Exploring ubiquitous complexity

I spent part of yesterday online learning how the Cynefin model has been talked about and utilized since the Cynefin Centre separated from IBM in July 2004. It's been widely used to analyze and categorize situations, as if the Cynefin model is a "good practice" that applies in complicated situations. In simple situations where consultants have formulated some proprietary "best practice" model of their own, the Cynefin framework gets a bad rap for imposes unnecessary complications, impossible requirements or excessive analysis. The Cynefin model has also been used as a map to keep track of potential movements from one quadrant to another, resolving conflicts between positional stances, and for experimenting with different practices that attempt to resolve a situation. These approaches set up an "emergent practice" in response to complex situations.

I reflected further on David Ronfeldt's use of the Cynefin framework to see Tribes as relatively simple, Institutions as complicated, Markets as Complex and Networks as chaotic. I realized that the inner workings of a tribe are complex. The inter-relationships between tribes are complex. The context which supports the tribes continuing without disbanding or dying off is also complex. The only dimensions that are simple about tribes are the form they take and the challenges they face. Tribes within nations do not have airport runways to keep open, filters to change in water treatment plants, or public services to fund with tax collections. Tribes in the form of college fraternities simply share none of the complicated concerns of the administration, legislature or accreditation boards. The complexities about tribes are subtle, intangible and easily ignored by studying the objective evidence of tribal forms and challenges.

The predominance of complexity is also true for the internal workings, inter-relationships and contexts of Institutions, Markets and Networks. This suggests that every practice characterized by the Cynefin model is an emergent practice. Best practices emerge from the complexity when some simple parameters feature prominently. Good practices emerge from the complexity when there are conceptual frameworks that apply. Novel practices emerge from the complexity when the complexity appears chaotic and defiant of orderly dynamics.

This "complexity based" outlook on the Cynefin model suggested a change in the four quadrants. If every quadrant yields an emergent practice from ubiquitous complexity, it's redundant to have a quadrant for "complexity" and "emergent practices". I've pondered the possibility of moving disorder from the no-man's land between the quadrants to the fourth quadrant. As you can see, I'm conceiving of a quadrant labeled "disorder" with "no conceivable orderly practice". This breach of Cynefin doctrine is itself a case of my "disorderly conduct" :-)


  1. Kia ora e Tom

    Here, complexity seems to have dissipated or at least been subsumed so that it is no longer an entity. I wonder about this.

    I wonder at the use of Cynefin in what you are positing here (and in previous posts). I've not pitched in with this till now. But after following development to this stage, I feel that it's gone so far off the Cynefin vision as to have become something else.

    Complexity is a study and entity in itself. There is no doubt about its separate existence, though I'm sure some of us may not wish to recognise it, or perhaps cannot always recognise it. And while it is true that there may appear to be some blending with other domains, isn't this what the original Cynefin is meant to cope with?

    There have been a few comments in your previous posts that make me suspicious of the understanding that some may have about complexity. If it's not fully understood, we could be going down inappropriate analytical pathways.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Thanks for provoking me to consider complexity from another viewpoint. All I've read thus far about Cynefin has not given me the impression it sought to better understand complexity. Rather it seemed like a very useful tool to avoid too much emphasis on best practices, too often assuming something was knowable and too much favoring excessive analysis as if everything not simple is merely complicated.

    Thus complexity could be a quadrant in a model, rather than something that eludes characterization. Makes sense?

  3. Kia ora Tom

    I think one of the vulnerabilities of Cynefin lies in its glossing over some issues. In particular, as you say, it doesn't deal with complexity in a way that permits one to better understand its distinction from complicated. I agree with you about that.

    At the level that Cynefin tends to operate, it's probably not a big issue if the line between complex/complicated gets muddied a bit.

    Catchya later

  4. Kia ora koutou Ken and any Maori natives looking over your shoulder while you read this :-) Thanks for reappearing here. Your added thoughts gave me some too.

    In what I've read about Cynefin, the practitioners of the model learn to move problems from complex or chaos to complicated and simple. The assumption appears to be made that there is no money to be made (or paid to employees) for inducing slowly emergent outcomes in complexity or trying anything/everything amidst chaos. The profit motive may very well drive the glossing over those issues.

    Noho ora mai rā

  5. Haere mai!
    Haere mai!
    Haere mai!

    Welcome to the Māori language Tom! I am (slowly) studying it at the moment - with difficulty. But then, there are many things I want to learn before I die. Among them is a better understanding of complexity - a relatively new study and almost a 21st century concept.

    Ngā mihi nui

  6. Hi Ken
    Thanks for the welcome! Good luck learning Māori.

    We're on the same page about wanting to understand complexity now that's been become more accessible and seemingly useful.

    Tipu Ake ki te Ora
    (simplistically translated as “Growing ever upwards towards wellbeing”)