How do you determine if a challenge you are taking on at work is, in fact, complex in nature?  This is a question I get asked a lot, and it’s one I see organizations, teams, and individuals struggling with as they determine strategy, make decisions, and solve problems.  Over the course of several blog posts, I will be writing about the topic of Systems Thinking, a discipline of problem-identification and problem-solving that I learned about early in my VUCA skills development and have found to be most impactful with my clients.  For today’s post, we will work on how best to identify the type of challenge you are dealing with, and whether using a Systems Thinking approach is necessary.  In future blog posts, we will then move on to the actual steps for applying a Systems Thinking approach to managing complex challenges.

Cynefin Framework – A Tool for Determining the Type of Challenge

So, back to the original question…how do you determine if you are taking on a VUCA challenge where using Systems Thinking is even appropriate?  I recommend using a tool called the Cynefin (pronounced Kuh-nev-en – it’s a Welsh word, thus the difference between how it looks like it should be pronounced and how it actually is pronounced!).  This framework distinguishes four “realms” or situations that you can find yourself in at work, at home, where ever.  Using it individually or on a team to get people thinking differently can be quite helpful.

So, let’s break down the four “realms” and use the metaphor of a car to distinguish between them:

Image result for cynefin framework images

Realm 1 – Simple

A simple situation is one where the relationship between cause and effect is always known, change is low, and the results are always the same (or as close to always as possible – our lawyers would tell us not to speak in absolutes!).  Taking the car metaphor, the part of the car that is simple is the key.  As long as we have kept the car’s maintenance up to date, when we insert the key into the ignition and turn it, the key serves that one function…to set off a chain reaction for the car’s engine to start.

The great thing about simple situations or systems is that when we have a problem, when the system isn’t functioning properly, we can think in a linear way, understand which part isn’t working, and fix that part.  This is, as is shown in the image above, the realm of “Best Practice” because there is a right way to do things.

Realm 2 – Complicated

Now we are getting into situations that are going to sound more familiar to your day-to-day life.  I mean, we would all love the world to be filled with simple problems where it’s relatively easy to find the solution, but that’s unfortunately not the way it is!  I find it easiest to explain the complicated realm by going right to the car metaphor…the complicated part of the system here is the car itself.  Imagine if we took the entire car a part, lay its parts out on the floor of a large warehouse, mixed them all up so they were difficult to find, and gave the task of putting the car back together so it would run?  That is what a complicated situation feels like.

This is the realm of experts because the task has a right way of getting done, is quite difficult to do (and therefore requires rigorous debate), and can take a long time to accomplish.  It is the realm of Good Practice and requires an analytical mind, or set of minds, to keep the process moving.  People without the right expertise can get easily overwhelmed when dealing with a complicated challenge, so be sure you have the right expertise before diving in to putting the car together!

Realm 3 – Complex

It should come as no surprise that complex challenges are likely the most prominent ones we face in our lives.  In our car metaphor, complexity can be found in the interaction of multiple cars, coming together on multiple roads, creating a mess of a traffic jam.  Now, we are dealing with multiple drivers, each with different skills and agendas, traffic lights with their turn signals and three different lights, stop signs, pedestrians, you name it!  As traffic continues to build, there are lots of different competing theories about why, as well as what to do to make it better.

The right way to respond in a complex situation is to probe the system to understand why it is producing the results it is.  This is the realm of experimentation, trying things to see how the system responds, amplifying the efforts that seem to push the system in the direction you want it to go, dampening the ones that do not.  This is the realm of emergence, a concept we will touch on more as we move forward. This is the realm where Systems Thinking is the appropriate response, and future posts will break down how to apply Systems Thinking to a complex challenge.  For now, our goal is simply to learn how to distinguish between these four realms.

Realm 4 – Chaotic

We’ll get right into the car metaphor for this one…a tornado suddenly rips through the traffic, sending debris everywhere.  We lose our sense of direction, people around us panic, and it turns into a free-for-all.  In the face of chaos, the correct move is to act quickly, sense how the situation responds to our actions, and quickly respond.  There’s no time to step back and look at the situation…we just have to act based on instinct and hope for the best.

How This Applies to Work

The number one mistake I see teams and organizations making, with regard to these four realms, is approaching a Complex challenge with a Complicated mindset/approach.  They are, in short, looking for the data/analysis that will give them “the answer” to their challenge, when in fact the situation they are facing requires an experimental mindset where we set up multiple “safe to fail” experiments and track them over time to see how the system responds/reacts.

The complicated approach favors the experts who can speak boldly about the data and the processes, but it gets us stuck in thinking there is a linear way to approach the complex challenge.  Your task is to bring this framework to your team, talk about ways you can use the tool to determine which realm you are dealing with, and therefore what the appropriate response is to tackling it.

In our next post, I will talk more about Systems Thinking, explaining what it is, why it works, and how to begin to apply it to the almost inevitable complexity you are facing in your work and life.

For more on the Cynefin Framework, check out this video: