Where to begin?

Brett Miller has been pondering the use of the Cynefin framework in approaches to deliberate practice. Where I have begun my charts with Chaotic situations and ended up in the Complex domain, he begins in Simple and ends up in Chaotic. I've included his chart here. In response to a comment I left on his blog, Brett said:

When I look at something like chess or t'ai chi, for instance, I have a systems engineering kind of approach looking back to the beginning of the game. By the time someone today starts playing, all of the rules are well known and straightforward, and this is where all beginners start out - simple. Through training, experience, and deliberate practice the player becomes better equipped to handle complicated, complex, and ultimately chaotic situations.
This got me thinking about these two different starting/ending quadrants, different meanings to the concept of "Novel Practice" in the Chaotic quadrant, and different contexts where the Cynefin framework might be applied. To end up at "Novel Practice" reminds me of the Zen concept of a "beginner's mind" that I characterized as "keeping the train of thought on the line of reasoning" in my post: Derailed by emotional baggage. Amidst turbulent unknowns, we are very vulnerable to being too smart for our own good, too captivated by our own thinking and too experienced to let go of our familiarity. We are better equipped to take whatever comes along when we are innocent, aware and receptive.

To end up in the Complex quadrant with "Emergent Practice" for me evokes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the deeply satisfying "Flow State". Time stands still while a sense of what to do comes to mind. We remain sharp minded while no longer striving to make things happen. This correlates with the Zen concept of "wu wei" (non-doing or effortless action). Both end points are indications of mastery like the outcomes of 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell explored in Outliers - The Story of Success.

I also realized it may make a huge difference whether the process can get started right away. When we can jump right in, I see the pattern of beginning in Chaos and ending up in Complexity. When a lot of advance preparation gets involved to qualify for a first start, I see the opposite pattern of beginning in Simple and ending up in Chaos. Here's some examples of the two kinds of situations:
  • When we're thinking of writing our first blog, the number of possible, enjoyable, and familiar topics to write about seems overwhelmingly Chaotic. There is no good or best way to choose the right topic to focus a blog on. It's better to simply begin, acting without a plan and see what direction evolves. When we're preparing to develop a new blogging platform to compete with Blogger, WordPress and the rest, we cannot jump right in. We have to start out on Simple programming tasks like exploring the use of particular library patterns for social networking software.
  • When we're getting our first cell phone, most think there's no need to start out with an extra-simple phone. New consumer technologies offer an opportunity to dive right in and figure out the feature sets by experimentation. We can mess around to see what works without a plan, even though the number and complexity of the features can seem Chaotic. When we're getting our first suite of software products for making professional videos, interactive tutorials or print publications, it's imperative to start with simple tasks. The possibility of getting overwhelmed and defeated looms large.
  • When we're learning in simulation, we can start out crashing airplanes or tampering with urban planning without hesitation. What it takes to keep the plane in flight or the city out of decay appears so Chaotic we can only take action and see what happens. That how immersive scenarios expect us to learn. When we're practicing the flight of real aircraft or urban planning for a real city, we've got to start with Simple tasks to stay out of serious trouble.

It then follows that the societal evolution in the TIMN model gets started without preparation. Tribes form without advance certification training. Institutional forms of governance start to oversee the tribes and provide some infrastructure without a prior history of starting governments. In those contexts, starting with the "Novel Practice" in the Chaotic quadrant fits.


  1. Tom,

    There is a lot to think about here, and each of your examples deservers some careful thought. Something that occurred to me as I read through this while looking at my original table is that I (we?) are treating each of the quads of Cynefin as "equal", in both quality and quantity. On reflection, I think that the prevalence in occurence of each of these quads is not equal. Specifically, I think that situations in the chaotic quad are, almost by definition and necessity, relatively rare occurences, while situations that fall in the simple quad are relatively common. With that thought in mind, I might change the table to reflect the following:

    Simple => Training
    Complicated => + Experience
    Complex/Chaotic => + Deliberate Practice

    In truth, anyone could work in the Chaotic quad since there is no correlation between cause and effect, but I think someone with years of deliberate practice under there belt would have an advantage, however slight, at beating the "random" odds of chaos.

  2. Tom,

    I was also thinking of the "flow state" as one of the outcomes of the learning process, though as you might have guessed I see that as coming more definitively in a chaotic situation with performance in a complex situation being a precursor to this flow. This comes in part from my understanding of "novel practice", not as a "new" practice but as a unique and unrepeatable response to the chaotic situation.

    When in the flow state, or "the zone" as some call it, you act based on your skills and experience, almost at a subconscious level, to resolve the situation at hand and achieve success. When you look back on the event, you can't really say how you succeeded, what exactly it was that you did. You most definitely can't tell someone else how to do it, and you're not even sure if you could do it again yourself.

    Like I said, this is based on my understanding of Cynefin and my interpretation of "novel" practice. This deserves a blog post of its own, I'll have to give that a bit more thought.

  3. Brett,
    Thanks for thinking more about this. I agree that chaotic situations are relatively rare in the context of formal learning, systems engineering, etc. I began this series of posts considering the application of the Cynefin model to very large scale of the entire globe throughout the history of civilization. In that context, I regard chaotic situations as the norm. Consider how many people throughout history to have found there to be no cause-effect relationship between drinking non-potable water and what we now see as death from water borne diseases. Likewise for most of what science can now explain was for most of history seen as uncontrollable, unresponsive to human intervention, and destabilizing of tribes, governments and entire populations. That acausal instability at a personal level persists in places with violence in the streets, sporadic food supplies, governmental corruption, etc.

    I've also been thinking "novel practice" is not necessarily new to the person, but rather new to try out in the situation. The more we explore this, the less the distinction between chaotic and complex situations seems useful. I'm aware of one occasion where Dave Snowden dropped that distinction and focused on the differences between known, knowable and unknown situations.

    I'm looking forward to reading another blog post from you that reveals how you're continuing to sort this out in your mind.

  4. What strikes me now is that in chaos we are forced to develop novel practices, which infers that we need chaos for innovation.

  5. Thanks Harold. I wonder if those who use chaos for innovation are experiencing cooperation, connectedness, etc. -- the benefits of wirearchy structures. That would explain those who use chaos for either justifying their violence, regressing into antiquated traditions or indulging in substance abuse -- as experiencing the side effects of hierarchy, disconnection and a lack of cooperation.

  6. Giving it some more thought, especially in light of Harold's comment above, I'd like to revise what I said about the rarity of chaos. While I still believe that in a relative sense that there is "less" chaos than simplicity in today's world, this is a lot like comparing the infinity of prime numbers with the infinity of the integers: sure there are "fewer" prime numbers than integers, but there are still plenty to go around. The same with the chaos that drives (or should drive) innovation.

    Part of the challenge we all face today is the overwhelming presence of the simple in our lives, well defined routines and expectations for how our lives should play out in the grand scheme of things. As Harold often discusses re education of our children, it is as if we are intentionally teaching our kids to avoid the chaos, to stay in the realm of the comfortable.

  7. Brett: Your comparison to the quantity of prime numbers and integers is great. I like your framing of the challenge posed by the "overwhelming presence of the simple". I suspect this relates to how the Cynefin framework got generated in the first place -- as a way to counteract the mindless replication of best practices as if there was no complications, complexity or chaos to respond to effectively.

    I doubt teachers who've cultivated no personal capabilities for handling chaos, for innovating, for departing their comfort zone -- could pass on those very desirable resources to their students.

    Thanks for the added thoughts!