Cynefin Foundations – Learning Journal – Module 2

Previous – Cynefin Foundations – Learning Journal – Module 1

A learning journal containing my ah-ha moments, puzzles and learning notes as I complete the Cynefin Foundations Online course

Module 2 Topics:

  1. The difference between a sense-making and categorization framework
  2. How Cynefin™ informs decision-making and different types of action
  3. How humans divide Order into two domains: Obvious and Complicated
  4. How to engage a team or group workshop in making sense of situations using the Cynefin™ framework by categorisation situations

3 Ah-ha Moments:

  • There is a “pathway” to move through the domains. For example from Complex to Obvious. I hadn’t previously understood the nature of movement through the domains so this was good learning. Expanded further in notes below.
  • Cynefin is a sense-making framework NOT a model
    • A model seeks to represent reality. A framework is a way to look at reality
  • Data should inform the framework. Avoid categorisation instead of sense-making

2 Unanswered Questions:

  • What case studies/examples exist of organisations moving a challenge/solution through the domains?
  • What indicators exist to inform what stage/section/level of the domain model you are in? For example, Heretics v Group Think

1 Next Step:

  • Explore and experiment with movement throughout all the domains

Learning Notes:

Domain Models and Movement:

  • Core to the Cynefin Framework is the movement between domains. For example, from Complex to Complicated and vice versa.
  • In addition, there is movement within a domain itself. Within complex domain for example.
  • This movement is described in 3×3 matrices for each domain. 

Complex Domain Matrix

Within the complex domain, to act you need :

    • Some degree of evidence as coherence
    • People have to buy in to some degree to allow you to do experiments.


  • Nature of Evidence:
    • Beyond reasonable doubt – Point where problem starts to transfer into complicated domain (Liminal state)
    • Inductive –  Evidence it works in several cases it’s starting to go in the right direction
    • Gut feel or intuition – May not pass coherence tests
  • Degree of acceptance
    • On a small number of people, a Cognoscenti really get this right, this is an elite
    • Orthodox – accepted to most people come
    • Synchrony – That means everybody is walking in step, and there’s no dissent anymore

Line of coherence

  • The lowest energy route through the domain is : Safe-to-fail experiments > Projects and itiaitives > Ready for Exploitation.

“Stages” within the domain

  • Heretics and Mavericks – Most good ideas end up here, a small group of people who know this is true, but nobody believes. These are people who actually do see a new way of working, but they have no way of explaining it to the wider organization, it’s the guy who created digital photography in Kodak, but Kodak doesn’t believe there’s any future of it. 
  • Skunkworks – Work on secret projects to build coherence and ability to “tell the story” to convince others
  • Coaching and Mediation – Find people with time, who have the trust of senior management. Because if you can convince them, their approval, will convince other senior managers.
  • Break it up fast, zero tolerance  – Often where people have accepted a “management fad” with little of no evidence of it’s value. Key action here is to break up the group of “believers” before it gets more traction
  • Groupthink – The belief of the group takes hold. High acceptance of ideas based upon group “gut feel”
  • Challenge the evidence – 
  • Portfolio of Safe to fail experiments – Highly novel ideas, only a small number of people understand it. And that’s where you run safety fail experimentation, or you do things like triplet programming prototyping.

Complicated Domain Model:





Learning Journal – Adaptive Capacity

3 Bullet Summary

  • Adaptive Capacity relates to a systems ability to respond to a stress trigger. This response could be for protection, safety or to take advantage of a new sudden opportunity. Therefore it is not always a “negative” response. Likely organisations with greater adaptive response will have greater success.
  • Adaptive Capacity is widely used within Climate Change context. Especially with regards to the ability for local communities to adapt to the sudden changes forced on them by climate change (Videos below are good examples)
  • Leveraging the power of networks seems to be a key enabler of Adaptive Capacity. In particular, informal networks are described many times as a way to build adaptive capacity within a system.

