The Cynefin Framework

I was recently introduced to this framework for sense-making, known as Cynefin. The video above is worth having a look, and David Snowden is an articulate, concise speaker on what the framework is all about.

In essence, the framework is about beginning from disorder and determining which kind of conditions you are operating under based on the facts, and therefore, which type of practice you need in order to cope with those conditions. Starting from data, rather than starting from the framework is critical to its utility as a sense-making model.

In many respects this has me thinking about the framework for thinking that many common law trained lawyers use. You begin with the facts - those that are ascertainable either through direct evidence or common acceptance by parties and witnesses. These facts begin to take on a pattern - cause and effect, liability and remedy, intent and outcome, responsible party and aggrieved party. The patterns start to point you in the direction of a general principle - an actual statute or a precedent in case law - that you must then work out how to apply to these facts.

The interesting bits are in distinguishing facts so that you can apply principles, or distinguishing principles so you can martial the facts. It was always my impression as a law student that the former was preferable to the latter - it tended toward more just results, especially in the long term, when the results of this case might be taken as precedent for deciding the next one.

But this may be precisely where the case study tradition of the law departs to starkly from the case study tradition of business schools. Law and precedent are meant to be both durable and flexible. They are meant to take the long view, to ensure just results, not just in this case but in subsequent, similar cases. And because it is driven by general principles both of precedent and of remedy, we find that past experience can help us reason by analogy to predict future outcomes.

Lawyers also have a method by which cases are tracked and cited, and conflicting cases have to be reckoned with in order for judges to decide a case.

Business schools seem not to feel that this approach to the case study method applies to them. Both because of the standard financial maxim that past results are not a predictor of future performance, and because the business school case study method tends to rely on cherrypicking cases.

Nevertheless, a sense-making approach, where facts lead and frameworks follow, appeals to me. It suggests there may yet be such a thing as precedent in business, and that facts may matter at least as much as intuition.