. If we move that from biology to the world of business, I have a great example from a Raytheon engineer in 1945: he was maintaining the magneto of a radar machine, noticed that a chocolate bar melts in his pocket and eventually comes up with the concept of microwave ovens.”

The tragic cost of populism in COVID-19 times

Contrary to most, Dave does not believe that the world is becoming increasingly VUCA: “our world has always been VUCA, what has changed is that the consequences in an increasingly connected world just become higher.” The COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example of these higher consequences. “A pandemic was inevitable at this point”, Dave explained, “because of the growing proximity of humans to animals, global transportation, infection rates, etc. We should take this as an opportunity to work out the ways that we're going to manage this, now and in the future. Because this is just the first of many pandemics. We should be using this virus as an opportunity to learn how to handle even more dirty ones in the future.”

I’m taking a small detour here, but bear with me. British-Venezuelan researcher, lecturer and author Carlota Perez - whom I will interview in the next podcast episode - believes that each technological revolution is divided into three parts: the installation period, the inflection or turning point and the deployment period:

Image from Carlota Perez’ Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital

In our current revolution, we are at the turning point and these transitions always come with a lot of inequality, unemployment, social unrest, anger, deskilling and hopelessness. One of the results of this volatile period is that a lot of people tend to elect populist parties. Their ‘soothing’ discourse of ‘we first’ gives them a feeling of comfort.

The result is that, now too, we are seeing the rise of many populist governments in the world like in the US, Austria, Brazil, Italy, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Poland etc. and this (and … we’re back to Dave) turned out to be extremely detrimental to the COVID-19 crisis. “Populist governments don't handle hard decisions well and try to avoid them”, explained Dave. “Of course, every hour's delay, every day's delay in taking drastic actions against COVID-19 makes the situation worse, not better. So a lot governments stayed in the disorder space for much too long. Also, the political reality of many Western European countries added a layer of complication to the whole situation: our politicians have got to deal with the fact that, even if they know something is the right thing to do, it's not always politically feasible to do it.”

Lessons learning instead of lessons learned

Dave went on by saying that when the COVID-19 pandemic will stabilize, western countries will all be technically bankrupt. So we’re definitely not going back to ‘normal’ (And what was normal anyway? Let’s face it, we were not doing so great in a whole lot of departments.) “I think that we should grab the opportunity to rethink democracy, to rethink participation, to rethink identity and meaning. If we can get rid of the bolts, the connectivity of the world at the moment does allow new forms to emerge. So we have to be thinking about them now and not at the end of the crisis.”

The reason for that is to be found in what he said above: in hindsight, we tend to see certain roots and causes, which are not necessarily the right ones and will certainly not help us moving forward. That’s why Dave talks about “lessons learning”, looking for patterns and sharing a lot in real time instead of “lessons learned”: “we have to learn lessons while things are happening rather than conclude the wrong things with the benefit of the hindsight”.

I could not think of a better though to conclude this interview with, except maybe for this one: listen to the entire podcast here, because we talked about a lot more things and Dave is pretty brilliant.

Check our free Friday webinar series about Resillience in Uncertain times:

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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April 14, 2020