Post-its & Corners
A way out of confusion
I hope that all is well with you and yours.
An interesting couple of days for yours truly since last I wrote. For the first time in my life, I am effectively homeless. No, I am fortunately not out on the streets; as some of you may remember, my wife and I have been trying to sell our home for the last few months. Per this past Tuesday, we finally have.
Much like in the rest of the world, the Swedish housing market is becoming rather brusque. The old simile about pulling teeth comes to mind – it can clearly be good for long-term health, yet nonetheless presents a short-term pain. We most definitely needed a bigger house for current and future family reasons (plus, my wife really wanted a proper garden) and with kindergarten spots dwindling, the time was very much now whether ideal or not. But boy was it an ache and half to sell.
The rest of the year will undoubtedly be, shall we say, rather interesting. Although we have an idea of our next steps, what happens after them remains hidden within an almost impenetrable fog of uncertainty.
So too, of course, is much of what businesses can expect going forward. Premium subscribers will know why. Over the past few weeks, we have been breaking down current market events from the macro to the micro, trying to unearth what one might reasonably expect at least in the near-to-mid future.
As ever, my entirely unbiased (ahem) recommendation is adaptive strategy such as that informed by the ABCDE framework. But trying to understand where uncertainty lies, if only on a basic level, may be a good step in the meantime. This is yet again where Cynefin can be of great value. We have previously established its use as a sense-making framework. Today, we are going to look at how one might utilize a core Cynefin Co (previously Cognitive Edge) exercise: Four Corners Contextualization.
The point of contextualization is to understand your present situation. It can be used for a number of reasons, such as to discuss conditions based on gathered data or evaluate strategic interventions, but more than anything, it should move you out of a state of confusion. When using the exercise in workshops, I therefore tend to do what Chris Corrigan does (for reference, his tour around Cynefin and introduction to how to use the framework are brilliant and well worth looking into) by putting collected information into a colloquially titled “WTF” pile. But more on that in a second.
Beyond the usual project requirements (room, time, stakeholder management and so on), all that is needed is a metric fuckton of post-it notes and a few pens.
Start by having participants – ideally a diverse (i.e., from multiple departments, levels of seniority and, if possible, backgrounds) team of seven to twelve people – describe the present situation in as many ways as they can using the language of the organization. That is to say, instead of relying on external definitions and terminology, use those that the company does. For this initial part, it can be helpful to lean on some of Julia Sloan’s work, which means that the exercise includes:
Defining the substantive problems of the task. Question, describe and explain the problem as you see it in the relevant context.
Ensuring relevance. Descriptions should be particular to the matter at hand, linked to immediate questions, confusions, difficulties, or potentials. Coherent, in other words.
Enabling critical dialogue. All those involved in the critical dialogue must agree to let it emerge and go places that a discussion or debate would not (as dialogue is divergent). If we are to take advantage of, for example, naïve perspectives, we cannot have a senior participant silence them before they can be heard.
At this point, you are only looking for descriptions of the present, not solutions; it is not a brainstorming session. Importantly, these should also not exclusively rely on what one might call engineering reasoning, i.e., deductive or inductive logic. For those unfamiliar with the terms, the former takes us from the general to the specific, whereas the latter takes us from the specific to the general. Both, however, depend on some form of order – and as we know, neither aggregation nor reduction is possible in complexity.
A third kind of logic should be equally prioritized. Occasionally called the science of hunches, abductive logic does not require the same clarity of causality. Instead, it relies on relevant experience and what one might somewhat loosely call a feel for how the system is disposed to behave.
The dichotomy between, one one hand, deductive/inductive and, on the other, abductive, is similar to that of tacit vs explicit knowledge and what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the lecturing birds how to fly effect. Tacit knowledge, he argues, is of such an ambiguous character that it “prevents us from calling it exactly knowledge. It’s a way of doing things that we cannot really express in clear language, but that we do nevertheless, and do well.” Explicit knowledge, meanwhile, “is what you acquire in school, can get grades for, can codify, what can be explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, provable, etc.” The error of rationalism, to his point, is, overestimating the role and necessity of the latter in human affairs.
Where was I?
Once everyone has finished, all the post-it notes go into the aforementioned WTF pile. On a wall or large piece of paper, establish four corners, each of which should have a description mirroring the Cynefin domains. The ones that I tend to use are variants of:
Bottom right corner (the Clear domain): “Things are obvious, familiar, and we know what to do”.
Top right corner (the Complicated domain): “There is a solution, but we need an expert to find it for us”.
Top left corner (the Complex domain): “We do not know what to do – there are many competing hypotheses”.
Bottom left corner (the Chaos domain): “We are overwhelmed; this is a crisis.”
As a team, then place the post-it notes according to which of the four statements they most closely resemble, but allow for nuance (few post-its should sit at the extremes).
Once done, split the space into quarters using ribbons or something similar (do not use a pen). To emphasize, this should only be done after completion so as to not bias the outcome. Also remember that not all post-it notes have to, so to speak, find a home. Any that have not should remain in the WTF pile in the middle.
The end result might look something like this:
Each of the groupings can now be managed. If problems exist in the Clear corner, you can (and should) solve them immediately. For those in the Complicated corner, create a plan, do some research, find an expert, pay them.
If aspects sit in the Complex corner, try to figure out ways in which to test possible solutions that are safe to fail, then run said experiments. Look for feedback patterns to emerge. If they are positive, provide more resources. If they are not, take the resources away.
If there are post-it notes in the Chaos corner, deal with them as soon as possible (in fact, best do so before you do anything else). Seek to stabilize the situation. Once you have, see if the aspect might now fit somewhere else.
Anything remaining in the middle should be revisited every now and again. As you gain knowledge and a broader understanding of the situation, the previously unsortable may just suddenly become possible to place.
Now, it might be that aspects sit in-between quarters, such as between Complicated and Complex or Complex and Chaotic. In Cynefin lingo, these spaces are liminal, and they hold particular value for innovation. One can see them in the framework illustration as shaded greys:
Unfortunately, explaining them here and now while giving them the attention they deserve would make the newsletter far too long – so that will be our topic for next week.
Until then, I hope that the exercise described above might help you understand your context and wish you the loveliest of weekends.
Onwards and upwards,
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