Dave Snowden

Liminal Cynefin: first revision

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I posted an early version of the liminal variant to Cynefin a few days ago, then presented it a few times. Last week in Tallin I ran through it in a masterclass and realised I had over complicated things. If you look at the learlier post I had added liminal boundary zones everywhere. I realised that this was articifial and the liminality only really applies to two boundaries. That has the additional advantage of only needing one more line, and a little colouring in; altogether more elegant. I’ve shared the original here rather than revise it, in part to preserve the record for when I update the History of Cynefin article, but also to allow people to see and comment on the working out of what is (well at least for me) an pretty critical development. Up there wiith creating disorder many moons ago.

The image also shows dynamics by the way, but lets start with the boundaries that are no longer liminal. Firstly the catastropic fold, the complacency induced collapse into chaos is not a liminal state, it is not a matter of suspending, or holding a position as contingent; it is to be avoided if possible. The boundary between the two ordered domains equally is an articifial one based on human perception, agreement and understanding. So it can be crossed at will, but in general the shift from Complicated to Obvious is one to only do if you are absolutely sure about it. I’ve labeled that, somewhat tounge in cheek as entropy death, signifing that no more time will be invested in modifcations for practices that shift down there.

True liminaly exists in both movements from the complex domain. That to complicated is the shift from parallel, low cost safe-to-fail experiments in parallel to a more linear and focused attempt to change the nature of constraints to allow increasing control and predictability. This includes ideas such as holding options open and to me it is almost worthy of being a domain in its own right. However liminality works better I think. The other shift is what can (although I dislike the term) be characterised as the edge of chaos, the point where bifurcation increases and radical destablisation of any system is probably, and may be desirable. The other advantage is that this liminal area covers what a lot of people mean when they talk about the chaos domain in Cynefin, which strictly is a temporary or transitionary, domain in which there are no effective constraints.

So in effect I am creating two shadow domains to add to the existing five, but by making them limnal areas of transition I can draw on a wider body of literature and increase the range of ideas and concepts that contribute to the overall fractality, or multi-layed discovery that is one of the features of Cynefin. The idea of liminality will be explored at the Cynefin retreat in Snowdonia this September – I’ll post on that tomorrow and booking will be possible from Monday/Tuesday next week. It is a residential three days in a Buddist Retreat Centre in one of the most beautiful valleys in my own cynefin, the mountains of North Wales. I’ve got an impressive faculty together and as well as liminality we will look at contraints, complexity based appraoches to design thinking and other subjects. Its going to be an annual event so this is year to get there to obtain veteran status in a few years time!









  • Michael Hill

    From my own personal constraints September doesn’t look promising, but I’d jump at the chance if the schedule changes. I’m wrestling with my own ideas in Knowledge Management of understanding when collaboration works and when it impedes, and making that apparent to the specific space known as “Battle Rhythm.” I’ve come to think the focus on the artifacts, processes and heuristics is missing something fundamental in the knowledge flow. Perhaps it’s my resistance to template decks of slides along with a developing appreciation for recognizing when you’ve shifted from one Cynefin domain to another. Watching you work through the development of Cynefin lets me appreciate that it’s not all a flash of inspiration – there’s that, but then a lot of hard work. I’m wrestling through issues of sequential/synchronous and simple/complex challenges and how they affect that flow through the process, and whether we’ve misunderstood the key barriers that enable ‘success’. Even as I write this I’m not happy with my descriptions, I can glimpse something, as through fog, but not capture it in focus.

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks for the comments – and the appreciation of the way Cynedin has emerged over the years. I hope September dates free up!

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