#10 - Exploring Cynefin a framework for sense making


Join us on our journey into Cynefin, a framework for sense-making. For over twenty years, Dave Snowden has been helping leaders break out of a tendency to use the same solutions for different settings. Cynefin is the first, and this time the only, framework that allows leaders to ground their leadership skills in the reality of what is going on around them. Join us in a conversation as Alex and John do their best to explore the Cynefin map and real-world design stories to help apply the complex thinking that Cynefin requires.

Exploring Complexity Science and how to think in complex adaptive systems has had a profound effect on our ability to navigate complicated transformational efforts. If you are like us and seeking a well of opportunity to develop and grow, then this is a subject you cannot afford to pass up. Complexity is a state of mind. And while manually change someone's mind, at the very least, we can hope to nudge you in the general direction of immense opportunity.

Some things you can hope to expect out of studying complexity:

  • Develop peace of mind knowing that the world is perfect the way it is and we are merely participating in a complex system.
  • Ways to think about how to influence others through the informal network and enabling constraints.
  • Explore new ways to think about how to create motivation.
  • Develop a foundation in which all other leadership books cover from a high level.
  • Naturally, expand your leadership toolset.

Additional resources


Alex Bachuk 0:36

Hey, john, how's it going?

John Masse 0:38

Good. Alex, what's up, man? How you doing?

Alex Bachuk 0:41

Doing? Well, a lot going on this week? Been pretty busy. What about you?

John Masse 0:46

Yeah, a lot of the same.

Alex Bachuk 0:47

Cool, man. So tell me about this framework Cynefin.

John Masse 0:52

Alright, man. So we've been talking about complexity a lot. We just talked about that with a little bit about it with our buddy, Jeff, you've been kind enough to entertain the conversations. And it seems like you've been getting more and more curious. And so what I did was I wrote down just like a bunch of bullet points about Cynefin, which is a framework for situational awareness. I'm going to use that term because I think it's a little less confusing. And what I think we could do, maybe that might be helpful is just kind of walk through, you know, what does it mean? Where did it come from? Why or why am I kind of drawn to it? Maybe you too, your curiosity as well, maybe some use cases. And maybe I was thinking maybe we could do some storytelling, right? Maybe we can walk through some examples together, and kind of stretch our own thinking. For those that are listening. This is actually a preparatory conversation. So we're hoping that this episode could be a good starting point for folks for an episode we're planning to record later this month, with Dave Snowden, who was the originator of the Cynefin framework, which we hope to get deeper into the subject matter on the applications of the framework and styles of thinking for being successful, instead of going through and talking about what can happen is because we think that that's largely been exercised already. And we'd like to get to the meat of the matter, which is the Applied Science. All right, Alex.

Alex Bachuk 2:26

Yeah. This is a theory or framework to deal with complexities of complex adaptive systems. And it's funny because this framework is, is complex. This conversation before we talk to Dave Snowden, and the reason why we're talking today, Dave Snowden is I think we're having conversations. And for me, it's hard to wrap my head around this, this framework, dealing with complexity. So it's good. It's a complexity dealing with complexity. And yeah, we decided to reach out to Dave Snowden to see if he would be willing to talk to us and kind of walk us through his thinking, and how can we apply this framework in the day to day life. That's interesting. So I'm curious what you learned in kind of the basics of framework?

John Masse 3:13

Yeah. All right. So I'm gonna do a terrible job of explaining it. But I think in the show notes, I found, there's a couple of resources on YouTube, cultivating leadership as a channel on YouTube that I found to be the most approachable flavor or path into trying to understand Cynefin as a framework, partially because Cynefin as a framework is, it's about your state of mind as a leader. And one of the things that they warn leaders about when talking about Cynefin, is that as leaders, when we solve a problem, we then approach and it was successful, we then approach every problem with the same solution expecting the same results. And in complexity, there's never what they told is there's no real guarantees that one solution, or one instance in one system, or team or company would also be successful on another instance. And for example, when we were talking about the developer sprint, and the previous episodes, and the blog posts that we put out, the position was that the dev sprint is an experiment to try on your team. But there's no guarantee that spending your time that way would actually be beneficial to you have to understand what you're trying to do, based on the context. That makes sense so far.

