Hidden Complexities

Originally published September 24, 2016

I consider sense-making to be a component of Landscape and Doctrine (from Sun Tzu’s Five Factors), and so I am incorporating a short overview of Cynefin into an upcoming talk on strategy. While outlining, I toyed with a few examples for the various ontological domains and learned an unexpected lesson, with the help of a colleague.

Cynefin has few domains (though they might also be thought of as interwoven spectra): Obvious (Simple), Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, and Disorder. To illustrate Obvious and Complicated, I thought useful examples might be the assembly of two 2×2 Lego bricks for the former and hundreds in various combinations for the latter. For the former, I described only one way to assemble the bricks: One on top of the other (4 connections between them).

My colleague, however, was quick to point out my oversight; one might assemble the brick with overlap only on one side (2 connections) or one corner (1 connection) to form other unique shapes. My Obvious example, it appeared, was itself Complicated (it’s been a while since I played with Legos). A better idea would be to focus on the bricks’ interlocking mechanism as Obvious (what else would be used? Rubber bands?), with the various patterns of assemblage (that all use the same interlocking mechanism) as Complicated.

To have multiple, valid options in a linear circumstance is to be Complicated. Treating the Complicated as if it were Obvious, though, is a mistake. Claiming “One True Way” for assembling Lego bricks results only in a bit of embarrassment for me, but another situation might be more serious (e.g., “Six Sigma everything always!”). Lesson (re-)learned.


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