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Mental Models
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Cynefin Framework

ModelThinkers is about better understanding our world and ourselves to take more effective action — and one of the most powerful approaches to that end has to be the Cynefin Framework. Pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’, this brainchild of David Snowden is like a dynamic guidebook for decision-makers.  The Cynefin Framework is a sense-making / decision-making tool that recommends effective approaches to different domains or decision-making environments, namely: clear, complicated, complex, chaotic and confused. It’s recently been expanded with two additional domains, but I’ll get to that later. DOMAINS IN MORE DETAIL. Let’s dive into the domains:  Domain Characteristics Example Approach CLEAR Known knowns. Predictable and clear cause and effect relationships. (A=B) Building a series of project homes from a defined and tested plan. Sense - categorise - respond.  Respond with best practice - the proven way to move forward. COMPLICATED. Known unknowns. The correct answer is not self-evident and multiple options exist. (A or B or C = D) Building a custom house using new material and/or in an unusual context. Sense - analyse - respond. Analyse good practice - consider multiple experts/ possible options.  COMPLEX.  Unknown unknowns.  Entangled relationships, with dependent, non-linear causality. (A+B or B+C and A-D-C)  Building the above house for several clients simultaneously, each with different ideas.  Probe - sense - respond. Probe emergent practice -  run parallel ‘safe to fail’ experiments to identify patterns and what works.  CHAOTIC.  Unimagined unknowables.  Effectively random, with no fixed constraints.  (insert any letters here) Doing the above while the house is on fire, during an earthquake.  Act - sense - respond.  Act with novel practice - to create order, stabilise, and shift to complexity. AWARE/ CONFUSED  Don’t know. Yet to be identified.  (the letters are covered) Any of the above but you don’t know yet. Breakdown and assign the parts to the other four domains.  TWO LIMINAL/ TRANSITIONAL DOMAINS. In addition, Snowden’s latest iteration of this model introduced two liminal or transitional domains that consist of unimagined unknowns:  CO-CO: the space between complex and complicated, this particularly uses iterative methods such as agile and scrum to make the complex complicated.  CO-CH: the transition between complex and chaotic, this might involve consciously loosening connections and constraints to support innovation, for example by organising a range of small teams to create prototypes and possible solutions.   AND BEWARE OF THE CLIFF. The final boundary of note lies between the obvious and chaotic and, according to Snowden, is more like falling off a cliff than a transition. He warns that such a fall might arise from complacency, assuming order where there is not, and will result in negative and expensive implications. BEWARE LEADERSHIP GO-TO TECHNIQUES. Left to their own devices, and when not applying the framework consciously, leaders are likely to use strategies that they are accustomed to explaining any problems or failures. For example:  Clear: leaders accustomed to predictable and/or bureaucratic environments will assume failures of process. Complicated: a deep expert will assume that they need more time and resources Complex: leaders in the military or politicians will assume they need collective intelligence of the right people in the room. Chaotic: Might tempt leaders who want greater control, and even have fascistic tendencies (no, I'm not going to name names).  IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. This framework can be used to understand situations and know how to make more effective decisions. It can relate to a number of complex business or life situations and has been applied as broadly as the US government under George Bush to running hospitals. It is often referenced by experienced Scrum and Agile Methodology practitioners, particularly in their work through complex challenges. Embracing complexity also lends itself to Probabilistic Thinking and knowing when to apply Deep Work.  Finally, more than perhaps any frameworks that we feature on ModelThinkers — Cynefin really is a living and evolving school of thought. Follow the links in the Origins & Resources tab below to stay in touch with its practice and community via David Snowden's books and initiatives.

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