Divergent Thoughts

How to take what you know and share it…

Of Cynefin, failure, memory patterns and other stories

“A philosopher’s enjoyment of concepts and a physicist’s contempt for social sciences” is how Dave Snowden, leading knowledge management/ organizational development thinker and founder of Cognitive Edge, describes himself.    

Hearing that starting statement at IFAD two weeks ago, I knew we were going to be in for quite a treat!

Dave Snowden took us through several major concepts he had been working on, including his baby, the Cynefin Framework that makes sense of situations so that we can make better decisions. He noted that traditional linear decision-making models do not work in changing, unpredictable group settings. Recognizing these group domains by whether they are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic helps us understand how things happen and manage outcomes more effectively.

“We now have a better understanding of how the brain makes decisions, and it contradicts most decision theory put forth in the last 10-15 years.”

He described how people learn, make decisions, pass information and knowledge along and how we, as knowledge managers, tend to try and fit everything into fixed models, scenarios and limits. Especially in a complex domain, we need to bear in mind when planning our projects that results are determined by culture, relationships, networks, trust etc. (Click here for more on the Cynefin Framework)  

Here are some thoughts I found interesting :

  • Failure has more learning potential than success. He argues that best practices, i.e. documented success stories only work in ‘simple’ domains where 2 + 2 = 4. Complex human systems cannot duplicate best practices effectively because they are unpredictable and do not match patterns stored in our memory. When there is too much structure, e.g. as in best practices, it is not adaptive. Stories of failure on the other hand opens up big possibilities.
  • Patterns form in our memory in several ways, i.e. genetically imprinted, experiential learning and micro-narratives. He cautions that the first 2 are powerful but dangerous when making decisions, which makes sense, because we hold on to ideas based on our experiences – good or bad. What’s inherited through our genes, well, that is unpredictable and I believe, reliant on the environment we grow up in. These patterns are what is used when we deal with a problem/ issue. According to Snowden, we scan about 5% of what’s in front of us, and try to match it against hundreds of patterns in the brain, and call up the most frequently used ones as our first response.
  • Micro-narratives are short written stories, photographs or audio recordings that capture the essence of the moment. As the story is recorded as it unfolds, as fragments, they are not reflective and therefore un-embellished. Narratives are powerful in that they are snippets of information/ know-how that capture the human element succinctly – and extremely useful when dealing with complex domains where one model does not fit all. To illustrate this further, Snowden asks, “When faced with a difficult problem, do you go to a best practice note or listen to the stories of 8 experienced people?”
  • He suggests that an effective evidence-based approach to impact assessment would be to use narratives, as back up to statistics. You may have heard the saying – numbers don’t lie – but I’m sure we’ve seen attempts at skewing or explaining away anomalies that do not ‘fit’. Snowden stresses that micro- narratives are hard to ignore or explain away when statistical figures look odd (i.e. unexpected).     

 What struck me most though, was what Dave Snowden said about the computer being unable to replace the human mind, that it can only augment the mind.

“Knowledge management should take account of how humans hold knowledge, and not how computers hold knowledge – we are not computers!”

How right he is, puts things in perspective…

He had something more to say about communities of practice that nearly made me fall off my chair, but I’ll save that post for later 😉 . You can catch his IFAD lecture here

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One response to “Of Cynefin, failure, memory patterns and other stories

  1. Pingback: cynefin framework « a developer’s breadcrumb

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