Dave Snowden

The Origins of Cynefin - Part 4

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We ended episode 3 of this series with the Cynefin framework in a recognisable form after well over a decade of evolution. In this penultimate episode (and its not he hero's journey so the mentor will not die) I want to talk about one of the most fertile periods of work which spans the last (official) five years of my IBM period. This is also the period of Cynthia Kurtz's active engagement with the publication of New Dynamics of Strategy as a defining movement. Three major things happened:

  1. The creation of methods for social construction of Cynefin and the distinction between sense-making frameworks and categorisation models.
  2. The incorporation of Cynthia's seeing eye concept, now known as the tetrahedrons which allowed us to create a set of principles (not a recipe) for what became known as Cynefin Dynamics.
  3. The period in which Cynthia and I worked on HARP (Human Augmented Reasoning through Patterning) within DARPA's  Genoa II project both before and after 911 (yes I did sneak the Welsh National Instrument in as the name. It was an opportunity that presented itself in a meeting at Menlo Park one day and I took it.)

Now this is a significant period not only in the development of the Cynefin framework, but also in developing the practice of sense-making in organisations. It spans my move into the Institute for Knowledge Management to work with Larry Prusak and others, the creation of the Cynefin Centre in IBM and then the final act of leaving IBM to form Cognitive Edge. I haven't really written the history before so I am getting it out of my system, hopefully it will be cathartic. But the rest of this post is about organisation history not the Cynefin framework, I will return to that tomorrow.

IBM Politics, the Slime Ball and resolution of the knowledge wars.

The first few years in IBM had been interesting. Thanks to long term support from Philip Oliver (now with Fujitsu), I was hosted in Marketing with a small team of the two Nicks, Julia and some of Sharon's time. W201007101043.jpge'd made some good progress, the problem was, that in order to develop new methods we had to execute and that brought us into conflict with the consulting group. It was made worse as I established myself as a keynote speaker in large part by not toeing the line. Things finally got nasty with the appointment of a real slime ball as head of KM Consultancy for Europe; one of those people who believes his own lies which is problematic. I refused to work for him (the offer was dependent on my writing papers that he would author, which gives you a sense of how things were) and after that we entered a period I came to know as the IBM Knowledge Wars. It's bad enough dealing with normal politics but when deliberate untruths are told to try and get you sacked it gets pretty nasty. Fortunately I had top cover and, as could be easily predicted, the Slime Ball's lack of knowledge was increasingly exposed. I was also very very lucky in that I keynoted at a conference with Peter Drucker, and then got invited to run an Executive seminar with him and one other. It was an experience I will never forget in terms of my own learning, but it was also something that had never happened to anyone from IBM before and a few senior people started to notice. Net result I got a phone call asking for a meeting with the newly appointed World Wide KM consultancy lead.

So, one day in the bar of the Tarry Town Hilton I met Scott Smith whose opening line was along the lines of how it was a pleasure to meet the embodiment of evil. Now I appreciate that sort of humour and a relationship formed. Scott was one of the many good guys I met in IBM and over the next few months a settlement was brokered. I was offered a role with the then forming Institute of Knowledge Management. I'd been looking for a new job in parallel and at the Nice meeting of the IKM I had to make a choice between being a Director in the IKM with responsibility for Europe and Australasia and joining Ernst and Young to head up marketing for their UK services business. The IKM members companies, many of who I knew were keen for me to stay, and for the first time I was allowed to talk to Larry Prusak without him being accused of betrayal and all in all I made the decision to stay.

The IBM Story Group and the initial engagement with DARPA

Now just before this John Thomas of the Hawthorn Labs in IBM had pulled together various groups across IBM who were working with narrative. It never had official sponsorship and was a more or less permanent skunks works project but it resulted in some key developments and relationships. Cynthia Kurtz was working for John at that time, and doing a huge amount of theoretical and practical development. A parallel CHI group with Wendy and Tracy were also involved and meetings of that group were one of the highlights of my life. Cynthia and I got off to a rocky start but the working relationship started to build.   

