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The Complicated is also an ordered domain, but it is difficult to see what needs to be done. Analytical methods have to be applied or experts found, who have built up this special knowledge like doctors being able to interpret x-ray pictures. As a result, a solution can be found. We see what is coming then analyse or find expertise before we act. The Complex domain is something quite different.

Responses are deeply non linear; even small changes can have large impacts. Sometimes, coming through a situation, a pattern of cause and effect can be seen but upfront a clear picture is not available; knowledge has to be gathered en-route. In the Complex domain there is emerging practice — a combination of something known before, but also something brand new. The right way is to think in terms of multiple and parallel, experiments that will reveal what options will work best. These belong to the Complicated domain.

The Chaos domain is a place where cause and effect cannot be seen. Nothing seems to relate to or indicate a solution; there is total absence of relevant constraints. It is necessary to move very quickly to see if a bold act can establish a constraint to stabilize matters and transform the situation into one of the other domains; typically the Complex domain so that sensible work can start. It has to be done very quickly because Chaos is a transient domain; if action is not taken to stabilize the chaos, the world will stabilize it in a way that will probably not be advantageous.

Anything discovered will be completely novel. Disorder is the spot in the middle where the appropriate domain is not known. This domain consists of two sub-domains: the dark area in the center and the outer lighter area. The dark area is a sort of organizational black hole that sucks everything into it and radiates randomly. Solutions are therefore attempted the wrong way and people typically fall back on what they are accustomed to, such as the modus operandi of the domain they were in before. The lighter area is an place that can be entered into legitimately in order to try to shift to another domain; more on this to be discussed later.

Boorstin The zone of complacency There is another aspect of Cynefin which needs to be mentioned. Kodak dominated the analog film market, invented the digital camera, sat on a mountain of patents and yet did not make the transition to the age of digital photography. Kodak went the way of the Dodo and only emerged from bankruptcy after divesting all of its intellectual property.

It was a tragic and an absurd application of central planning without understanding of consequences.

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The whole story is a vivid example of the impossibility of planning complex initiatives in Moscow without understanding the conditions in Kazakhstan or the basics of modern agriculture. If organizations foster a proper learning culture where people have psychological safety, there is a greater likelihood that dangers will be discovered and brought to attention.

The Human Situation by Huxley Aldous

Retain some cynics in the organization. They also have somewhat of a disregard for consequences and will therefore speak up even when it would be more comfortable not to do so. They are real nuisances but necessary. In an Agile Lean organization there has to be a constant challenge to the status quo. There is of course a fine line between being a constructive cynic and just a grumpy, difficult curmudgeon. Dynamics in Cynefin The Dynamics in Cynefin are typically about what to do in different identifiable situations.

We will just cover the basic dynamics here: Oscillation between Complex and Complicated. This is the most important and frequent movement when working with a high content of complexity. Where there is a new challenge, parallel safe-to-fail experiments are carried out to determine what works. Knowledge is built up and movement is made to the complicated domain where solutions can be delivered with the newly acquired expertise.

Quite often another challenge appears, and movement back to the Complex domain is made. Moving to Obvious. If we are convinced that something is really never going to change, we can move it down to Obvious, describe best practice and make checklists etc. Sometimes we may want to trigger innovation in an organization. It is shown in the drawing above as a transition through the outskirts of Disorder into Chaos, the purpose being to discover completely novel practices or solutions leading back to the Complex domain in a managed way instead of getting lost in Chaos.

Other takeaways from Cynefin Cognitive insights In the cognitive melting pot called Cynefin, some other insights worth remembering have emerged, here are some, quoted from Snowden with some editorial liberties : Knowledge can only be volunteered; it cannot be conscripted. Nobody can make someone share the knowledge they have. It is impossible to look behind the curtain of the human mind and measure if the individual indeed has shared his knowledge. Not even information given under torture can be verified to be exhaustive.


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We only know what we know when we need to know it. Human knowledge is contextual, sometimes in the extreme. External triggers can sometimes open a floodgate of memories and knowledge. Sometimes people need to let challenges simmer for a while and new patterns emerge; a combination of something we apparently knew all along and something we just discovered.

It follows that it is often necessary to create situations for people, where their knowledge is required and then suddenly it is there. One such example is the use of Planning Poker for estimation. Of course everyone is interested in the number, but the knowledge exchange that is a bi-product of the process is even more important.

