26 comments on “Embracing the Chaotic: Cynefin and Humanitarian Response

  1. Loving this post! Photos look superb with the black background too. Dave’s Cynefin framework has changed my worldview/operating system … which has an impact across everything I do.

    Warm Regards Geoff

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  3. Nice article and acknowledgement of the nature of many Humanitarian issues. There is a lot desire, to ascribe simplicity to poverty and the actions of the poor, when in fact the situation is often any thing, but simple and the participants in a crisis or even preceding a crisis are acting very rationally.

  4. If it wasn’t explcitly stated before – CHAOS and DISORDER are different.

    James Gleick’s book (Chaos: The making of a new science) is all about the hidden order in nature, or in this case, in community development. It is really hard to analyze but can be done in theory. You often need much more information than is practical in social settings. It works well in laboratories where a million replicate measurements is not a stretch.

    DISORDER is a lack of cause-effect relationships. All you can do is try to create order and get into one of the other realms, like complex.

    • Thanks Marc- for taking the time to read (carefully) and comment. You’re absolutely right- Chaos and Disorder are distinct fields, and there is an order or pattern to chaos, however hard it might be to understand or perceive- hence the amount of interest/study in chaos theory and associated fields of thought. The components of Snowden’s original model which I did not explore in this blog are the catastrophic boundary between the Simple and Chaotic dimensions (crossing from Simplicity into Chaos is highly disruptive), and a central ‘Disorder’ field which sits at the nexus of the four main components and is distinct, as you’ve said, from chaos. I like your straightforward explanation of disorder- great.

      Thanks too for the book title. I’m really interested in understanding more about chaos theory and science- would you recommend Gleick as a good starting point?


  5. The best thing about brilliant frameworks and explanations is that you sit back at the end and go, “off course!”

    Learnt a lot then from 10 minutes of reading. I love the exploration of the ideas of “trust” and “principal” coming into play. I think you’re right in that people only build in character and responsibility once they feel that others are willing to take a chance on them and invest in them. That is no doubt going to be the biggest challenge for risk averse NGOs whose supporters can be skeptical and anxious.

    And therefore it really is necessary to connect supporters into the complexities of development so that they are behind NGOs looking to entrust and empower field workers in difficult situations. I’d love to see the communications of NGOs during humanitarian crises rallying support for relief workers excelling in chaotic situations rather than trying to explain away the fears of misspending or ineffectiveness.

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  9. Very interesting application of Cynefin and very useful insight into our response to the long list of disasters, natural and man-made (or are we beginning to see them as converging? the subject of another blog…)

    I came across Dave Snowden and Cynefin a couple of years back and have been following the debates ever since. I also used the model (with Dave’s agreement!) to warn against thinking about work as just Simple or Complicated, as part of my own analysis of complexity and organisational capability in my book, The Change Equation.

    I particularly liked the way you identified the need for trust and the ability for an NGO to rely on its people to work to shared principles in a Complex or Chaotic environment. That’s actually quite a mature organisational culture – several levels above the typical NGO, I fear. (It’s level 5 on the Kinston Evolution of Management Style model – more about this on my website.)

    I’d just like to add one suggestion to your excellent analysis. When you are in the Complex or Chaotic fields, it isn’t enough to adopt fast and informal story-based feedback mechanisms. That tells you what is happening in discrete micro views – it doesn’t enable the NGO to refine its response. In order to do that, it needs insight – a clearer understanding of the problem.

    Dave’s response to this situation was to develop the Sensemaking methodology: collect as much of such narrative data as you can, apply a taxonomy and use computer modelling to analyse and make sense of what is happening. I’d suggest that this would be an appropriate way forward for the aid community – I know some projects have been undertaken but it’s not yet an accepted toolset – it should be.

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  22. Interesting article for the Response Team,Systems themselves need to become quick, adaptable and light. Rather than spending hours or days negotiating. Take a simple Incident Command System setup for example . Six people, optimal to manage, and depending on the scale of the emergency you might just need six people.Appropriate for any scale of response.

  23. I just discovered your excellent review of cynefin. One suggested “friendly amendment” about chaos that underscores Snowden’s claim that cynefin is a sensemaking framework, not a categorization framework.

    You write, “A good example of a Chaotic system is a burning house. There are so many processes happening so fast and in no discernable order, and the situation is evolving so rapidly and unpredictably, that it’s nearly impossible to actually map what is happening, either during the process, or even with the benefit of hindsight.”

    If my house is burning down, I agree with you: this is an example of chaos. But to an experienced firefighter, a burning house is likely to be something in the simple domain. He or she has been to dozens if not hundreds of similar incidents, and much (but not all) of the event is knowable and predictable.

    This example might also illustrates the potential “catastrophic failure boundary between ‘Simple’ and ‘Chaotic’ paradigms.” But that’s a comment for another time.

    Thank you for writing your article.

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