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Dave Snowden

Cynefin St David’s Day 2019 (3 of 5)

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The introduction of the liminal version of Cynefin was probably the most significant change in recent years.  One of the reasons I used it was a difficulty people had in seeing that Cynefin had two classification systems: domains and dynamics.  By creating the liminal zones I managed to make dynamics a domain and that has made it easier for people to use.  It took a few iterations to get it right but when I managed it as a single stroke of the pen I was happy and there was the added bonus of finally resolving some issues around the domain of disorder.

Liminality as a concept is all about standing on a threshold (literal translation of the Latin origin namely limen) between states.  It carries with it a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, possibly fear or trepidation before commitment.  In anthropology it is used to describe the point in a ritual where the actor stands between what they were and what they will become.

It is important to emphases this concept of a threshold.  Key to Cynefin is the idea that three ontological states or order, complexity and chaos are subject to phase shift boundaries.  Think here of latent heat; if I heat up water to 100ºC it doesn’t immediately become steam I have to continue to apply heat before this happens.  When water becomes ice it drops to 0ºC but then more heat has to be thrown out before the transition happens.  I’ll develop the idea of energy gradients more later in this post.  My use of phases shifts is a key difference with others such as Glenda Eoyang and Ralph Stacy who see the differences as a gradient.  Ralph also sees the differences as only about perception while I see the differences as being about reality, knowledge and perception (there I think Glenda and I agree).  Now I think the idea of phase shifts is more authentic to the mathematics, but even if it wasn’t then creating a phase shift boundary is essential to human sense-making.  Give us a gradient and we settle where we are most comfortable, create a boundary and we can behave differently on the other side.  It’s why ritual is so important in human society, it allows for change to be triggered in a sustainable and scalable way.  We dress differently for different events and we think and feel differently in consequence.  Crews in the emergency services have strong ritual acts to change identity in order that the interacting team can be effective and so on.

Its why I choose the image of a group of people standing on top of a cliff.   The shift between order and chaos is shown as a catastrophic fold as you walk over the cliff in mist without realising what you have done until it too late.   If you are choosing to change states and that involves climbing a gradient – making an energy commitment, the longer you can spend checking this is the right thing to do, and if it is, what is the easiest pathway, the better.  The domain shifts between the ordered and complex domains and between those of complexity and chaos are generally matters of choice and with choice come consequences.

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On the right I’ve produced a version of Cynefin created bu Rob England.   His first version showed chaotic as a lower level than complex but be changed that after I pinged him.   Along with the planar view of Cynefin which introduced the catastrophic fold into the framework, this is one of several different representations of Cynefin along with the domain models (I am not linking as I intend to revise those in the near future to handle liminality).  Rob created this with a specific purpose and its adds automation to Obvious (Simple when he produced this) and I would make other changes.  But it is useful as it shows that effort is needed to shift to higher levels of order but little effort is needed for things to be complex – enabling constraints multiple interactions and fluid mess are a natural human condition after all!   I would reduce the size of the gap between complex and complicated and increase it between complicated and standard.   I might also represent liminality as a slope towards the left (but not to the right) which reduces the climb.

Now there are purists within the Cynefin fold who argue that physics states that chaotic is a lower energy state than complex and in their field they are correct.   But here we are talking about human systems and those are open not closed.  The nature of humans is that we create connections and constraints intuitively as well as deliberately and we do so very quickly.  To create a system with no effective constraints, a state of near randomness takes a lot of energy both in creation and to sustain the state.  Liminality allows us to create additional transitionary domains and I’ll be interested if Rob attempts to draw them and I may attempt it myself.   However for the purpose of this post I want to address the three liminal states within Cynefin.  If you want the visualisation look at the green areas in yesterday’s post.

  1. Between complex and complicated (one way)
    In the main areas of the complex domain we understand what is possible (or plausible) through parallel safe-to-fail experiments but as patterns emerge and stabilise we enter the liminal domain.  We now have a sense of what is possible and we can radically limit the range of our experiments but we still need to carry out more testing, iterate to test understanding and so on before we can make the transition too complicated.   When we make that transition its a big commitment so we need to hold as long as possible before doing so.   I show this one as open as towards the left the gradient between complex and complicated is shallow and easy to traverse, while as it approaches disorder it is steeper.
  2. Within Disorder (two way)
    The big moment of insight for me when I finalised the liminal version was the realisation that it resolved the nature of disorder.   In the green area we are in transition between domains, its a moment of legitimate uncertainty and tension in which we ontological uncertainty (not the case in the two liminal states above and below) and there are many directions we can take.  In the grey area we are adjacent to the catastrophic fold as we have no idea of what domain we are in, and we have no idea that such ignorance is an issue.   So the liminal area is transitionary, the other area is inauthentic disorder.
  3. Between chaos and complicated (two way)
    This is shown as a closed state in contrast with that between complicated and complex.  The reason is hinted at above – to create chaos a state of no effective constraints is difficult and costly.  It requires boundaries to project it and it is always in danger of collapse in either direction so careful maintenance and frequent scanning are needed – this is a high energy requirement but powerful for innovation and distributed decision making using wisdom of crowds methods in products such as MassSense,

The boundary between chaotic and obvious is not liminal as there is no transition it is sudden.  It is two way, but one way happens with greater ease.  Climbing back up the cliff is normally a mistake, easier to shift into the liminal domain with complexity and then start the cycle again – but I will deal with that when I map dynamics onto the liminal version of Cynefin tomorrow.

By the way – I suspect the exploration of liminality will generate a lot more ideas and posts over the next couple of years.

Inset picture is by Rudolf Kirchner and sourced from Pixels

Banner picture is the summit of Glyder Fawr ,the first peak on a long walk of the ridge from Pen-y-Pass to Capel Curig – I broke a rib on the next peak Glider Fach when I slipped on wet boss while boulder hopping.  I selected it to convey the sense of uncertainty and transition involved in liminality.

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