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In the context of real need, few people will withhold their knowledge. Generally people are willing to share, unless they have been abused or taken for a ride before. In many traditional organizations that is sadly often the case, and it therefore takes quite an effort to build trust again before real knowledge sharing will occur.

This also means, that it is no good just telling people to organize everything they know about a subject, there has to be a contextual need. This has implications for writing specifications about features and products, it cannot be done upfront, only in iterative dialog and context. Everything is fragmented. The human brain stores an astronomical number of pieces of information with fine granularity and it retrieves this information through a sort of pattern match, a fuzzy query. Sometimes the brain gives an answer as soon as there is a plausible and coherent answer based on snippets of previously acquired information stored; interestingly the more recent snippets are apparently weighted higher.

It follows that in many cases it is a wasted effort to spend many resources on producing highly structured documents presenting a situation specifications for example , because people rely and act on understanding through fragments anyway. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success. People learn more from things that did not go the way they planned than from observing plans succeed.

In a way this is an extension of the scientific method.


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  6. When looking to substantiate a hypothesis, the scientist tries to come up with experiments that could disprove the hypothesis. Success is fine, but a failure typically adds much more specific knowledge. It is therefore important to develop a culture in an organization that allows experimentation and as a result of that, sometimes failure and then rapid learning. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things. There is solid evidence that people make decisions in an almost unknowable way, a fuzzy blend of heuristics, pattern matching and past experiences all happening in a split second.

    However we tend to present our decision making in a much more rational and structured way. We apparently like to think of ourselves as much more organized than reality warrants. This is also a standard cognitive bias, and we often have to use very diverse methods to extract a picture of how people really got to a certain decision or point of view. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down. It is a disturbing fact that the bandwidth gets narrower as we move from things we know inside, to what we can talk about and further to what can be written down.

    The use of narratives When it comes to the practical application of Cynefin to actual make sense of things, it is usually done through narratives or storytelling. The oscillation between Complex and Complicated is where Agile and Scrum lives, it is the border country where small iterations Sprints make sense. Iteration after iteration the whole Team makes an effort to refine the specifications and solutions of the work on the Backlog so that we set a goal for the iteration with a reasonable probability of meeting it. Effectively we are moving a small portion into the Complicated domain and then in the next iteration we are back into Complex and picking up some more.

    Not all uncertainty is gone in an iteration, but we have predictability within a probabilistic range. There is nothing wrong with traditional managing of projects and initiatives per se. It just has to match the reality in which we operate.

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    All we are saying is: Use the right method for the right situation and; many initiatives in modern organizations have a high content of complexity. A typical situation to watch out for is someone from one domain being put in charge of an initiative mostly in another one; this person will typically apply the methodology from his original domain which is a recipe for failure. The typical example is to take a person who has worked successfully for a number of years in finance or accounts and then make him lead a development initiative of a new product.

    The first thing he will do when being confronted with the messiness of a development project is to demand more structure, more reporting, more checklists and more budget control. That kills innovation and slows everything down like molasses in January. Effectively, he is in Inauthentic Disorder.

    As mentioned above, The Zone of Complacency is to be avoided at all costs. Another of the cognitive biases is that most people prefer the status quo and clear rules. It is much easier than having to think carefully about things. Apparently our brain is also lazy, it really wants to fall back on following rules and regulations, because it requires less energy. The Privacy of Property and Wealth The Instruments of Work and the Division of Labor Work The Durability of the World Reification Instrumentality and Animal Laborans Instrumentality and Homo Faber The Exchange Market Action The Disclosure of the Agent in Speech and Action The Web of Relationships and the Enacted Stories The Frailty of Human Affairs The Greek Solution Power and the Space of Appearance Homo Faber and the Space of Appearance The Labor Movement The Traditional Substitution of Making for Acting The Process Character of Action Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive Unpredictability and the Power of Promise VI.

    The Vita Activa and the Modern Age World Alienation The Discovery of the Archimedean Point Universal versus Natural Science The Rise of the Cartesian Doubt Introspection and the Loss of Common Sense Thought and the Modern World View The Reversal of Contemplation and Action Life as the Highest Good Mary McCarthy New Yorker.

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    Richard Wolin New Republic. Arendt has done even more to prise open our oyster minds than she did in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Chicago Blog : Sociology. Events in Sociology.