Tuesday, September 4, 2012

More on Cynefin

Bob Cudlin recently posted on the work of David Snowden, a decision theorist and originator of the Cynefin decision construct.  Snowden’s Cognitive Edge website has a lot of information related to Cynefin, perhaps too much to swallow at once.  For those who want an introduction to the concepts, focusing on their implications for decision-making, we suggest a paper “Cynefin: repeatability, science and values”* by Prof. Simon French.

In brief, the Cynefin model divides decision contexts into four spaces: Known (or Simple), Knowable (or Complicated), Complex and Chaotic.  Knowledge about cause-and-effect relationships (and thus, appropriate decision making approaches) differs for each space.  In the Simple space, cause-and-effect is known and rules or processes can be established for decision makers; “best” practices are possible.  In the Complicated space, cause-and-effect is generally known but individual decisions require additional data and analysis, perhaps with probabilistic attributes; different practices may achieve equal results.  In the Complex space, cause-and-effect may only be identified after an event takes place so decision making must work on broad, flexible strategies that can be adjusted as a situation evolves; new practices emerge.  In the Chaotic space, there are no applicable analysis methods so decision makers must try things, see what happens and attempt to stabilize the situation; a novel (one-off) practice obtains.   

The model in the 2008 French paper is not in complete accord with the Cynefin model currently described by Snowden but French’s description of the underlying considerations for decision makers remains useful.  French’s paper also relates Cynefin to the views of other academics in the field of decision making.  

For an overview of Cynefin in Snowden’s own words, check out “The Cynefin Framework” on YouTube.  There he discusses a fifth space, Disorder, which is basically where a decision maker starts when confronted with a new decision situation.  Importantly, a decision maker will instinctively try to frame the decision in the Cynefin decision space most familiar to the decision maker based on personal history, professional experience, values and preference for action. 

In addition, Snowden describes the boundary between the Simple and Chaotic as the “complacent zone,” a potentially dangerous place.  In the Simple space, the world appears well-understood but as near-misses and low-signal events are ignored, the system can drift toward the boundary and slip into the Chaotic space where a crisis can arise and decision makers risk being overwhelmed.

Both decision maker bias and complacency present challenges to maintaining a strong safety culture.  The former can lead to faulty analysis of problems, forcing complex issues with multiple interactive causes through a one-size-fits-all solution protocol.  The latter can lead to disasters, great and small.  We have posted many times on the dangers of complacency.  To access those posts, click “complacency” in the Labels box.

*  S. French, “Cynefin: repeatability, science and values,” Newsletter of the European Working Group “Multiple Criteria Decision Aiding,” series 3, no. 17 (Spring 2008).  Thanks to Bill Mullins for bringing this paper to our attention. 

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