Alex Bachuk 4:37

Yeah. So paraphrase. And the way I understand it is that it doesn't make sense to be fixated on a specific framework, the really the same, that there's one framework that will solve all your problem or the ideal process. There's always going to be variables that will introduce something new unknown to the system, therefore, it's complex. system. Right? So it's always depends, depends company depends on the team depends on the project. It always depends.

John Masse 5:08

Yes. And so I've always, I think where I might be how I think I am, I feel more naturally drawn to the style of thinking is, I'm always thinking about or trying to avoid risk, or avoid pain, if you're talking about motivation. And in that practice, through my career, I've realized that the decisions that I've made with my team, or in the work that I'm doing, might have had a negative effect somewhere else that I didn't understand. And what I really appreciate about Cynefin, is it. It honors, that there are things that are very predictable. But it also reveals to us that and asked us to admit to ourselves that there are times where we don't know what's going to happen. And it provides us really a map. And that's how I'm starting to think of Cynefin is yes, it's labeled as a framework. But I'm, I've also heard the term map being used by folks like Jennifer Berger, from cultivating leadership, as a map to help me understand well, what state is my environment in? And how should I behave as a leader to try to get to the next step and use either, and then yeah, I can fall back on things that I've done in the past, of course, but they should be done based on context of what I'm doing. So starting at the top of like this list, so now I'm looking at my, my list of notes here. And I'm thinking maybe we just go back and forth on what we think these things mean to us. So Cynefin is kind of a funny word. When I first saw it, it's C.Y.N.E.F.I.N. When I first saw it, I thought it was like cinnamon or something. But Cynefin, it's actually a Welsh word. And it means habitat acquainted and familiar. And does that relate to anything? Like when you think of that phrase, and you think of how the framework is postured? Does it make sense to you?

Alex Bachuk 7:06

Well, knowing the framework, I know everything, like the core idea is the context. And that, to me is like that, that habit of acquaintance familiar is, is about where you are, and what's around you. What's the environment you're in? What's the context you're working with?

John Masse 7:25

Yeah, right. So, so habitat familiar are interesting. So um, so habitat is where I reside. And how familiar am I with it? Or how acquainted am I with with my habitat? So it's a tough word, it's a word that I think I might do the framework injustice, if you saw Cynefin, out of context, and what would even get you to want to engage with it just based on its brand. And I think it's suffers adoption wise, I think it's going to suffer from that, largely because it's a foreign word to, at least to me, and I was only interested in it because I've been looking for applying complexity theory to Management Science. And it was the first thing that came up. It's actually the only thing that's come up. But I think long term adoption is going to, it's going to struggle a bit with that name.

Alex Bachuk 8:19

I also think the the adoption is not as well adopted is because of it promotes complexity and unknown. And I think most organizations and people are striving for some structure, and clarity. So maybe it goes against what you're all naturally leaning towards.

John Masse 8:39

Yeah, that's a great point, we all we feel comfortable when we can predict what's going to happen. So we always try to set ourselves up or set our work up in a way where we can easily understand what's going to happen next. And that is largely human nature. But we'll hopefully we'll get deeper into that, either while we're chatting today, or when we talk to Snowden later or other professionals. Next bullet here, it is defined as a system for sense making also called a decision making framework for leaders. So to me, what that means is that can Cynefin is a tool to help me understand and make sense of the environment I'm in and help me make a decision or come to an understanding of how I can get to a decision. Right? Cynefin derived from several core disciplines, which I thought was interesting. So it's not just complexity theory. It's also systems theory. And we see that in some of the modeling that comes out of Cynefin, and there's also a tool I forget what it's called, but in some sense maker, yeah, the sense maker tool. So there are tools and modeling and system discovery is still a part of it. But it's it's also paired with these other sciences, network theory. There was instance where I've heard seen an example of network theory is in the use of heuristics, or the term enabling constraints, which we'll talk a little bit about later. Where if in your network or in a social network, you can define if you're hueristic, that can allow people to organize around. For instance, the example that was used in the talks I've listened to were come from the military. And Dave Snowden himself used Napoleon, from historical war times, where he told his generals to march to the sound of the guns, and it creates an interesting network, or social network opportunity. So if Alex, you and I are generals, and we're in different parts of the battlefield, we don't see each other, we have no cell phones or any technology to stay in touch. And we hear guns, I know you're moving in that direction, you know, I'm moving in that direction. And therefore there's this really interesting layer of meta communication or, or additional intelligence within our network, where we can behave and set expectations or plan or absent of being able to even see each other.

