A few words on the Cynefin framework

Photo by PigsawLast week I visited Agile Derby (held, oddly, in Leicester) and was educated, entertained and informed by Dave Snowden talking about the Cynefin framework. (Pronounced K’ nevin.) It’s something I first came across thanks to Liz Keogh, who’s a huge fan of it, and it was good to see a fairly detailed treatment from its originator.

In summary: you should take a look.

There’s a huge amount in there, and I can’t possibly do it justice based on a little experience and a few hundred words. Nevertheless, here are some things about it that appeal to me…

It’s a tool to aid decision-making. More specifically, to help understand what kind of reaction is appropriate in a particular situation. For example, it distinguishes between situations where cause and effect is obvious (“Simple”) and where it’s not obvious (“Complicated”), and suggests that different strategies are needed in each. Dave suggests that Simple environments are to be treated with caution: they typically require routine, sometimes bureaucratic, process. And that’s fine, but many situations are really Complicated and require expert analysis rather than rigid, predefined solutions. Treating a situation as Simple when it isn’t can push it entirely in the wrong direction which is very difficult to recover from.

The Simple and the Complicated are also distinguished by the phrases best practice and good practice. Best practice is applicable to the Simple domain, and it implies there is one correct (best) response to any given situation. Good practice is applicable to the Complicated domain where the optimum response is not obvious, and several alternatives are similarly positive.

Another environment that’s may be familiar is the Complex. This is where participants themselves influence the system, which means any intervention itself has unpredictable consequences, and changes have to be made almost as experiments, and require a feedback loop.

If all this seems esoteric then that’s because it is typically presented with charts and diagrams and it is, after all, a framework that seeks to bring structure to an otherwise unstructured world. But I believe it can still be used as a useful tool to better understand situations.

As I say, check it out. There’s Dave’s introductory video, Liz’s blog post, and much else besides.