2 Bullet Quotes

  • “Broadly speaking it may be described as the ability or capacity of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour so as to cope better with existing or anticipated external stresses.” [4]
  • “Adaptive capacity is strengthened by the existence of networks and mechanisms that encourage participation and prevent marginalisation.” [6]

1 Bullet Action

  • Explore more the what influences the adaptive capacity within organisational systems

Adaptive Capacity is concept discussed breifly in Part 3 of this discussion – Learning Journal – Organisational Design with Dave Snowden and friends


  • Broadly speaking it may be described as the ability or capacity of a system to modify or change its characteristics or behaviour so as to cope better with existing or anticipated external stresses. [4]
  • Adaptive capacity relates to the capacity of systems, institutions, humans and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences. [1]
  • The term adaptive capacity refers to an organization’s ability to change:
    • in response to changed circumstances— survival—and
    • in pursuit of enhanced results—creation. [3]


  • In the context of coupled socio-ecological social systems, adaptive capacity is commonly associated with following characteristics:
    • the ability of institutions and networks to learn, and store knowledge and experience.
    • creative flexibility in decision making, transitioning and problem solving
    • the existence of power structures that are responsive and consider the needs of all stakeholders. [1]
  • Adaptive capacity is strengthened by the existence of networks and mechanisms that encourage participation and prevent marginalisation. [6]
  • Local Adaptive Capacity Framework [5]


Factors that influence Adaptive Capacity

Factor WHO Example [7] Toby’s link to Organisational Context
Economic Wealth Economic Resources Wealthy nations are better able to adapt because they have the economic resources to invest, and to offset the costs of adaptation. In general, poverty enhances vulnerability Organisations with better economic health have greater adaptive capacity. Offset impacts from shocks and invest when opportunities arise.
Technology Access to technology in key sectors and settings (e.g., agriculture, water resources, health-care, urban design) is an important determinant of adaptive capacity.

Caution:  Technological solutions mis-applied will impact Adaptive Capacity: Poorly designed coastal “defences” may increase vulnerability to tidal surges if they engender false security and promote low-lying coastal settlements.

Degree to which processes are automated and supported by technology. For example, organisations with good work from home technology capabilities could enable employees to continue woking easily through COVID.
Information and Skills In general, countries with more “human capital” or knowledge have greater adaptive capacity. Illiteracy increases a population’s
vulnerability to many problems.
Skill set and engagement levels of employees will determine adaptive capacity.
Infrastructure Infrastructure specifically designed to reduce vulnerability to climate variability (e.g., flood control structures, air conditioning, and building insulation) and general public health infrastructure (e.g., sanitation facilities, wastewater treatment systems, laboratory buildings) enhance adaptive capacity. However, infrastructure (especially if immovable) can be adversely affected by climate, especially extreme events such as floods and hurricanes. Leveraging elastic cloud capabilities creates more adaptive capacity. Rather than an internal data centre capacity which might be fixed.
Institutions  Collaboration between public and private sectors can enhance adaptive capacity. Degree to which employees are involved in organisational decision making will influence adaptive capacity.
Equity Adaptive capacity is likely to be greater when access to resources within a community, nation, or the world is equitably distributed. Under-resourced and marginal populations lack adaptive resources Degree to which power and knowledge is shared throughout the organisational system will influence adaptive capacity. For example, access to data for local decision making will increase adaptive capacity.
  • In addition to above:
    • Adaptive capacity is also a function of current population health status and pre-existing disease burdens. [7]….. So therefore….
    • Adaptive capacity is also a function of current organisational health status and pre-existing disease burdens.

