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  • Toby Sinclair

Cynefin applied to COVID-19 crisis - Navigating a crisis with complexity thinking

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

3 Big Ideas

  1. Embrace, enable and accelerate entanglement in systems so that it can accelerate learning for better decision making

  2. Anticipatory Decision Making – Making decisions that keeps options open in the long run. This increase adaptiveness.

    1. Example: stacking dishwasher. Some will stack thinking about the dishes in rest of the day. Others will stack in closest spot

  3. Enable informal networks to naturally emerge within your organisations and encourage the intersections of networks to collide. This is where breakthroughs in innovation occur.


Systems designed for ordinary times are not suitable for extraordinary times.
Enable rapid formation of people networks consisting of diverse groups who don’t usually work together

1 Takeaway

Cynefin Framework

Definition of Terms:

  1. Sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It has been defined as “the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing”

  2. Coherence is the quality of being logical and consistent.

  3. Epistemic means relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation

  4. Action based abstraction – ?

  5. Exaptation and the related term co-option describe a shift in the function of a trait during evolution. For example, a trait can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently it may come to serve another

  6. Homophily refers to the tendency for people to have (non-negative) ties with people who are similar to themselves in socially significant ways.

  7. Taoism or Daoism is a type of belief, or a way of thinking about life. It is at least 2,500 years old and it comes from China. Taoism is now said to be a philosophy. Tao (or Dao, 道) is the name of the force or the “Way” that Taoists believe makes everything in the world.

  8. Premature convergence – In genetic algorithms, the term of premature convergence means that a population for an optimization problem converged too early, resulting in being suboptima

  9. Hyperlocal is information oriented around a well-defined community with its primary focus directed toward the concerns of the population in that community.

Importance of Coherence

  1. Coherence is integration between parts of the system

  2. Important to create coherence at different levels of the system. There are at least three levels of the system.

  3. Important to look at coherence over time

  4. Living things degrade gracefully where as machines die ungracefully – e.g a clock, remove a part and it stops


Metaphor for complex system – Bramble Thicket

Cynefin Metaphor
  1. Everyone now understands the impact of complexity and entanglement

  2. Never before has the world been so obviously entangled

  3. We need to enable entanglement not avoid it to embrace complexity

  4. How can we take multiple timelines and entangle them to create diversity in order to build new mental models

  5. For example, take the timelines/perspectives/mental models of government and entangle them that of society. That would create breakthroughs.

  6. In particular we need to find 17%’ers – People who see things others don’t – Reference:

  7. Embrace entanglement – create systems that can be rapidly entangled

  8. Create tension between the levels of the system – but how can we create tension without breaking the system

  9. Leadership message: Shift thinking from linear, sorted, clean systems and silos to thinking about entanglement. Embrace the “messy’ness”

3 rules to lead in complex situations

  1. Distribute cognition – Enable Diversity – Find the 17% who have seen something where others haven’t – Gorilla experiment – attentional blindness

  2. Disintermediation – leaders need to see raw data not abstract data -Go to the  “Gemba” important for leaders – see the problem first hand

  3. Granularity – small groups can move more quickly than large groups

Key steps to navigate a crisis like COVID-19

  1. Assess

  2. Adapt/Adjust

  3. Exapt (Innovation)

  4. Transcend

  5. Fundamentally increase learning speed

  6. Push decision making to the local levels of the organisation. Best learning is at the local level. Leaders need to be able to extract the patterns from local level.

  7. Building the things now for when we come out of it. Don’t approach the problem And solutions in a linear way

Enable Informal Networks

  1. Enable rapid formation of people networks consisting of diverse groups who don’t usually work together. In a crisis people are more willing to work with people who they don’t usually.

  2. The best organisations allow these informal networks to emerge in a natural way. Don’t make them formal

  3. Build a common language to enable the network to communicate across boundaries.

  4. We tend to naturally  organise into local groups – “Birds of a feather flock together”

  5. How networks work:

    1. Connect on similarity

    2. Benefit from differences

    3. Important – Innovation happens at the intersection of networks. Differences spark innovation and breakthroughs.

    4. 17%’ers are important within the network

    5. We need platforms that drive networks of differences

  6. Existing platforms drive people to gather based upon similarities

  7. Find people who are troublesome but who you respect and give them options

  8. Don’t exclude these people from the system. Their differences can drive real innovation

  9. Create mechanisms for the network to broadcast communication/messages transparently

  10. Make feedback accessible to everyone within the system to enable systemic breakthroughs. Everyone is an active part of the system not a passive consumer.

  11. In times of crisis create more opportunity for people within networks to meet outside of their tribes

Anticipatory Decision Making

  1. Anticipatory Decision Making – Making decisions that keeps options open in the long run. This increase adaptiveness.

  2. Some people find this more natural than others. Find these people within your network as they will enable adaptiveness.

  3. People who make best decisions think about the context.

  4. Decisions only matter when we have complete ambiguity

  5. Anti-Pattern – All decision making is trained on the assumption there is always a right answer

Additional notes

  1. In complex systems there are things you can manage and things you can monitor. Don’t try to manage the things you can only monitor.

  2. Manage – Constraints, rituals, energy allocation

  3. Monitor – Examples TBD

  4. War Time and Peace Time decision makers are different.

  5. Taosim is the closest match to Complexity

  6. Storytelling is powerful because it expresses context simply

  7. Work locally, think globally

  8. This time is a great opportunity for leaders who want to make real change happen

  9. We evolved to make decisions collectively not individually.

  10. Use imagination for exploring systems – Mile 22 Quote –

  11. Premature convergence – We converge on ideas too early which impacts our ideas

  12. Story Telling is important for complex systems. The world view and stories of the world are changing.

  13. Observation: Hyper local actions – Communities taking action in a very local level

  14. We don’t have to convince people that we live in a VUCA world – They can see the impact now

  15. Language used to describe the system is important. Reveals underlying mental model. Make language more precise. Language used will drive a certain behaviour.

  16. Systems designed for ordinary times are not suitable for extraordinary times.

  17. We are trying to extend existing systems to abnormal systems which will result in failure

  18. Our leaders find it hard to change how they make decisions. A new way of looking at problems is important yet many can’t change their mental model. They are stuck.


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