On sense-making and Cynefin

Get oriented

“Sense-Making is the way that humans choose between multiple possible explanations of sensory input” ~ Dave Snowden

How many of you have a friend, peer or coworker who is in love with some new approach to solving problems? Whether it’s Scrum, Agile, or the Lean Startup, we all know people who jump on the latest trend and try to apply it in any and all situations. What about the opposite? How many of you know someone who refuses to give up the method he’s used for 20 years? Again, every office has someone convinced that any new idea is a fad and will fade away given enough time. Who’s right? Well, the answer is “it depends.”

Different problems warrant different approaches.

Sounds obvious enough, but in practice this can be a challenge. As humans, we like what we like. We crave familiarity, and this often causes us to favor certain approaches over others. How, then, do we overcome this innate tendency?

Enter sense-making, in general, and Cynefin, in particular. (Cynefin, roughly pronounced “kun-EFF-in” in English, is a Welsh word that means “habitat” or “place.”) Sense-making is a way to process, categorize, and choose between different possible explanations. It’s kind of an abstract concept, so perhaps an example would be helpful.

Say you woke up in the middle of the woods and all you have are a printed set of directions that are designed to get you home. The problem is you have no idea if you are at the starting point for the directions or somewhere else entirely. If you follow them to the letter, there’s no guarantee you will arrive at home. What you really need is a map and a GPS to identify where you are in relation to the starting point for the directions.

Sense-making is that map and compass.

It helps you to determine the nature of your problem and enables you to identify the proper method to use to attack it.

More on Cynefin coming up

In our next post, we’ll get into the details of the Cynefin framework and model, and go into more detail on how Cynefin addresses situations that are complicated, complex, chaotic, obvious or in a state of disorder. Stay tuned…

Image by: JoshArdle Photography via Compfight cc

Mike Bovich
People hacker, geek, dance dad and Dev Director for Web Pro and Reseller Programs at GoDaddy, Mike spends his days guiding the development of products to help Pros kick ass and his nights chauffeuring his daughters to and from dance practice.