Organisational Context

Adaptive organizations are acutely conscious of their interdependence with their environment and their need to leverage capacity, resources and allies from outside the organization. They look not only to adapt nimbly to their environments but also, when possible, to adapt their environments to them. [3]

Organizational performance—the “ability to allocate resources, innovate, adapt, and
solve problems, both routine and radical—is related to … organizational architecture.”
Those who have studied complex systems, such as the social and institutional ecology
that revolves around organizations, have discovered that these systems have a specific
architecture: Unlike organizations, that architecture does not take a corporate form. It
often isn’t even formally structured. That architecture is networks. [3]

Like other capacity building efforts, adaptive capacity is not a summit that can be
conquered and a flag planted. It is something organizations pursue in an ongoing manner through measures that embed the four attributes of adaptive capacity —external focus, network connectedness, inquisitiveness and innovation—inextricably in the corporate culture. [3]

Questions to explore Adaptive Capacity [6]

  1. What is the nature of the system/population being assessed?
  2. What are the principal hazards faced by this system/population?
  3. What are the major impacts of these hazards and which elements/groups of the system/population are most vulnerable to these hazards?
  4. Why are these elements/groups particularly vulnerable?
  5. What measures would reduce the vulnerability of these elements/groups?
  6. What are the factors that determine whether these measures are taken?
  7. Can we assess these factors in order to measure the capacity of the system population to implement these measures?
  8. What are the external and internal barriers to the implementation of these measures?
  9. How can capacity constraints be removed from key barriers to adaptation?

Assessment Example [6]:


Narratives from in the field:










Webinar: Leading in Uncertainty – Cognitive Edge – Learning Notes


My notes from previous webinar in Covid-19 series

60 Second Summary: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps – How to Thrive in Complexity – Jennifer Garvey Berger

What is the role of leadership in crisis?

Leaders are condition creators

  • Shape context (environment)
  • Nurture parts of the context that allow people to flourish.
  • Create conditions for all leaders within the system to co-create change
  • Work with the interface of authority
  • Allow collective-leadership to emerge within constraints
  • Help prepare others for adaptive environments
  • Help others embrace and understand complexity:
    • What is complexity?
    • Emphasise complexity is continuous. It’s not going away
    • Help increase comfort with complexity. Reduce threat.
    • Help people recognise complex situations vs ordered situations

Leadership behaviours that don’t work well in complexity

  • Humans try to response to uncertainty with order – Build new habits to break these behaviours
    • More helpful response:
      • Let’s see whats going on now in the present moment.
      • I don’t know, I need to pay more attention
  • Leaders can fall into a reactive trap
  • Mistake – Leaders rely on the past – we did this ten years ago
  • Leaders try and overly control and shape the system
  • Leaders default to an order response and deny the complexity
  • Fail to seek novel solutions. Rely on what has worked in the past

Adaptive Response

  • How to enable an adaptive response?
    1. Create an Adaptive space – conflicting and connecting
    2. Engage with emergence with a sense of direction towards an outcome
    3. Opposing forces in tension – push for novelty vs push for stability
    4. Engage the tension – embrace conflicting – amplify diversity
      • Ordered response we try to remove conflict
    5. Need to start connecting the conflict towards some outcome
    6. Amplify connections towards some agreement
    7. Turn this into new normal(reality) of the system


How to master the art of creating the 'Adaptive Spaces' that ...

Enabling adaptive space | More Beyond

Seema Srivastava on Twitter: "Love your use of Prof Mary Uhl ...


Inner-Capability of Leaders to lead others in Complexity

  • Not knowing is seen as a threat
  • We physically and emotionally experience complexity
  • Shame is important to learning – Potential of shame increases shame and drives learning
  • The experience of many today is: Not knowing plus fear of death
  • Leaders need to work on themselves to be comfortable to embrace this uncertainty.
  • Allow all voices to be heard: fear, shame, guilt. Embrace diversity. Create collective-intelligence
  • Learn to embrace the tension between formal (hierarchy) and informal(community) systems
  • People have a reactive response to complexity, driven by threat
  • Questions for leaders:
    • How do I prepare myself internally to handle the adaptive nature of the system/environment
    • How do I deal with all of the things coming at me?
  • Some leaders are natural complexity thinkers – not everyone will be able to think in this way but they can be trained in behaviours and skills
  • Leaders need to work at three levels – Myself, my environment, others

Individual v Collective Leadership

  • Leaders job is to create leadership through the system
  • Leader should drop the hero complex
  • Leadership is not a scarce resource
  • Leadership is meaningless without the the followship (and vice-versa)

What is the question that emerges in this complexity?