Alex Bachuk 11:09

That's the same as intuition.

John Masse 11:12

I don't know. Well, I mean, I guess yeah.

Alex Bachuk 11:14

Because subconsciously, you can make certain assumptions about what's happening. Like if you, if you hear some noises outside and you don't see it, you can probably make up what that noise is without actually seeing the noise directly. So it sounds to me, it's similar to that, if you hear the gunshots, you know, there's something going on, and probably in that direction, as well, because you're making same assumptions. Because we were trained in the same camp, we have the same base of knowledge, the same base formation, the same fundamentals of reality.

John Masse 11:50

Yeah, actually, that's really smart. Um, I'm looking at the definition of intuition and something in years of different fields use the word intuition in very different ways, including, but not limited to direct access to unconscious knowledge. And I think the difference between with intuition is there's the I think it's, this is ambiguous, but my thought is that if we say intuition, there's some kind of like, unspoken, unconscious, gut feeling that we get. That is not as it's not like, it's it is a part of the decision making process. But it's not as obvious as saying marched to the sound of the guns like that is like, Okay, this is an input, or hueristic, I know is going I know, this is how things are going to happen. Versus saying, I'm having a conversation with someone, I just don't feel right about either making this hire or they might not be a fit culturally, I think that's maybe is there, I think there it is an input intuition is definitely an input. But I don't think it's exactly the same thing. But definitely worth speaking, it's getting this is just opinion, right. And then the other input to Cynefin is learning theories, which I don't really have a lot to talk about regarding learning theory. But what I do know is that, and something that I do seeing in Cynefin is, when you're taking feedback from a group, particularly people of humans or human system, you want to be able to take feedback in multiple formats. So they say not just written text, but also pictures, picture, audio, any video any like having open formats, so that because, at least in learning, what I've understood is that folks learn in different ways are optimized to learn in different ways you have kinetic learning, to learn by doing, learn by watching, learn by reading, like, and so where I kind of see that parallel is in the gathering of information for the leader to make a decisions to make the inputs varied. Okay,

Alex Bachuk 13:55

so the system's complexity network learning the the assumptions, the behavior, it's all sounds like cognitive and behavioral science, which is psychology. So do you think this is good enough? Cynefin framework is just certain parts picked from psychology, how people behave and think and learn and interact with each other?

John Masse 14:19

Oh, yeah. Well, I know complexity theory absolutely is and all of these touch on that systems is ambiguous systems theory. We see that a lot in technology, it's usually the dominant theory. But if you look at complexity, a lot of it comes from biology. And looking out at how systems look or work in concert with other details. So for instance, we are used to looking at a system and breaking it down into smaller parts and looking at each part and understanding each part as an individual element to the whole complexity asks us to look at the system as a whole instead of each part. So it's the opposite of deconstructionism might be saying that the wrong way. But instead of destructuring, a system and understanding the parts, it's how does everything fit together? And what Cynefin does is provides us some tools for understanding how to work with a system that is very complex.

Alex Bachuk 15:29

Okay, so let's, let's talk about that. How do you use it? How do you apply it? How do you use it? I know it's a it's a pretty abstract philosophical framework. So how do you think about the system? So you are an engineering manager leader in working with a team, how do you start thinking about the system as a whole?

