Rachel Davies is blogging about what for me was one of the highlights of XP Days Londen 4 – a presentation and workshop by Dave Snowden about Cynefin, a framework for Sensemaking. You can find more information about this in the paper Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated world by Cynthia Kurz and Dave Snowden (IBM Systems Journal, Vol 42, No3, 2003).

Luckily, I read the paper before going to the workshop – that left some room in my head to fill some of the gaps in my understanding the paper had left me with, rather than being overloaded (as most of the workshops’ participants seemed to be. It made quite an impression). By the way, the reason I read the paper was that I was wondering if paying to attend this workshop was worthwile. Since after reading I still had many puzzles, I thought it would be, and it was. I’m still ruminating over these ideas.

One of the ideas that resonated most with me was the Cynefin Domains model. It is sort of a two-dimensional matrix. The paper has a nice graphical depection that makes it clear that the boundaries between the domains are semi-permeable. One way I understand this model, that an organisation can move from one domain to another by making sene of where it is now – and seeing if the paradigm it currently applies for e.g. decision making is appropriate. I’ve transcribed the four domains into a table:

Complex – cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect and do not repeat Knowable – cause and effect separated over space and time
Chaos – No cause and effect relationships perceivable Known – cause and effect relations repeatable, perceivable and predictable.

To give one illustration (more in the paper mentioned above) Systems Thinking and Scenario Planning fit into the Knowable domain. Someone at XP Days London asked me if I didn’t find it annoying that Dave Snowden sort of mowed the grass before my feet; Marc Evers and I were hosting a Systems Thinking workshop at XP Day London the next day.

I responded that I was very glad for the context setting Dave Snowden had done – we used the Cynefin Domains model in the introduction of our workshop, as we are constantly looking for a better way to briefly introduce Systems Thinking at the start of a workshop. I am not Systems Thinking :) it is one of the techniques I use to make sense of the world around me, if and when appropriate.

So how do I believe this model relates to appropriate forms of setting up an organisation? I immediately related this to Gerald Weinberg’s Cultural Patterns (aka Shooting and Aiming Stances) for organisations, so I came up with this mapping:

Complex – Anticipating Knowable – Steering
Chaos – Variable Known – Routine.

The Congruent cultural pattern would be equivalent to sensemaking: taking self, other and context into account, and choosing (and changing, if the domain shifts) a cultural pattern that is appropriate. When I was reading the wiki page on Cultural Patterns I realized I forgot Oblivious. Thinking about it now, I find it hard to place. Maybe the oblivious cultural pattern is not realizing where you are, and not making any choice for an organisational form.

The connection was somewhat natural, since with a group of systems thinkers we’ve been thinking about how to move from one cultural pattern to another. In the workshop and paper, Dave Snowden says they’ve identified a number (27 if I remember correctly) of specific choreographies to move from one domain to another.

For instance, working iteratively is a way of moving from Known to Knowable and back, and moving from Knowable to Complex can be done by Exploration (to move in the opposite direction, use Just-In-Time Transfer).

Dave Snowden talked about the relation with eXtreme Programming. At first sight, I would place XP at the Known/Knowable boundary, because of the Iterative aspect. He seemed to place it in the Complex domain which left me a bit puzzled.

The way I could place it there, is that XP also has an exploratory component (e.g. doing spikes), and the extremely short iterations make it possible to investigate multiple alternative solutions (relating to what Snowden calls probes, exploration and to Set Based Development). Another component to XP/Agile is delaying (design) decisions as long as possible, which relates to just-in-time transfer.

I just noticed I’m using a lot of emphasis in this post. It seems to have a high jargon density. I’m looking forward to the article collection promised at, so I could upgrade some of the emphasized words to hyperlinks. In the meantime, I recommend you read the paper if these ideas interest you. I’m also interested in any comments you may have on this blog entry, as I’m busy understanding the Cynefin paper.

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