I recently attended a Cynefin and Sense-Making Workshop given by Dave Snowden and Michael Cheveldave of Cognitive Edge. It was an excellent course and a useful introduction to how to apply concepts from complex adaptive systems, biology, and anthropology to better understand human approaches to problem solving.
The Cynefin framework is an elegant expression of these ideas. It posits five domains that reflect the three types of systems we encounter in the world. There are ordered systems, in which outcomes are predictable and repeatable. There are chaotic systems, which are inherently unpredictable and temporary; and there are complex systems, in which the system and the actors within it interact to shape an unpredictable future.
We can use the Cynefin framework to help us make sense of our current situation and understand what course of action might be best at a given moment. If we are dealing with an ordered system, then we are in one of the ordered domains, either “Obvious” or “Complicated.” In either of these circumstances, we can reason our way to the right answer, provided we have the necessary experience and expertise. The predictability of the system permits this.
If, however, we are in the “Chaotic” domain, the system is wholly unpredictable. The “Complex” domain embraces complex adaptive systems: those that are governed by some level of constraint yet remain unpredictable. Think of the foot traffic in your local shopping mall, and you can get some idea of how these systems manifest: you can purposefully walk from one end to the other, but if the mall is crowded, you can’t predict the course you’ll have to take to get there.
A fifth domain, “Disorder,” exists to explain those times where our current state is unknown.
To increase our familiarity with how to use the Cynefin framework, we performed a number of exercises. In one of them, my tablemates (including Adam Yuret and Marc Burgauer) and I tried to make sense of the final, climactic scene of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen it, now’s a good time to bail out.
The scene involves a three-way standoff between “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), “Angel” (Lee Van Cleef), and “Tuco” (Eli Wallach). The three gunslingers stand in a rough triangle at the center of a graveyard. Blondie’s written the location of the treasure on the bottom of a rock, and placed it at the center of the triangle. None of them wants to share the treasure.
At first blush, it seems to be an ideal example of a complex system. As soon as any one of them acts, the others will fire, and the standoff will end, but no one can predict how. That’s why each of them stands there, eyeing one another cautiously, as the tension builds to Ennio Morricone’s music.
But that’s not the truth of the matter. Blondie is no fool. He’d gotten the drop on Tuco and had time to unload Tuco’s weapon. As we watch the scene, we don’t know this, but for Blondie, the situation is well-ordered. All he needs to do is pick the right time to gun Angel down. Blondie knows Tuco’s not a threat.
The other two must deal with more unknowns. It’s not a chaotic system for them. There is a certain level of predictability. Someone will shoot. But the details of who that will be—and when he will fire—are uncertain. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Both Tuco and Angel want to trigger a specific outcome—their survival and the death of the other two—but exactly how to manage this outcome is impossible to predict given the other elements of the system. It’s a perfect example of a complex adaptive system.
We thought this was an extremely useful example to help us “make sense” of Cynefin and the concepts it embraces. I hope you do too.