Dave Snowden

Liminal Cynefin: the final cut?

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The liminal version of Cynefin has been slowly evolving over the last few months. It was getting close in August but I wasn’t happy as it didn’t properly deal with disorder or the various Cynefin dynamics. Teaching it in Sydney over the last two days allowed me to play around on the iPad while having intelligent conversations and I think its there now; but I’ve left a question mark just in case. Long term followers will know that Cynefin goes through periods of change over the years as practice and theory advance. The switch from Simple to Obvious for example was minor, while the much earlier introduction of disorder was major. The liminal version is major, and possibly one of the most significant changes I’ve made.

I’m not really ready to write it up in article form yet, so for the sake of brevity a series of bullet points:

    • There are only two liminal areas as obvious to chaotic is a cliff and obvious to complicated an overlay based on human perception which, unlike all the other boundaries in Cynefin, does not represent a phase shift.
    • The liminal area in complex, bordered with complicated is in effect a domain of experimentation, or pilots, prototypes and iterative experiments.  Scrum, Lean start up and the like all fit here as they start with an idea of what will work and seek to make it so while being prepared to vary or even abandon it.  A state of suspension, of holding options open for as long as possible, characterises this space.
    • The complex domain, excluding the liminal area, has higher levels of ambiguity with early stage exploration, unarticulated need emergence, parallel safe to fail experiments and so on.  There is a qualitative difference in terms of ambiguity and stability of hypotheses between the main domain and its liminal state.
    • My old shallow dive into chaos, now becomes a liminal area in the chaos domain, or possibly an intrusion from the complex domain.  Here all effective constraints are abandoned to allow novelty to emerge; agents are not allowed any connection in tools like MassSense and so on.  But it is contained, it is a bubble and drawn as such with a closure unlike its liminal sister.

  • My major insight this week was to realise that the liminal line bisects disorder and creates an authentic legitimate domain of transition, while the rest is an inauthentic state of confusion.  In the former we know what we don’t know, in the later we don’t know what we don’t know.
  • With this treatment of disorder I can now handle the dynamics which are a critical part of Cynefin. The shallow dive from entrained expertise (red) is now potentially a hazardous change, while the grazing dynamic (purple) is a state of near continuous liminality. (see illustration)
  • It also means that the rest of Chaos is red, a place in which you try and control the exit, but it will always be temporary in nature.

Now there is more to come here, but for the moment this at least provides a basic note for the record, and for comment. I will now abandon the domain frameworks in their current three by three forms as the liminal version works better, but there are aspects of those that I need to pull out into supporting frameworks – all part of a composite body of material on a complexity based approach to strategy.

The banner image represents a liminal time of the year!
La noche de Walpurguis by Mariano Barbasán Lagueruela

  • ComplexWales

    Just love the idea of liminality, in particular the anthropological sense of being amidst a ritual. Something beyond your previous identify and sense of place, but not yet in that new sense which only manifests as the ritual fades. So much good stuff gets missed by people more concerned with finishing the ritual than experiencing the shift. Like any threshold concept, you can’t really understand it until you cross it and then you can’t understand why you couldn’t see it … so Cynefin!

    • Andrew Bell

      Really agree with the passion for liminality The way you described it – finishing rather than experiencing – reminded me of one of my favourite quotes which I’ve always interpreted as setting up a university degree as a liminal experience:

      “It’s as though the teacher said something like this:
      I can tell you that there’s something you need to know and I can tell you that with my help you can probably learn it. But I cannot tell you what it is in a way that you can now understand. You must be willing therefore, to undergo certain experiences as I direct you to undergo them, so that you can learn what it is that you need to know and what I mean by the words that I use. Then and only then can you make an informed choice about whether you wish to learn this new competence. If you are unwilling to step into this new experience without knowing ahead of time what it will be like, then I cannot help you. You must trust me.”

      Donald Schön, from an address at Queen’s University

      • ComplexWales

        The best analogy I know: no matter how amazing the teacher, you can’t learn to swim in a classroom, you got to end up into some deep water.

  • Angela Ballard

    Interesting. Some random associations arise. Liminality crops up in the experience of renters in the research using Sensemaker™ and Cynefin. I sense the grounded level of people’s experiences of liminality reflects another notion – the disorienting dilemma (from Mezirow’s transformative learning theory). This also seems apt to describe the liminality that bisects disorder in the new ‘liminal cynefin’. In that space liminality can be a hell of a ride!

  • Janice Fingler

    I’m happy to see the addition of liminal areas, too but also feeling confused as how I can relate this to the mineral exploration industry. If I have a portfolio of projects, or targets that are focussed on a wide range of metals in different jurisdictions would that be in complex domain ? And a more focussed portfolio based on those results, be in the liminal area ?

