Snowden, D. J. - Cynefin Sensemaking Framework

The Structure of Concern Project compares many theoretical models from many disciplines to the Adizes PAEI model, arguing that they must all be reflecting the same underlying phenomenon. One concern structure model is described below.

The Cynefin (kun-ev’in) project grew out of work at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management that later migrated to Cardiff University and the Cynefin Centre. Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning ‘our place of belonging’, a place of great meaningfulness for a people. Snowden describes Cynefin as a sensemaking methodology, which differs from earlier knowledge management initiatives in its emphasis on setting up an environment for people to come together and make joint sense of their situation (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003[1]).

Snowden recounts how early knowledge management tended to focus on objectifying tacit knowledge, extracting it from experts and turning it into codified corporate data. Expert knowledge proved not to be entirely extractible in this way. Later approaches still focused on making tacit knowledge explicit, but emphasized the limited usefulness of codification and the important of social processes of knowledge storage, generation and flow. The Cynefin project dispenses with the assumption that knowledge is a thing with a definite rule-like structure, and brings people together to make meaning, initially by building a shared context woven out of shared stories, anecdotes, organizational legends, alternative histories and accounts of phases and events in the organization’s life, and so on. This kind of shared context makes knowledge work vastly more productive and efficient, as evidenced by the speed with which one can explain a process to someone one sees every day, versus to a stranger.

Cynefin practitioners then take teams through a well-defined group process. Teams emerge with more than plans and prescriptions; they also create shared memories and experience. This is an extensive methodology which I do not intend to summarize in its entirety. The main point of contact that I wish to emphasize is the Cynefin framework, which describes four differently ordered/unordered domains describing problem dynamics, plus a fifth area of disorder. These are listed below in PAEI order:

P – Knowable (Ordered – Sense, Analyze, Respond): This order requires pragmatic solutions, analytical thought and scenario planning. There are things we don’t know but could probably figure out. However, we often don’t have time or money to spare for re-inventing this wheel, so we call an expert. Besides expert opinion, trial and error and fact-finding can get us to our goal: to figure out cause-effect relationships and get things done. Sensing data, analyzing it and getting an expert to interpret it and recommend a course of action are good techniques here. Habit can lead us astray, and plans have to remain flexible for updating. Ultimately they will reflect what finally seems to have worked.

A – Known (Ordered – Sense, Categorize, Respond): Problems in this domain are legitimate targets for explicit codification. Cause and effect relationships can be empirically determined and are generally linear. Prediction is possible and issues are objective enough that best practice recommendations are widely accepted. In this category, process reengineering and the explicit codification of structured processes are beneficial and essential. The decision model for this domain includes detecting incoming data, categorizing it and responding according to predetermined practice.

E – Chaos (Unordered – Act, Sense, Respond): In chaos, cause and effect relationships are not discernable. Patterns of turbulence provide the only visible structure to events. Interventions from known domains are not useful and may have caused the present chaos in the first place. Managing this requires a bold and confident leap into the chaos, relying on guts and intuition. Quick action to reduce turbulence and find platforms of relative stability are important, and it may be necessary to establish dominance to accomplish this. This has to be done with ears and eyes wide open, because the results will guide the next hop into the unknown. Done well, desirable patterns of stability will form. This process can also be entered into willingly as an innovation practice.

I – Complex (Unordered – Probe, Sense, Respond): Patterns in this domain emerge from the complex interactions of many different people. Cause and effect relationships are visible, but they are so many that their logic can only be perceived in retrospect, not predicted from the present. A history of this event will be writeable, but the next step is not predictable. There may be a stable pattern for now, but the number of factors at play keep the situation always unpredictably close to major changes. Decisions should be made by sending out probes to assess the prevailing patterns, and seeking multiple perspectives on the significance of unfolding events. Action is best taken by stabilizing and supporting desirable patterns of activity and destabilizing undesirable ones.

The Domain of Disorder: This is the zone for situating conflict among decision-makers. It is the battlefield where proponents favoring solutions from each of the other four zones try to “lay down the law” and control the definition of the problem to match their own interpretation of it. The more contentious the issue, the stronger the desire to pull it towards one’s preferred style of response. Visibly representing this domain in the Cynefin framework and focusing the team on reducing its size on the grid is an important prelude to consensus-building in this methodology.

1. Kurtz, C. F., & Snowden, D. J. (2003). “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world.” IBM Systems Journal, 42(3).
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