Is Cynefin a classification framework?

I disagree with Dave Snowden about his Cynefin framework, which is a profoundly precarious position to take. He says that it is not a classification framework: I am firmly of the view that it is a classification framework, once you understand what it is that Cynefin classifies. This essay is intended to open a conversation about the way in which I have understood Cynefin, and whether my understanding is, in fact, a different model to the Cynefin model.


In this essay, I will use ‘Cynefin’ to refer to my understanding of what Dave is saying about the model he invented, and ‘Heretical Cynefin’ to refer to my reinterpretation. It seems inevitable that I will misrepresent the Cynefin model to some extent: my invention of HC appears to be driven by my rejection of the distinction between a ‘classification’ model and a ‘sensemaking’ model. My objective is not to explain Cynefin, it is to explain Heretical Cynefin via references to the parent model. I will present my potential misunderstandings as fact, in order to avoid putting a disclaimer against every sentence.

The concept of a sensemaking model makes no sense to me

Cynefin is asserted to be a ‘sensemaking’ model. Which is to say that while the statement ‘the situation is complex’ is a valid statement in Cynefin, it is important to understand that ‘complex’ is not, in fact, an attribute of the situation being described. In the 3d representation*, it is valid to say that ‘the situation moves from complicated to simple as our understanding of the situation changes’. Heretical Cynefin rejects assertions of this nature, regarding them as unduly mystical. It is, however, a very useful clue.

If the classification of the situation into ‘complicated’ or ‘simple’ changes when our perception of the situation changes, then it is clear that what we are measuring is perception. To conflate the perception with the thing being perceived is unacceptable (from my heretical point of view).

The initial predictions of the heretical model

In my conference paper “Towards a leadership simulator”, I argued that as a person becomes an expert, their perception of a situation will follow a progression that is consistent with the dynamics of Cynefin. With sufficient exposure to a certain class of problem, a person’s perception will change. This extended my understanding of the Cynefin model to include a progression towards expert entrapment.

(Expert entrapment is a situation where an expert perceives a situation to be Obvious but the situation is not Obvious. That is to say, that the expert matches a situation to another situation that they have already solved, and therefore immediately applies a known solution. The danger of expert entrapment is that the immediate decision to apply a known solution may not be correct if the situation were observed more thoroughly. Note that older editions of Cynefin use the word ‘Obvious’ instead of ‘Simple’, and are therefore more consistent with the heresy.)

At the time, my omission of the ‘Disordered’ Cynefin domain from the research paper seemed inconsequential to me. My point was to assert that my model of ideal leadership interventions was consistent with the independent inventions of Dreyfus and Dreyfus, and Snowden, therefore worthy of consideration.

The disordered domain is an illusion

As a ‘sensemaking framework’, Cynefin states that ‘the situation is complicated’ or ‘rests in the complicated domain’ or something like that. (The reason I came up with a heretical model is because I don’t feel like I understand those kinds of statements.) The problem of expert entrapment is that we can be wrong about what a situation is.

In Cynefin, this problem is addressed through the creation of a ‘Disordered’ domain. This is the domain you’re in when you think you’re in one domain, but you’re actually in a different domain.

In Heretical Cynefin, I reject the disordered domain: If a person perceives the situation to be Obvious, then their perception is classified as ‘Obvious’. Their perception might also be ‘dangerously wrong’, but that doesn’t change the type of perception that they have.

Let us import the ‘energy levels’ concept from Cynefin into Heretical Cynefin. In other words:

  • without an energy investment, our perception is likely to be of Complexity

How then do we represent the situation where someone is wrong? In Cynefin, being wrong is ‘Disorder’, which is represented by a zero-energy pit in the 3d representation. In Heretical Cynefin, disorder is not a separate state, and therefore the question is “What happens to the perception when the perception is wrong?” Or, in a more nuanced mode, what happens when our perception is challenged (due to evidence that doesn’t fit the model, or an argument against the model, or some other insult).

I assert that when our perceptions are challenged, we must either adjust them to a lower-energy state, or invest energy in defending them. Thus, if we wish to preserve an investment in the belief that a situation is Simple, we must make a high ‘interest payment’ in order to preserve that perception. Whereas no energy is required to defend a belief that a situation is Complex, given that the perception of Complexity includes the notion that our understanding is incomplete.

Heretical Cynefin also indicates that the investment lost when revising our perception from Simple to Complicated is relatively low. This would be consistent with an expert who, confronted with clear evidence that they misunderstood something, asking the question “What did I miss?” They preserve their worldview by assuming that there is a pertinent detail that they missed (often a well-justified assumption). The pain of this transition is less than the pain of falling off the cliff into a Chaos assessment, and the journey from Simple to Complex is likely to require a journey through Complicated or Chaos.

Chaos is Awful

Chaotic is a property of a system, and when we examine our response to a chaotic input, we immediately form a perception that it is Simple (there are no meaningful differentiations in this input) or Complex (there are meaningful differentiations, but we have not reliably identified them). It is not, therefore, a viable perceptual state that can last more than an instant.

Cynefin asserts that Chaos is not a state that can last more than an instant. Heretical Cynefin prefers to note that sometimes our perception is that a thing defies our attempts to make sense of it, and that this state can persist for some time. In terms of the Requisite Agility cognitive artifact classification scheme (“Argall’s Grid”), a perception can defy language, and therefore exist at the fifth level of abstraction. And it can stay there for some time.

Hence the deployment of the double-entendre ‘awful’, which ordinarily signifies ‘utterly horrible’, but can also signify ‘awe-ful’: a mystical experience that fills one with awe. When we perceive something to be awful, we will revert to one of the primal fear responses (as per Pete Walker):

  • Fight

This is consistent with Cynefin’s treatment of this sector, in terms of the strategy being ‘Do something and think about it later’ for Chaos.

A heretical view of Cynefin itself

Cynefin-as-sensemaking-framework seems to say “Find out what the situation you’re observing really is, and then choose the fundamental behavioral strategy that is appropriate to the situation.” This is good advice, and people who use Cynefin derive benefits from it.

Heretical Cynefin says “The way you perceive a situation will determine the fundamental behavioral strategy that you use. Consider adopting a different perception.” (It occurs to me as I write this that the energy investment involved in making a direct transition from Awful to Obvious can explain a lot of pathological phenomena in organizations and in politics.)

Some semantics

Noting that ‘Obvious’ is more consistent with Heretical Cynefin than ‘Simple’, I prefer ‘Obvious’ at this time.

My ‘Theory of Domains’ (one of my contributions to Requisite Agility) defines a ‘Domain’ as ‘A topic about which a conversation can be had, using a language that has agreed meaning’. This is incompatible with the use of ‘Domain’ as a label for the locations in the Cynefin grid. Therefore, I plan to use ‘Perception’ or ‘Mode of Perception’ or ‘Mode’ instead. (This creates a conflict with the term ‘Mode’ from Requisite Organization. However, ‘Mode’ is the most worthless concept in Requisite Organization, and I’m happy to be irreconcilable with it. The maturation curves can go to hell.)

Footnote regarding 3d model

*I choose this 3d representation, not because it teaches Cynefin in a straightforward way (since the representation combines Cynefin and CASE), but because it portrays the energy levels well. The energy levels are a relevant consideration in Cynefin and Heretical Cynefin. This 3d representation excludes the distracting CASE stuff, but the energy levels aren’t right.

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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