    There are also venture capital companies “property generators” which stay with broad portfolios – and sell off projects to another company to do the focussed work. They bring in more early stage projects. Are those companies fully in the complex domain – and never enter the liminal Cx-Co boundary ? Companies that try to do both (generative and focussed work) are usually unsuccessful (straddling the Cx-Co liminal boundary). Shareholders aren’t too happy about that kind of fuzziness for long. Since we never really know what metal will come out of the ground until the metal comes out of the smelter or plant – would the entire mining cycle from exploration to extraction lie in the Cx and Cx-Co liminal area ? Most seems to be in the liminal area ?

    Our project mgmt approach is iterative like Scrum but not timeboxed (it’s spatially boxed?) for early stage projects., yet we shut down further work on targets/projects if results are negative or don’t advance our knowledge to help us vector to mineralization. But is that more like parallel experiments ? As more work is done on projects, more data is often perceived as less uncertainty (but not always the case!) and project methods trend to more waterfall +/- pockets/skunkworks ? of generative or R&D teams. “Products” are key decision points based on risk profiles/tolerances for early stage projects. Would love to hear any insights so I can explain it better to myself and others in the industry ! thanks.

  • Marcus Jenal

    I am excited by the addition of the liminal areas, especially the one between complex and complicated. In my mind it helps me better understand the move from complex to complicated.

    In addition, there is now a place where a lot of projects I have been working with fit. I work in international development. Projects often do a number of pilots to see if there is enough stability to scale and exploit the ideas. The problem with these projects is that they start off in the liminal space, assuming that there is enough stability that they don’t need to go all the way to complexity and parallel safe-to-fail experiments. They directly go into the piloting a few ‘good ideas’ and see if they catch and then get them to scale by moving them into complicated (codifying the procedures to duplicate them). I often ask them why they are so sure that they can already narrow down their portfolio to these few ideas. I feel they should actually explore broader and wider as the context is more complex than they think. But then again, the way they are set up forces them to deliver results relatively quickly, so they don’t want to take the risk to explore too broadly. There has already been a struggle to allow projects to try different things, as development has traditionally (as so many other domains) treaded all problems as complicated.

    How do we know that we can make the move into the liminal area between complex and complicated or if we should stay in the complex? The way Dave explained it in London is that we can start to see repeatability – things seem to work the same way repeatedly – but we are not enough confident to lock them down into the complicated.

    Can we start off in the liminal or do we have to start in the complex, move to the liminal, and then the complicated (or back to the complex if necessary)?

    • Dave Snowden

      I think you can start in the liminal if there are limited and not contradictory hypotheses about what should be done. The danger is a single pilot will nearly always work, If the problem is truly complex then starting in the liminal domain is a mistake

  • Janice Fingler

    I’m curious as to if/how the prompting in the four points exercise will change with the new liminal areas.

    • Dave Snowden

      I’m thinking about that, it may not change per se, as the the boundary objects from 4 points would be liminal

  • janicefingler

    Here are a few more thoughts I need to test, to see if I understand and/or consider if I am getting into the weeds.

    I wonder if there could be an addition to the dynamics, with a “spin off” from the purple liminal dynamic that migrates from the Co-Cx area, through the inauthentic disorder and into chaos. Here’s a common example situation with mineral exploration companies, that I’m thinking about:

    When mineral exploration companies sit strategically too long in the liminal area and when learnings from the pilots or surrounding market conditions are ignored (ego and other biases blinding us- sunk costs etc.) – drift into inauthentic disorder might happen ? and then the company treasury is bled out as they move into chaos. Then shareholder activity has dried up, no investors interested and no one wants to work for them.

    In contrast, strategically saavy explorers might follow the purple path deliberately, knowing when to abandon or put the pilot on hold, move into disorder to consider new strategy and graze chaos to restructure the company and rollback the stock for another go that things via complexity. Shareholders might not like the pain of the rollback but consider it short term.

    • Dave Snowden

      I think that is an interesting one, exploration is probably the purple dynamic, but when it moves into exploration it moves to complicated and ultimately (for the end game) into obvious. But exploration needs to keep up the dynamic which means abandoning some experiments, if not then inauthentic disorder and chaos – yes I like that

  • Татьяна

    Sounds interesting. I am watching the model for a couple of years: it really helps to clean the brain. Thanks for that. For me Cynefin is rather 4D – a sort of multidimensional construction changing over time in different business and cultural environments. At least I use it in this manner.

    • Dave Snowden

      I’m hoping the liminal version gives a better sense of the multi-dimensionality

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