The Cynefin Framework


cynefin frmeworkThe Cynefin Framework is a useful model for describing complex systems and is particularly helpful when grappling with the complexity and ambiguity that often surrounds innovation. To do it justice requires many thousands of words but I have tried to provide a flavour so that readers can investigate further for themselves.

First of all it is a sense-making not a categorisation model i.e. our data already exists and our model is applied to make sense of the patterns that occur within it.

The model describes 3 types of systems – ordered (subdivided into simple and complicated), complex and chaotic. For simple systems the relationship between cause and effect exists and is predictable. The decision making model is thus Sense, Categorize, Respond and we tend to apply best practice.

In complicated systems the relationship between cause and effect exists but is not self evident. Our decision making model is thus Sense, Analyze, Respond and we apply Good Practice. This is because we might need to employ expert advice and there may be several possibilities open to us not a single correct course of action. The big danger is to blindly employ Best Practice here.

In complex systems the relationship between cause and effect is only obvious with hindsight. The way forward is to conduct a series of experiments, to probe our system. Depending on their success or failure we will probe further and we will then develop emergent practice. We are effectively learning!

Chaotic systems are usually where we wish to be when we are innovating. There is no relationship between cause and effect. We are normally in control of these systems but such a system can be entered accidentally and we need to know how to tackle such an issue. Because we must act quickly in this unstable state our decision making model is Act, Sense, Respond.

So how do we use this? Well depending on which type of system we are in we should think and make decisions in different ways. One size does not fit all and it should be obvious that such an approach is disastrous. Often we start off in the central ‘disorder’ region i.e. not actually knowing which state we are in. This often means we do not conduct any form of analysis and will act according to personal experience and preference.

The framework also suggests that we can move around between states.  This is true as boundaries are mostly smooth transitions except for the Simple/Chaos boundary. People working in simple (often bureaucratic) systems can become complacent and when their world becomes chaotic they suffer a rough ride as they change states. This transition has been likened to falling off a cliff!

Further reading is suggested for those serious about complexity and change, however it is a very useful tool for working out how you should be behaving as an organisation, and when it is safe to adopt best practice.


Innovation or Lean?

Innovation or Lean? A recent article published on the Knowledge@Wharton website suggested that the philosophy of Lean could exist along with Innovation. After reading the article I have two questions:

  1. Why would you want them to?
  2. Why put Innovation into a box (like Lean or BPR) when an Innovation system has the ability to change and respond to its surroundings?

The article states “Lean has come to mean an integrated, end-to-end process viewpoint that combines the concepts of waste elimination, just-in time inventory management, built-in quality, and worker involvement — supported by a cultural focus on problem solving. Can such practical principles be applied to innovation, or would lean’s structure and discipline snuff out the creative spark that underlies the birth and development of great ideas? Can lean co-exist with innovation?”

The article suggests that Lean brings structure and predictability to Innovation without sufficiently defining Innovation. Innovation requires a framework within which we generate ideas, experiment and develop new products, services and processes. Such frameworks exist and also provide ways of measuring and monitoring Innovation. In that sense we have structure and predictability within Innovation so we do not need Lean also. The very definition of Lean also implies that the flexibility and adaptability required to change, either in times of crisis or to seize opportunities, may have been engineered out of an organisation.

Those who fully embrace Innovation will understand that Innovation systems evolve and fully embrace such aspects as new ideas of collaborative working, new leadership and organisational models, empowerment and customer engagement. These attributes are not specific to Innovation systems nor are they specific characteristics of Lean.

An Innovation system can exhibit Lean characteristics if necessary, but a Lean system cannot be truly Innovative since there is always be an intellectual overhead in an Innovation system and so the Lean system will become ‘non Lean’.

Another contentious topic is that of separating idea from development. It is true that the mix of people that are required during the many phases of Innovation may change, but once more this is a characteristic of Innovation, that things change. In fact, idea and development must be connected. What if the technology to implement an idea does not exist and ideas must be generated in order to put an idea into production? Imagine the first time Silicon wafers were used to produce chips in large numbers. I cannot imagine that those who developed the chips were completely separated from those who developed production processes.

So if Innovation is an end to end process which provides a framework, is adaptable to changing conditions and which can be measured, why would we wish to consider Lean? One possible (and perhaps cynical) answer is that those who promote Lean would lose a possible source of revenue or that they simply do not understand Innovation – after all, it does have ambiguity built in!


Calling all CEOs – why do you avoid Innovation and Creativity?

The message from myself and many others banging the innovation drum is relatively simple. Embrace innovation and you have a unique competitive advantage. You will be able to fully exploit the skills of your workforce, develop new products, services or processes according to your type of business and most importantly of all you will create a business that is sustainable and which will survive not only the current economic crisis but any that may occur in the future. So why do you not take action, why do you think the risk is too high – or to put it another way, what are you scared of? Why do you avoid innovation?