  • What is the task of leadership? How might it be forming and reforming?
  • How do we help all of us handle the complexity of our collective challenges?
  • How do we build more resilience into our complex systems?


  • Generative Emergence – Benyamin Lichtenstein
    • Leadership in emergence
    • Leadership of emergence – How to run organisation
  • Paradox is at the heart of the system
  • Real change is happening at the micro-local level
  • Answers are transient and questions remain

Cynefin Foundations – Learning Journal – Module 1

A learning journal containing my ah-ha moments, puzzles and learning notes as I complete the Cynefin Foundations Online course

Module 1 Topics:

  1. Welcome & Overview
  2. Positioning the approach of anthro-complexity
  3. Complexity Theory and managing in complexity
  4. Exercises and Practice

3 Ah-ha Moments:

  • Five Things – You can only manage five things in a complex system (see notes below). In particular I was intrigued by constraints and how different constraints respond to failure.
  • Problem of Intermediation – There is a tendency by senior managers to treat complex problems as ordered. My learning is that this is driven by Intermediation. Senior Management are often far removed from the realities of teams. Complexity is hidden and they only see the world through order in power points, steering committees etc. More disintermediation is needed so that Senior Managers can be exposed to complexity to help shift away from everything appearing like an ordered problem. Managers need experience complexity in order to embrace it.
  • Goal Setting – You cannot drive a complex system to a specific goal but you can experiment  towards a sense of direction. I had learned through systems thinking that systems have implicit goals. In particular that you can define a system optimisation goal. Now i’m starting to question that thinking. A complex system has a disposition or sense of direction but it cannot have a specific, fixed goal.

2 Unanswered Questions:

  • If complex systems are dispositional, how do you identify the systems disposition?
  • What examples of constraints exist within organisational systems?

1 Next Step:

  • Perform Constraint Mapping within my Organisational System to understand better the different types of constraints that exist (See notes below)

Learning Notes:

Pitfalls with Systems Thinking

  • It is different from Anthro-Complexity (Cynefin)
  • It is driven by an engineering mindset
  • It has value to limits
  • It can create a belief that systems can be controlled if we just understand it enough.
  • It can drive measurements which has negative effects.
  • It can lead to retrospective coherence
  • It can confuse correlation and causation

You can only manage five things in a complex system

  1. Constraints – containers, connections, context free, context specific (
  2. Identity – Different identities in various contexts (husband vs employee) – Identity is an orientation. Identity highlights important of linkages
  3. Affordances – designing the environment and allowing others to make that design a reality. We talk about self-organising teams but we need to enable the ability to adopt it. If people don’t believe it will work they won’t do it, or just token adopt it. Diversity fits into affordances. Diversity is essential in complex systems. Tiger teams – three people with diverse backgrounds to tackle a complex problem
  4. Assemblages – a type of strange attractors – there is a pattern but not pathway used twice. Example: people get swept away in a story
  5. Attractors – you cant create them but you can catalyse them. Bounce the ball at a children’s party. The attractor might fail. If it works you want to amplify. If it fails you want to dampen

Constraint Types:

  • Resilient – survives changed (salt marsh)
    • Permeable – salt marsh
    • Mutating – Case law system – law can change over time
    • Dark(Emergent) – You can see impact but you can’t find cause – taboo
  • Robust – survives unchanged (sea wall) – catastrophic failure
    • Fixed – sea wall
    • Elastic – exercise band
    • Tethers – climbing rope
  1. Identify those which we can change
  2. Identify those which can be changed by other actors
  3. Complete a risk assessment on our and/or other actor changes
  4. Identify constraint changes that will minimise risk
  5. Commence parallel safe-to-fail experiments based on the above
Unique aspects of Human Systems:
  • We make decisions based on patterns
  • We create and maintain multiple identities
  • We ascribe intentionality and cause where none necessarily exist
  • We have learnt how to structure their social interactions to create order

Characteristics of Complex Systems (Professor Cilliers)

  1. Consist of a large number of elements that in themselves can be simple.
  2. The interactions are nonlinear.
  3. many direct and indirect feedback loops.
  4. Complex systems are open systems — they exchange energy or information with their environment — and operate at conditions far from equilibrium.
  5. Complex systems have memory, not located at a specific place, but distributed throughout the system. Any complex system thus has a history, and the history is of cardinal importance to the behavior of the system.
  6. Since the interactions are rich, dynamic, fed back, and, above all, nonlinear, the behavior of the system as a whole cannot be predicted from an inspection of its components.
  7. Complex systems are adaptive. They can (re)organize their internal structure without the intervention of an external agent.

