So if you’re not familiar with the cynefin framework, it’s an idea under iteration by Dave Snowden and his colleagues. It’s a deceptively simple-looking framework that allows, as I understand it, a problem solver to more easily interpret two things: the current structural coherence of an organisation, and/or the mind-frame of a decision-maker.

To be more specific about the first thing, it doesn’t usually apply to an entire organisation. It can however be used as a frame to better interpret how aspects of an organisation are working, or not, as the case may be. So for example, a phone room is probably falls into the simple domain. It’s all “calls in, answers given”. Things can become complicated, and it’s then that a manager needs to make a decision about something, and everything returns to ‘simple’. But, elsewhere within that same organisation, things can be totally out of hand and could only be characterised as chaotic.

In relation to the second thing, someone could possibly see their occupation or vocation as simple, when in fact it’s complex, or at least complicated. They might say… be seeing everything a little too black and white.

Regardless of whether the frame of reference is internal or external to the subject individual, what all the cynefin domains have in common is the requirement that a leader or manager make a decision or set of decisions. Something we can assume is that the motivations for these decisions will frequently be constructed to ‘order’ their environment. We can assume this because people like ordered environments, especially in organisations, hence the noun, and even more especially in public sector departments (which have constituencies, or a worse title, ‘clients’, organisations who rely on predictability and reliability). Actions by decision-makers in the cynefin framework will most usually be undertaken to ensure improvement in order, even if ‘improvement’ actually means ‘establishment’.

What dawned on me while listening to Dave outline these ideas (which I may or may not have completely grasped), is that an illustration of the duration and effectiveness of decision-making was lacking.

There are at least two dimensions to this effectiveness. The first is the wisdom of the decisions made. Some decisions are just stupid, so their effect is (hopefully) short-lived. We’ve all worked for someone who issues an order that we immediately discover a work-around to avoid. The duration of the effect of the decision is therefore very low. The second dimension is the ‘depth’ of the effectiveness of the decision. Some decisions are so good (or bad), that they not only effect the immediate environ of the decision-maker (for instance their team), but also other units with the ‘ecology’ of an organisation. A positive example of this could be the conduct of a safe-fail experiment that creates a tool useful to an entire organisation.

So how to illustrate this? I think there are two main components; time, and duration/depth of effect.

Time always advances towards us from an unknowable future. We make decisions as time brings the need to do so forward. We can preempt some future events and decide a course of action or response beforehand (what I’ll wear to work tomorrow), but most decisions are made ‘on the fly’ (which of the foods presented to me will I chose?) Decisions in time establish order for a particular duration, i.e. what I chose to wear in the morning is what I wear all day. And sometimes tomorrow. I don’t need to make any more decisions for a given time.

In the simple domain of the cynefin framework time will present fairly predictable decisions, and at a fairly predictable pace, and this will change/accelerate as you move around the framework to the chaotic. No surprises there I hear you say.

Confronting the future, and the advancing ‘issues’, is active “decision-making horizon”. This is space in which decision-makers operate, and to which each of the cynefin domains are assigned. Everything within that horizon is well-covered by the practitioners’ network, but what happens afterwards is interesting. 

In an abstract sense, once a decision-maker creates order, all those bubbles floating around before the horizon are placed ‘just so’ beyond the active horizon on which the decision-maker operates. Once they’re beyond the horizon they represent ‘order’ and ‘decisions made’. But as time progresses that order disintegrates and another decision-making horizon is likely to be needed.

My thinking is that the durability of the order is dependent on the context in which the decisions were made, i.e., which cynefin domain, but also the wisdom of the decision itself. A good decision made in a chaotic time could well outlast a poor decision made in an simple environment.

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