Some months ago I finally attended one of Cognitive Edge's accreditation courses, in London, run by Steve Bealing and Michael Cheveldave. I'll collect my thoughts on the course another time: in short, if you think it might be relevant to your work, do it -- if only for the experience of using the techniques. And if you do go, I suggest you pay as much attention to the facilitators as you do to the mechanics of the techniques: there's a lot of compiled experience in the way they run the sessions -- probably as much as there is in the mechanics of the techniques themselves.
This really came home to me only when we ran our first 'Four Tables' session (aka Cynefin Contextualisation) ourselves. I won't steal Dave's description of the technique - it's well described on their website - but it's essentially a framework for structuring group workshops addressing complex issues. Again, I'm going to postpone any write-up on that for now, except to say that I heartily recommend it, and that it scales up very well for surprisingly large groups - locally our session became known as '16 tables', for which each set of four had their own facilitator.
What I'm currently wondering about is the insight that the framework used in the Four Tables technique - called Cynefin - can provide into the role of the consultant. The framework is summarised in the diagram below. What grabbed me recently was its ability to make sense of a four-way categorisation of consultancy roles that I'd been given on a recent sales course.
The image above, and the thinking behind it, do tend to catalyse some very interesting conversations, often at cross purposes. I take responsibility for any confusion resulting from the following description. In my defence, if it was simple to convey, it wouldn't be interesting. For the canonical text, I'd recommend the Harvard Business Review article 'A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making' (Nov 2007) - I've tried to keep to the standard language used to describe them.
The framework names four domains, or contexts, which be used to make sense of real-world situations (a centrally-placed fifth, disorder, applies when the appropriate descriptive context is unclear).
In the simple ordered domain, the relations between causes and effects are clear, persistent, and apparent even to non-experts. The appropriate strategy is to sense the issue, categorise it, and then respond using acknowledged best practice.
In the second domain, that of the complicated, there is still order -- in the sense of persistent causality -- but making sense of it has become the domain of the expert. And, naturally, there are as many 'good' practices as there are experts. These experts sense, analyse, and respond according to their findings.
In the third domain, the complex, causal relations are themselves in flux. The 'objects' of interest are now the patterns that emerges Patterns in these relations and in system behaviour will emerge and dissipate over time. Here, we must probe for new patterns (i.e. act in ways that will stimulate useful feedback), sense the patterns that emerge, and respond accordingly. The space for leisurely analysis has disappeared.
The fourth domain is called chaotic, and is characterised by a rate of change in causal relations that is so high that the priority becomes that of symptom management. We act on the symptoms, sense and respond. It can be a productive state - brainstorming, habitat change, and financial crises can all lead to new forms arising - but it requires a particular mindset, to thrive under these conditions.
It's this issue of the mindset that I'm wondering about. Are we all equally capable of taking any of these approaches, as best suits the situation? I strongly suspect not, and had an entertaining debate with colleagues about which we each preferred. The insight from the sales course that I mentioned earlier was that there is a common categorisation of consultants that sorts them into pacesetters, experts, coaches, and catalysts. Is it me, or is it surprisingly easy to make sense of this categorisation using the Cynefin framework - as appropriate for simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains respectively? And it seems to suggest a fifth category of consultant - firefighter - to join the catalysts in the chaotic domain.