Heuristics for complexity

3 Questions to ask (to focus)

  1. What can i change? Only 5 things (e.g. Constraints)
  2. How can i monitor the impact of change? Foolish to change without ability to monitor
  3. Where can i amplify or dampen result of change?

3 ways to manage

  • Work in the small (Reduce granularity) – Focus on smaller experiments and see how they interact
  • Involve Diverse thinking (Distribute cognition) – example: sense-making – Involve many diverse perspectives for insights
  • Access Raw Data – Reduce layers between raw data and decision makers – Remove managers. Don’t summarise. Summarisation looses raw understanding.

3 things to avoid

  • Retrospective Coherence – Hindsight doesn’t lead to foresight. Don’t use statements about the past to predict the future
  • Risk with Systems Thinking – Looking back at what the system is doing today won’t predict what will happen in future
  • Premature Convergence – People jump to solutions too quickly
  • Pattern blindness – Gorilla experiment

Much research in management science makes a basic error in logic in assuming that because successful companies have certain types of organizational structure, strategic process or whatever, that the assumption of those organization structures or strategic processes by another company will lead to that company being successful. This is the confusion between properties and qualities taught in 101 philosophy: just because I see a Frenchman wearing glasses it does not follow that all Frenchmen wear glasses and even less so that if I put on glasses I will become French!

My Notes from…..Complexity, Chaos, and COVID-19 Webinar – Applying Cynefin and Complexity Thinking to Navigate the crisis

3 Big Ideas

  • Embrace, enable and accelerate entanglement in systems so that it can accelerate learning for better decision making
  • Anticipatory Decision Making – Making decisions that keeps options open in the long run. This increase adaptiveness.
    • Example: stacking dishwasher. Some will stack thinking about the dishes in rest of the day. Others will stack in closest spot
  • Enable informal networks to naturally emerge within your organisations and encourage the intersections of networks to collide. This is where breakthroughs in innovation occur.


  • Systems designed for ordinary times are not suitable for extraordinary times.

  • Enable rapid formation of people networks consisting of diverse groups who don’t usually work together

1 Takeaway

If you have more time…

Definition of Terms:

  • Sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It has been defined as “the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing”
  • Coherence is the quality of being logical and consistent.
  • Epistemic means relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation
  • Action based abstraction – ?
  • Exaptation and the related term co-option describe a shift in the function of a trait during evolution. For example, a trait can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently it may come to serve another
  • Homophily refers to the tendency for people to have (non-negative) ties with people who are similar to themselves in socially significant ways.
  • Taoism or Daoism is a type of belief, or a way of thinking about life. It is at least 2,500 years old and it comes from China. Taoism is now said to be a philosophy. Tao (or Dao, 道) is the name of the force or the “Way” that Taoists believe makes everything in the world.
  • Premature convergence – In genetic algorithms, the term of premature convergence means that a population for an optimization problem converged too early, resulting in being suboptima
  • Hyperlocal is information oriented around a well-defined community with its primary focus directed toward the concerns of the population in that community.

Importance of Coherence

  • Coherence is integration between parts of the system
  • Important to create coherence at different levels of the system. There are at least three levels of the system.
  • Important to look at coherence over time
  • Living things degrade gracefully where as machines die ungracefully – e.g a clock, remove a part and it stops


Metaphor for complex system – Bramble Thicket

Bramble thicket above Cockington valley © Derek Harper :: Geograph ...

