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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

Know Thy Team: Shape Your Approach within Five Contexts

I'd been searching for a mental model for decision-making and governance for a long time, toying with the dated Vroom & Yetton model and others… Recently, I stumbled upon the Cynefin framework--Dave Snowden et al's Framework for Decision-Making. This way of seeing groups and providing the right frameworks for decision-making has been invaluable.

It roughly translates to the five different ways I've seen groups operate. Let's look at these through the lens of the Cynefin framework.

A Group in Disorder

In a disordered group, you'll see one or two folks insist on best practice or step-by-step approaches, while another suggests a literature review or SWOT analysis. Still another throws out some approaches that no one's tried, just to see what happens. And another plays "devil's advocate" with everything, leading the group into occasional flare-ups of chaos. When a group has competing constraints that cloud an approach to decision-making and action, you'll know it's in disorder. This group's deliverables, if they happen at all, are often achieved by one or two strong-willed people who bypass the group to keep things moving. These efforts seldom address the right problem, and structured facilitation is key to helping the group figure out their context.

A Group in the Realm of the Obvious

When a group knows its context, what they want done, and it's been done before, they're in the obvious domain. You'll see a veteran worker dictating tight constraints to a group who's ready to follow their step-by-step instructions. The deliverable is simple, and the group will wonder why they didn't just call this meeting by its real name: Training. Emails, Slack channels, handbooks, and pair-work are great replacements for meetings in the realm of the obvious.

A Group Facing the Complicated

A group is in the complicated domain when it's governed by a few experts who have different views of what approach to take. After some discussion, they can agree on governing constraints about essential features of a good decision within the group's context, but nobody can claim there's one best approach. Deliverables from this group result from compromise and consensus over what's "good enough," and things generally go to plan if enough expertise and productive discussion were at play.

A Group in Complexity

These are the groups who've tried everything before and know it doesn't work. They're starting to distrust experts, as those in their midst and from the outside have failed them. Their knowledge base has shifted so quickly that no one knows what will work, and obsolescence plagues every long-range plan they've tried to front-load. Most everyone knows they need to try something new, but there's no playbook, and case studies don't really fit their particular context. "Deliverables" and "solutions" become words that no longer fit.

Here, groups are in the realm of experimentation and continuous assessment through iterative processes. We see healthy corollaries in science, software, and some healthcare fields, but most nonprofits--and certainly governments--are struggling to find good process for this kind of thinking together.

A Group in Chaos

I've never seen a group who's truly fallen into chaos, and I'm glad. I have seen glimpses of it: temper tantrums, walk-outs, arguments without a point, lost agendas, and forgotten rationales. Ironically, chaos usually happens when groups mistakenly assume they're treating a complicated or complex problem as if it were obvious. When chaos has set in, the group will crave order of any kind and will often follow the first person--usually a strong, charismatic type--with a clearly communicated plan. I often run across organizations who thrive in chaos to the point they cultivate it... Though high leadership and staff turnover often results.

More on the Cynefin Framework

Don't rest with my (undoubtedly incomplete) breakdown here. If Cynefin has you intrigued, go learn more right now: Dave Snowden lectures are everywhere on the web these days, but here's a juicy article and an elegant video from Jennifer Garvey Berger to begin your journey. I'd be remiss if I didn't share Snowden's clever birthday party illustration too.

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