John Masse 15:40

So it depends on what kind of system you're in. So Cynefin gives us four quadrants to think about. And maybe we'll start start with that. And we'll go through each one, because we have to understand the state you're in before, deciding how to respond, or how to how to behave, I think is more appropriate, because responding is a part of what we do, once we understand where we are. So Cynefin, first is going to encourage the leader to think of the environments they're operating within. So I would ask the question, is the environment obvious? So if it's obvious, and we can very clearly articulate and see what's happening, and then we use us sense to categorize and respond, and work towards best practice, because best practice should be more obvious to us. So if I'm in an obvious system, let's try to think of what would be obvious, like, what would be something that would or in life, what is there like an example we can think of that is pretty obvious to us?

Alex Bachuk 17:06

Well, I can, I can think of an example, I've been in the company for, let's say, six years, I know everyone really well interacted with people for a long time. I've been in similar projects. It's not a new project. I've been working with this team with this codebase. And people around me for a long time I know them well. And everything to me, there's no unknowns, at least on the on the surface, I'm comfortable in this environment. Right. And to me, it's it's obvious. Okay. So now, so you're saying now in this environment, everything is pretty clear. Of course, there's always going to be some something that is hidden, right, from your point of view, but at least on the surface, it's pretty clear.

John Masse 17:54

Well, that's still a human system. And I think they oscillate between complex and complicated. So something that's probably more obvious where the there are no hidden variables, he said a little bit like, there's Oh, there's this opportunity where something could emerge, that makes it less obvious. So something that could be obvious, maybe simpler is if you we look at an assembly line, let's say we're building a car. And we know that doors need to go on the car. In that scenario, I can use sense making. So I can say, oh, let me think, Well, I mean, I know I need doors on the car, I can and then I'm going to categorize things like, I can say, Well, what point does it make sense to apply doors to the car, and then I can respond with an action of let's say, hire some, buy some robotics, or install something in my factory. And now I have technically a best practice, I know I use titanium alloy for the machines, because it has the most resilience that we know of today. And then I can optimize that, because the inputs and outputs are are limited, right? I know I, I'm going to put metal through this process, doors will be created and then attached to the the vehicle chassis, for instance. Right? So there's very, there's like really limited modes for upper in mathematics, maybe outside of writing the new algorithm. And it could be what's obvious to me is if I need to add, if I need to generate a sum, I know I can take two integers and apply an operation and a calculator and I can get the output so there's, there's really no, it's not like I'm gonna, I'm gonna pick up my calculator and it's going to evaporate out of my hand.

Alex Bachuk 19:41

So we're talking really, we're talking obviously, very obvious, like, this isn't reality, it's like it's in front of me, I can see it so therefore it's obvious. So there shouldn't be anything hidden, or like unknown parts of the equation where it may or may not be true, yet. Make sense

John Masse 19:59

and Another one could be typing on a keyboard, where a best practice could be applied. So position your hands a certain way. And there's a sudden obvious signs, right? Because our, you know, due to prolonged duration of using the keyboard, people have been developing wrist pain, and that's led to carpal tunnel. So, so best practices obvious in those in those cases. The next one is the environment complicated. And it is the, the reaction of a leader should be to sense analyze, then respond. So sense of what's going on analyze, think about what the problem spaces and then come to some conclusion. Usually also, this is where, where you might need to hire a consultant or specialists or a PhD in a subject matter. These are areas where maybe Oh, Jennifer used to be Jennifer Berger use the analogy of building a rocket to the moon. This is a complicated problem. It's one where good practice can be applied, because many professionals might have different opinions. Dave Snowden might say that there's no wrong answer in the complicated space, as long as there but there are answers that or solutions that are coherent. So if you're an engineering team, or team of engineers, and you have multiple professionals, kind of arguing over the shape of an algorithm, both are technically right, and their output perspective. So you trying to strive for good practice in that that's in that case.

