What is not to like about a new approach to organizational strategy developed at MIT, that cites ancient myth and Mary Douglas, emphasises the primacy of human sense-making in organizational behavior, and is named Cynefin

a Welsh word whose literal translation into English as habitat or place fails to do it justice. It is more properly understood as the place of our multiple affiliations, the sense that we all, individually and collectively, have many roots, cultural, religious, geographic, tribal, and so forth. We can never be fully aware of the nature of those affiliations, but they profoundly influence what we are. The name seeks to remind us that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by the patterns of our multiple experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience and through collective experience expressed as stories.

The abstract reads as follows,

In this paper, we challenge the universality of three basic assumptions prevalent in organizational decision support and strategy: assumptions of order, of rational choice, and of intent. We describe the Cynefin framework, a sense-making device we have developed to help people make sense of the complexities made visible by the relaxation of these assumptions. The Cynefin framework is derived from several years of action research into the use of narrative and complexity theory in organizational knowledge exchange, decision-making, strategy, and policy-making. The framework is explained, its conceptual underpinnings are outlined, and its use in group sense-making and discourse is described. Finally, the consequences of relaxing the three basic assumptions, using the Cynefin framework as a mechanism, are considered. 

The full paper can be found in PDF format and downloaded here.

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Comment by John McCreery on September 11, 2013 at 1:57am


It is, I think, really important to stay focused on how the authors describe what they have produced. It's not an answer, not a theory, not even a methodology. They call it quite properly a "device," in other words a useful tool. Describing the settings in which they use it, they mention action research. In the Wikipedia entry, action research is described as

research initiated to solve an immediate problem or a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems.

My still very rough first take on what they have done is to move beyond the usual problem solving approach that advances from the known to the knowable via conventional research to engage participants in constructing stories that assume chaos and complexity.

Thus, for example, albeit in retrospect, I imagine the engineers and managers of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima brainstorming how they would respond if Godzilla stepped out of the ocean and trashed the plant. Sounds pretty silly. Then came the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. If the plant's systems had been reconsidered in light of the need to withstand Godzilla, we might not be still in the middle of the ongoing nuclear meltdown and radioactive leakage problems with which Japan is still wrestling.

Comment by Abraham Heinemann on September 10, 2013 at 11:20pm

good find thank you, just trying to process what their conclusions actually mean in practice

Comment by John McCreery on September 9, 2013 at 8:57am

What strikes me as interesting about this paper is the way in which the authors have pulled together a variety of ideas proposed as alternatives to logic-driven theorizing that assumes order, rational choice and intent into what they call "a sense-making device," deliberately avoiding such common alternatives as typology, methodology, or theory. I am also intrigued by the outcome, a set of overlapping domains — chaos, complexity, the known, and the knowable —with fuzzy boundaries and a fluid intersection which is UN-known, the UN-divided, UR-domain from which innovation is born. I am irresistibly reminded of the Chinese hundun or the Dao itself, that which cannot be named, from which all the myriad things arise. I wonder what others will see in it. A masterful synthesis of several currently popular ideas: chaos, complexity, story-telling, etc.? Or a forced syncretism of ideas that don't play well together?


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