Our work had independently come to the attention of John Poindexter and I still remember our first meeting. I had been summoned to Washington by the CIA (who were IKM members) and met a charming old man with an interest in the novels of Patrick O'Brien, one of my great loves and we were well into our conversation before I saw the pictures of him with Ronald Reagan as NSA. I learnt a lesson that day about knowing people, rather than images painted in the press. I then got invited a beauty parade in a hotel out near Dulles Airport. A diverse group (including some from the IBM Labs with a semantic bent) were assembled, and thrown together for two days to see what came out. I was the only person advocating that narrative could be used for weak signal detection and conflict resolution. Everyone else saw it as a tool for communication. Despite some IBM opposition, we got a contract on a part of the Genoa Programme run by Laz of Veridian systems. As it turned out John had also come across Cynthia's paper on StoryML and so we started to work on the project together with a narrative focus. In parallel with that Laz started to get interested in complexity and flew up to see me in Boston. After a day of deep conversation I was hiked down to Washington again to present Cynefin to John, whose first response was Well that explains fifty years of failure in American Foreign Policy.

So we had a project and it came to a successful conclusion next door to the Pentagon on the day before 911. We proved the value of a narrative technique, situational archetypes as well as use of the Cynefin framework to enable richer conversations between people from radically different backgrounds. I flew back to the UK that night and picked up the news of 911 on the car radio and then Sky News at Warwick University where I was meant to be giving a keynote to a group of IBM Salespeople. After that life got interesting and I started to spend a lot of time in Washington. Aside from John and Laz that period saw key relationships form with Tom Armour (sadly no longer with us) for DARPA, Dennis Gormley & Steve Sickels plus SRI's John Lowrance & Tom Boyce.

From the IKM to the Cynefin Centre and Cognitive Edge

Sometime during that period Cynthia fell foul of what was called in IBM “roadkill”. The term means that you lost your job as a result of some bureaucratic process change, indifferent to individual ability. As people said, its not personal, you are just roadkill. To me this indifference was one of the worst things about the organisation. Either way, in their infinite wisdom someone highup in IBM decided that contracts would only be renewed in Research for people with full PhDs from designated named Universities. Unfortunately Cynthia's contract was up for renewal at that time and she fell victim, despite the support of John Poindexter himself and protests from me and others. Fortunately the IKM was in a good state at the time and I was allowed to hire Cynthia as a contractor to work with me on the complexity and narrative strands of the Institute's programme. Which came to include the whole DARPA research contract. It was during that time that we worked on the social constuction of the Cynefin Framework and incorporated Cynthia's “seeing eye”.

Shortly after that the IKM, despite being successful, fell foul of some heavy IBM politics and was finally reorganized by being collapsed into a single thought leadership body without focus or leadership. It was called the Institute of Business Value or some such thing, and it became evident very quickly that there was no place for anyone who was not politically correct. I managed to get some funding to create the Cynefin Centre (the first name was CAROC by the way) and took Cynthia with me. After about a year, sustained by the DARPA work we became an Emergent Business Unit with funding and staff! That was when Mike Stephenson came on board and Steve Bealing )Now CEO of Cognitive Edge) along with Sharon Darwent and Warwick Holder. We also had some supporters elsewhere in the business, such as Rita in Italy and Shawn Callaghan in Lotus Australia. That was a good year and we did some great work, including getting training programmes up and running and developing a body of material. The DARPA programme also produced some good output (continuing links with Wendy and Tracy in Hawthorn). But it was too good to last and as 2003 drew to a close we were politically shafted (I'll tell the story of that one day). For me it became irrelevant anyway as for the first three months of 2004 I had compassionate leave while I cared for my parents in their last few months. They died within 10 days of each other just short of my 50th Birthday. When that came round IBM offered me an early retirement package which I took and set up on my own (still with Cynthia) under the umbrella of our DARPA leads. Then about a year later Steve agreed to leave IBM (without him the company would not have been viable) and we set up Cognitive Edge. There is a much bigger tale to tell there involving th Singapore Government, the Arlington Institute and many others but I will save that for another time.

Moving on

OK, so that has the history out of the way, tomorrow I will return to the origins of Cynefin and deal with the question of categorisation and social construction.