  • Everyone now understands the impact of complexity and entanglement
  • Never before has the world been so obviously entangled
  • We need to enable entanglement not avoid it to embrace complexity
  • How can we take multiple timelines and entangle them to create diversity in order to build new mental models
  • For example, take the timelines/perspectives/mental models of government and entangle them that of society. That would create breakthroughs.
  • In particular we need to find 17%’ers – People who see things others don’t – Reference:
  • Embrace entanglement – create systems that can be rapidly entangled
  • Create tension between the levels of the system – but how can we create tension without breaking the system
  • Leadership message: Shift thinking from linear, sorted, clean systems and silos to thinking about entanglement. Embrace the “messy’ness”

3 rules to lead in complex situations

  1. Distribute cognition – Enable Diversity – Find the 17% who have seen something where others haven’t – Gorilla experiment – attentional blindness
  2. Disintermediation – leaders need to see raw data not abstract data -Go to the  “Gemba” important for leaders – see the problem first hand
  3. Granularity – small groups can move more quickly than large groups

Key steps to navigate a crisis like COVID-19

  • Possible steps:
    • Assess
    • Adapt/Adjust
    • Exapt (Innovation)
    • Transcend
  • Fundamentally increase learning speed
  • Push decision making to the local levels of the organisation. Best learning is at the local level. Leaders need to be able to extract the patterns from local level.
  • Building the things now for when we come out of it. Don’t approach the problem And solutions in a linear way

Enable Informal Networks

  • Enable rapid formation of people networks consisting of diverse groups who don’t usually work together. In a crisis people are more willing to work with people who they don’t usually.
  • The best organisations allow these informal networks to emerge in a natural way. Don’t make them formal
  • Build a common language to enable the network to communicate across boundaries.
  • We tend to naturally  organise into local groups – “Birds of a feather flock together”
  • How networks work:
    • Connect on similarity
    • Benefit from differences
  • Important – Innovation happens at the intersection of networks. Differences spark innovation and breakthroughs.
  • 17%’ers are important within the network
  • We need platforms that drive networks of differences
    • Existing platforms drive people to gather based upon similarities
  • Find people who are troublesome but who you respect and give them options
    • Don’t exclude these people from the system. Their differences can drive real innovation
  • Create mechanisms for the network to broadcast communication/messages transparently
  • Make feedback accessible to everyone within the system to enable systemic breakthroughs. Everyone is an active part of the system not a passive consumer.
  • In times of crisis create more opportunity for people within networks to meet outside of their tribes

Anticipatory Decision Making

  • Anticipatory Decision Making – Making decisions that keeps options open in the long run. This increase adaptiveness.
  • Some people find this more natural than others. Find these people within your network as they will enable adaptiveness.
  • People who make best decisions think about the context.
  • Decisions only matter when we have complete ambiguity
  • Anti-Pattern – All decision making is trained on the assumption there is always a right answer

Additional notes

  • In complex systems there are things you can manage and things you can monitor. Don’t try to manage the things you can only monitor.
    • Manage – Constraints, rituals, energy allocation
    • Monitor – Examples TBD
  • War Time and Peace Time decision makers are different.
  • Taosim is the closest match to Complexity
  • Storytelling is powerful because it expresses context simply
  • Work locally, think globally
  • This time is a great opportunity for leaders who want to make real change happen
  • We evolved to make decisions collectively not individually.
  • Use imagination for exploring systems – Mile 22 Quote –
  • Premature convergence – We converge on ideas too early which impacts our ideas
  • Story Telling is important for complex systems. The world view and stories of the world are changing.
  • Observation: Hyper local actions – Communities taking action in a very local level
  • We don’t have to convince people that we live in a VUCA world – They can see the impact now
  • Language used to describe the system is important. Reveals underlying mental model. Make language more precise. Language used will drive a certain behaviour.
  • Systems designed for ordinary times are not suitable for extraordinary times.
  • We are trying to extend existing systems to abnormal systems which will result in failure
  • Our leaders find it hard to change how they make decisions. A new way of looking at problems is important yet many can’t change their mental model. They are stuck.