Alex Bachuk 21:34

So complicated system in software. Seems like it's a it's a project, it's a well known, like, you know, what the outcome should be, you know how to do it is just complicated. Probably a lot of building. blogs are lots of components, lots of classes, lots of code that you can write, and you can write it in different ways, you can create two big classes or 10, smaller classes, you can create 50 components or use one monolith. So the outcome will be the same. But how you get there. It's complicated, right? There's many different ways you can get there. And therefore, you probably need to analyze and see what the best way or good way to respond, right? Because there is no best way,

John Masse 22:17

Right. And I've heard that striving for best practice in complicated scenarios, creates frustration to the participants of that either project or system. Agile actually comes up within complicated. So agile is a framework that works in the complicated domain, it actually oscillates between complex and complicated. But usually when you're running Scrum, or if you're running a backlog, or if you have a defined epic, it's a complicated process, sometimes you need to talk to a customer, and you get the feedback from the customer. And then you're juggling decisions, and you're going towards a good place not best place, because that's not feasible,

Alex Bachuk 23:00

Does what they say is the bestest enemy of good, right? If you if you're going to aim for best in this complicated system, you there is a risk of failing, because there's probably no best or it's gonna be it was gonna take you a lot, a lot more time to get the best for you probably gonna end up with a good

John Masse 23:22

while also like what I just thought of this as think of what it is, when fighting to create some push something into best practice. And in order to do that, we have to really simplify or reduce the surface area of the story you're working on, in order to apply a best practice, because you have to hammer down to the point where the inputs and outputs are, are trivial at that point. They're highly predictable, so you can apply best practice. And why I think that's interesting to think about is that we're trying to make complicated things obvious is that we could be like, reducing opportunity, or reducing opportunity through experimentation. Does that make sense? kind of putting these words together for the first time in my mind, but it's like, as we're talking about it, that's the thing that I think isn't agile, it's when we're practicing software development. There's some areas where we'd like best practice, like we maybe we standardize on a common tool react for instances for web development is one that's fairly predictable. We can kind of, you know, use our once you understand it, it kind of works one way, even though it can be applied different ways. And there's maybe actually react, I think, would probably fall more in the complicated domain, right? Because then you have different state management tools you have, you know, it can get harder

Alex Bachuk 24:44

as well. And then if you want to have best practices, that means you're going to introduce constraints. I know we're going to talk about constraints a bit more, but then you use their multiple ways to achieve or structure your code and I'm going to say this is The best practice. So now you have constraints like you can use other ways to build software. Ah, that's right, use this, you should use this one way to build software. And it's going to be best practice in this specific context for our team for this project, and maybe not, it's not going to be a best practice. In the second project, or with another team.

John Masse 25:24

Yeah, actually, I just pulled it up. I didn't. Usually they in the Cynefin framework map, they provide the what type of constraints are used, based on each state and for the obvious, they say, tightly constrained? So yeah, you're exactly right, is it's complicated until you constrain it a lot like it's, there are no degrees of freedom is the right sort of

Alex Bachuk 25:48

Fixed, you have fixed environment?

John Masse 25:50

Yes. Completely. Where complicated, you use what's called governing constraints. And they are tightly coupled. And using good practice. So what were tightly coupled be

Alex Bachuk 26:03

I think, tightly coupled, or going back to react or just code in general, I think if you introduce a constraint and best practice, now you have to couple like you use, you have to use the state management with this library with this practice. So it's you tightly coupling these options together. And you're making does this system that you are dictating a governing constraint, you're saying use this system use this best practice, right? So it's all coupled together. That's, that's how I interpret that.

