Recognising and Responding to Complexity

Companies often deal with "wicked problems" which are intractable, often because technical, cultural and managerial opinion is divided. Making decisions will usually be done in a climate where it cannot be assumed that everyone shares the same values or agrees on their priorities. Imposing a solution where there is no clear and overpowering rationale for it, can generate open refusal to implement it or, at best, grudging compliance.

One of the effective ways we have found to approach such problems is to introduce the idea of "sense-making in complexity". (This approach was developed by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge. *) Snowden suggests that complex situations require "emergent decision-making". This implies that decision-making takes place within a "deliberative" environment where participants have sufficient time to re-visit questions as their understanding develops. The decision-makers also need to work together in ways where they are allowed to recognise their interests and to engage in negotiation with others. Argenta provides such an environment when designing and facilitating our problem-solving workshops which we call Boosters.

Snowden's key concept is that of the Cynefin Framework - a "landscape" of five domains which represent different forms of order. Initially, we use this framework to locate the problem statement - given the characteristics of each domain as described in the diagram below, is the problem felt to be simple, complicated, complex or chaotic? As the problem is explored using a range of techniques, this question can be re-visited - perhaps elements of the problem can be located in other domains, and therefore treated differently? For example one element in the situation may be seen as "simple" and set to one side for re-visiting later. Another element may be "complicated" so an expert group could be established to build a robust model to produce desirable outcomes. Elements which are "complex" require what Snowden calls "safe-to-fail" experiments (small scale trials or pilots actions). A pilot which produces some successful results can then be given greater support. A pilot which is not successful can be quickly ended - but without any negative implications for the people who worked on it ("safe-to-fail"). We learn as much about a complex situation by failed experiments as we do from successful ones.


Each of the four main Cynefin domains is characterised in terms of

- the CONFIDENCE you can have in your knowledge about the situation

- the type of cause - effect relationships you can perceive

- the typical focus for decision-making you would expect

- the appropriate action heuristic you would adopt

- the strength of the interconnections between components in the organisation where solid lines represent strong links and dashed lines represent weak links among and between those in a nominal position of power and those in less senior positions in the organisation.


Snowden considers Cynefin to be "a sense-making framework, which means that its value is . . . in its effect on the . . . decision-making capabilities of those who use it."   Cynefin is not a categorization framework such as a two-by-two matrix where the value for decision-makers is to work out how to get to the most desirable quadrant.  By contrast, "none of the Cynefin domains is more desirable than any other".  Instead, through a full and rigorous contextualisation process with a group of decision-makers the framework is used "primarily to consider the dynamics of situations, decisions, perspectives, conflicts, and changes in the order domain" so that the group can find the understanding that allows them to make decisions under uncertainty.


* David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone (2007), "A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making", Harvard Business Review November 2007