First of all, let us look at risk. What is it? In its simplest guise it is just circumstances or events about which we know nothing or very little. So the more we know about something, the smaller the risk. Actually the likelihood of something bad happening may not actually change as we acquire knowledge ,but the fear associated with the potential risk may decrease or vanish. So CEOs may in fact be suffering from a fear of failure or looking foolish rather than actually considering the actual risks or benefits to their organisation.

What can be done to help? If we could provide you with the following, would that help?

  • An understanding of what is involved in leading an Innovative organisation – let’s remove the surprises
  • Support in providing awareness and education for managers and staff – everyone must know where they fit in
  • A proven methodology/framework so that you know what you are doing
  • A method of measuring innovation directly so you know where your money is being spent
  • New techniques to help you predict and plan for the future
  • Provision of some ongoing support

Would this help alleviate the risks so that you can harvest the benefits of Innovation? If not then Innovation may not be for you and sadly your long term future does not look too rosy.

Over and out!


Outcome Driven Innovation – problem or not?

Outcome Driven Innovation (ODI) clearly works for a number of organisations (usually larger organisations) and not for others. Why could this be? Personally I also have a number of issues with the methodology but this is not an attempt to pull ODI apart, rather to simply point out some issues and let others make up their minds as to what is best for them.

Innovation is, or should be, a hugely flexible process that works within a comprehensive framework but which is not overly specified. It may be further complicated by the (necessary) requirement that all areas of a business (and hence all of the people) become involved. If this does not happen then all we have is a glorified R&D department.

The specification of ODI seems to me at first sight to be very prescriptive but that is just an opinion. There is however, a danger that any business embracing ODI which has not fully bought into the philosophy of Innovation, could still be governed by left brained groupthink and could embark on a process of specifying and documenting everything. This could result in a) no action at all and the incorrect conclusion that Innovation does not work b) a rigid process that is in fact more akin to something resulting from Business Process Reengineering (BPR).

Another possible issue is the fact that one of the initial steps if to formulate an Innovation strategy when in fact the process will normally help create the strategy. Also, capturing customer inputs and looking at the broader marketplace will also help formulate the Innovation strategy.

From the outside, ODI looks like a tool driven methodology where you simply turn the handle on the sausage machine and things pop out. This is not Innovation, it is more like Taylor’s scientific management. And another claim is that it has been developed over time, not a crime in itself but where is the (double loop) learning that means the methodology itself can be updated and grow as needs (and the market) change.

Finally, everything appears Marketing driven which is why many of us embraced Innovation in the first place. As they say, the devil is in the detail so readers should research ODI and then draw their own conclusions. After all, you should use the methodology/framework that is right for you, not just use something that is popular or recommended by a friend because it uses the word ‘Innovation’.


Building versus implementing Innovation systems

Like most people with websites I spend time analysing statistics from my website, especially the words and phrases that are typed into search engines such as Google and Yahoo. One frequently typed phrase is Innovation Systems.

The fact that ‘implementing an innovation system’ or ‘implementing innovation’ crops up is both puzzling and worrying. It would seem to be a good thing that people and businesses are searching for information regarding Innovation but they seem to be thinking that Innovation is a system to be implemented rather like a book keeping system and that there is a magic prescription that they can follow that is to be found somewhere on the internet.

These Googlers are likely to be frustrated and will probably be heard to utter expletives at consultants who don’t give anything away unless they are paid exorbitant daily fee rates. Of course those who develop intellectual property will wish some reward but that is not the main reason for these frustrated Google users. The truth is that there simply is no prescription. It is possible to find checklists, frameworks and balanced scorecards as well as stories of success but nothing of use unless you first understand that an innovation system cannot be implemented.

Such a system must be built from the bottom up, with a thorough understanding of where you are starting out from and what you wish to achieve. What you may not know is how you are going to get there. This is what takes the leap of faith and which is often the reason for the consultants’ fees. Once you start, the process is a little like building a bespoke house brick by brick except that you may never finish.

A better term might be ‘growing’ rather than ‘building’ as Innovation frameworks tend to be based on soft skills and are unique to the businesses in which they exist. They may exhibit similar characteristics to one another on the surface but each company’s Innovation context differs due to the make up of its components, employees. This is what we strive for, deriving competitive advantage in a way that cannot be copied easily by others. Having a system that could be implemented from a standard blueprint would not be worth doing as others would copy it.

And those consultants? Yes you will need them to facilitate the process but beware those who wish to implement everything for you. You will be paying them for a system that can be easily copied – best to get the ideas then do the work yourself.

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