Using a Cynefin Framework for Group Decision Making

Cynefin is a Welsh word for a decision-making framework which was developed by the scholar David Snowdon.  I recently listened to a talk on this framework, given by a skilled facilitator who has worked with social services organizations and other types of groups to solve problems based on this model.  

Take a look at the Cynefin framework at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin  Particularly notice the upper right corner of this page where a graphic of the decision grid is laid out. Notice that the zones on the right-hand side are called "simple" and "complicated".  These are issues that can be solved by a simple technical or logical fix.  "Simple" decisions are cause and effect - turn on the light switch and the light comes on, turn off the switch and the light goes off.  An example of a "complicated" decision is when you turn on the switch and the light doesn't come on.  Then you have to call the electrician to fix the light.  He fixes it and the light comes on.  It is "complicated" because you needed some outside expertise or information to fix it.

Now imagine that we plan to solve a problem in our community which includes several types of decisions - "simple", "complicated", "complex" (decisions that are not straightforward and need to be probed before a course of action emerges) and "chaotic" (decisions to act immediately in an emergency situation, then assess later). 

At the scheduled time, a diverse group comes together in a day-long workshop.  Imagine that the facillitator writes the phrase "Food Insecurity in our Community" at the top of a white board at the front of a room where the workshop is convened and draws a Cyneform grid right below it.  (Note that In a real workshop the "disorder" zone is a diamond shape larger than in the wikipedia graphic -- to accommodate all the stickies that will be put in that zone at the beginning.)

There are 15 - 20 community members gathered - workers from the food bank, a case manager who helps families on food stamps, two workers from the local homeless shelter, a volunteer from a non-profit mentoring poor single parents, the head of an agency on aging, etc.

The facilitator begins the workshop by asking participants to tell stories of situations and people they work with who are food insecure.  Meanwhile an assistant is writing the essence of each story into a headline phrase on an individual sticky note.  Each note goes into the "disorder" zone of the Cynefin grid drawn on the white board.  All the stickies are placed there because they haven't been sorted yet, so the types of decisions required to resolve them are unknown. 

After everyone's stories are told and all the stickies have been created, everyone takes a break.  

When they come back, the facilitator helps them sort each sticky note into the appropriate decision zone of the Cynefin.  Everyone agrees that the headline on the first sticky calls for a "simple" decision: "Families need to receive their food stamps on the first of each month. Joan will verify that the checks are sent by the 15th so the families will receive their check by the first."  

A "complicated" problem appears:  "The cafeteria at the school is often running out of government surplus food before a new supply arrives.  We need to find out what's happening in the supply line that is causing the delays.  Who can we contact to do this?" 

A "complex" issue comes up that requires further probing: "The funding for Meals on Wheels is down and we need to identify new sources of funding and figure out a strategies for fundraising.  Since we don't know enough to decide on this yet, we need to form a committee to investigate.  Who volunteers to be on the committee to look at this issue?"

Then we have a "chaotic" situation that's so pressing we must take immediate action on it and figure out what happened later: "Mrs. Jones, is going through chemotherapy and vomiting frequently.  We get her some anti-nausea medication and a case of electrolyte drinks right away."  Later we realized we could have had some drugs and drinks on hand for emergencies and we create a new petty cash account for those purchases.

Some stickies are usually left in the "disorder" zone because no one can identify what kind of decision it requires or knows enough about the issue -- yet.

In a nutshell, this is how a Cynefin framework facilitates community problem solving on a large scale:  by labeling and sorting issues into understandable decision categories, then addressing each issue by making an appropriate decision, and finally identifying the right people to take action on it.

 

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