A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine, who is an Agile Coach and trainer, introduced me to the Cynefin (Ki-nev-in) framework (developed by Dave Snowden). It's an excellent framework to help sort problems and projects according to levels of complexity.
Simple (also known as "Obvious")
The framework starts of with “Simple” problems or projects – more recently retitled as “Obvious”. In this category, the nature of the problem, solution, and how to get there is Simple or Obvious to everyone.
The basic approach to achieve success in this category is described as “Sense – Categorise – Respond”. For me, the key term here is “Categorise” - this means that this problem is something that has been done before, and is well understood. Cause and effect are relatively straightforward, and the approach to implementing a solution is Obvious, if not trivial. The path to the solution is well-trodden and no surprises are expected. “Best Practice” probably exists, and can be applied.
Projects in this problem category are well suited to “Traditional” or “Waterfall” approaches. A plan and design can be formed up front, with a reasonable expectation that the solution can be delivered using a defined method within predictable timeframes. And that’s pretty much Waterfall’s sweet spot – anything beyond that level of complexity, and the cracks in Waterfall approaches begin to display themselves pretty quickly.
Despite first appearances, this problem / project category actually has a lot in common with the “Simple” domain, but requires more analysis and investigation to narrow down the best approach. The approach and solution are not quite so obvious, and the path to the solution not so well-trodden. Once the solution and approach have been identified, however, a fairly straightforward model may be applied to implementing a solution, with the expectation that surprises are unlikely. Best practice probably does not exist, but there are enough examples of “Good practice” to allow a straightforward, traditional approach to proceed with a manageable level of risk.
This is where things start to get fun and interesting, and where “Adaptive” (also known as Agile, Iterative) approaches start to come into their own. The recommended approach is to Probe-Sense-Respond. This means we cannot expect to determine the solution fully up front. Read that again, and let it sink in. This concept is actually the antithesis of most business problem solving and project management approaches.
In the Complex category, we must actually invest ourselves in commencing work on the solution, and see how things progress, and adjust along the way. Adaptive approaches are well suited to this complexity category, with their time-boxed, iterative approaches to problem resolution. There is no best-practice here, and not even much good practice. What there is. Is “Emergent Practice”, which relies heavily on smart, capable people, using adaptive approaches to respond in a timely and intelligent way to the circumstances they find themselves in.
Chaotic is, if you like, the extreme version of Complex. While in Complex we Probe-Sense-Respond, in Chaotic environments we must Act-Sense-Respond. Act implies that we fully commit. We can’t just conduct hypothetical experiments or proofs-of-concept. We must actually commit to implementing something, measuring it’s strengths and weaknesses in the real world, and then commit to implementing something else. We cannot accurately estimate how problems can be solved in the real world in Chaotic systems, without actually implementing a solution. This again, even more than Complex environments, demands the use of adaptive approaches that depend on continuous measurement and adjustment, and NOT on massive up front planning.
The Real World
As the rate and degree of change accelerates in business and the world in general, problems and projects are tending increasingly towards the Complex and Chaotic end of the spectrum. In such categories, the application of rigid, traditional approaches only increases the level of risk faced by individuals, teams and organisations. Adaptive models, including those in the Agile stable of approaches, are much more suited to these Complex and Chaotic environments and, when applied well, can greatly increase the odds of success, as measured by timely delivery of real solutions and real business value.
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