Where Does Your Problem Live?

Problems come in levels.

They come with knowns and unknowns.

Predictability and uncertainty.

Certainly, not all are created equal. The decision to have chicken or salmon for dinner carries less weight than which college to attend. 

Do you know what realm the one you are tackling lives on? Defining this allows us to pick the right set of tools from our arsenal to manage the problem.Dave Snowden,  a researcher in the field of knowledge management and the application of complexity science, developed a sense making tool called the Cynephin framework.

Cynefin, Klay and KD • ALTIS

Cynephin is a Welsh word for Habitat. Snowden broke problems into 4 domains. Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic. The borders between these are made formed through what can and cannot be know before the fact. 

Simple is the realm of known-knowns. We have established reproducible data forming  “laws” that can guide our decision. Thus there is established best practice. Thus we can sense the state of the problem, categorize it, and then respond based on these best practices. 

Complicated is the realm of known-unknowns. We may not have all the data ourselves, but we are still working within an ordered and predictable system where the right person with the right knowledge (content expert) can surmise an answer. I know nothing about what may go wrong with a car engine but a mechanic can draw a direct cause and effect. Thus the tactic here require sensing the problem (car is rattling), analyze (take the car to an expert), and respond (tighten a screw, add oil etc..)

With a complex problem we are wading in the unknown-unknowns. Here the system is disordered and unstable. Answers live in flux as small changes can have dramatic changes on an outcome. The answers here, live only in the post-hoc analysis. Think of the weather here,  though we have sophisticated algorithms, accurate predictability is limited until the day of as small shifts in the data creates a meaningful change in the outcome. Tactically, we must first probe the system to gain more data. Apply a perturbation to see “how the defense shifts”. We next can attempt to sense an emergent pattern. We then can respond. Think here of waking up with a painful low back with no clear reason. I try to bend forward (OUCH!). I twist (OUCH!). I lay on my stomach and bend back (probe) (Ou….Ahhh). A pattern of symptom relief from extension has emerged (sense). This allows me to respond with amplifying extension and dampening flexion until a new pattern emerges (respond). This could only be known post-experiment. 

Chaos is the realm on unknowable unknowns. This is a high turbulence temporary state. The situation needs to be first stabilized. This is a plane crash, a heart attack triage. This is not the time for seeking for causation. We act first (perform CPR), then sense (perform tests), and respond (surgery/medicine/rehab).  

The domain drives the tactic. Viewing a complex scenario as simple or complicated can lead to do false confidence and lead us susceptible to miss possible solutions. Viewing a simple problem a complex leads to overthinking. 

Before you decide- take a moment to understand the habitat you are operating in before reaching into the tool box. 


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