John Masse 26:40

That helps me a lot, actually. And I can see that applied to, like a mono repo might be might be an idea, like another place where it's complicated. You have governing constraints, because you're limited by the tools that are there. And the participants are tightly coupled to the platform. But we're still using good practice. We're always taking feedback and changing it to meet the needs of the customer. But yeah, there's this. There are governing constraints. They're a good one, Alex. Cool. All right. So now now, I think it's gonna get interesting, because this is where we start getting onto the left side of the Cynefin map, which is the two other system pipes, which are complex and chaotic. So is the environment is complex. So in a complex environment, it's when and what I like to switch gears into at this point is talking about cause and effect is when the cause and effect are not immediately obvious. Or there's unknown unknowns, or known unknowns. And as a leader, you're encouraged from Cynefins perspective to probe sense and respond.

Alex Bachuk 27:54

So before we get any further, let's let's talk about the difference between complex and complicated. Just words, yes. What do they mean? Because we just talked about complicated, and I know, I've been using comp complicated and complex in digit interchangeably. So to me, in the past, at least, it meant the same thing. Now I know the difference. So I but I want to I want to stop here and talk about that.

John Masse 28:19

Alright, so let's actually look at, I'm pulling up the definition verbatim, so complicated. It's containing intricately combined or involved parts, not easy to understand or analyze because of being intricate, composed of interconnected parts. Not simple, complex, complicated. So complex is part of how complicated is described. Complex means consisting of interconnected or interwoven parts of a composite, composed of two or more units. That's a tough one.

Alex Bachuk 28:54

I did some research and to me, here's what I understand. It's complicated. We have this system where parts are known, like we know what parts of the system are, we can disassemble the system and put it back together. So we know how to deconstruct it and constructed back and just complicated because there's a lot of them in the system, like a wall, you can, and you can, yeah, you can put it together in different ways. Lego complex system works. We know the system works. But we don't really know how the parts are interacting with each other.

John Masse 29:33


Alex Bachuk 29:34

How they are connected together. So we take one part away, the system is different.

John Masse 29:40

But we don't know how it's different. Right. Right. That's a great, great way to describe Alex.

Alex Bachuk 29:47

Yeah. And the connections between these parts are as important as the parts themselves.

John Masse 29:52

Yes. So now that we're comfortable with the separation between those two things. So complex is pretty complicated. So in a complex environment, things are loosely coupled. So that makes sense to me. Because if we're you're, we're in a human system. And we have multiple teams at play, that contribute to create a technology organization, or any really any organization, or each team is usually off kind of doing their own thing. But as a whole, they create product, they create the experience that customers at the end of the day are involved in. And if you removed any of those teams or an individual from that team, it's hard to determine exactly what the side effects going to be, for instance, if you've ever had somebody leave your company, and then all of a sudden, these little pockets of things that are no longer being taken care of start to emerge. And I didn't know this person was just handling these things. Now, what do we do when we have to respond to that? I think is another good example to think about loose coupling.

Alex Bachuk 30:57

Yeah, I just think all the interactions, any company, any team, I think all the interactions are complex, I think all the systems. If you think of a software development, like in the, in the company setting, I think it's all complex, because these connections are pretty much hidden. Like you don't know which connections and how people are interacting, because you don't see all the interactions, right, it's impossible for one person to see all the interactions and dynamics on the team. And the code, there's a lot a lot of variables and how they are connected. It's a It's a mystery.

John Masse 31:37

It is. And we see this in software practice with things like bluegreen deploys, continuous integration, continuous deployment, QA, automation, and those types of things. They're the practice of trying, like we think we're putting safeguards in. But I think what we're really doing is creating an opportunity for an event for us to understand emergence, that's a complex language is this is the area of emerging practice, where your practice is going to change, you're going to learn how to behave over time, or as you continue to run experiments.

Alex Bachuk 32:14

Yeah, I think like a good example is a legacy product project that's running, it's running, like don't touch it, don't do anything, because it's gonna break, it's gonna pull and nobody will be able to pick it up and fix it, just don't touch it, let it run.

John Masse 32:30

Yes, right. And then when you do change it, it's hard to tell or predict what effect it's going to have. Cool. So this is also the area of enabling constraints. And this one was tricky for me, I didn't really understand what the enabling constraint was. And then I did a little bit of research. And I came across a blog post by Tom McCallum, from who's a leadership consultant from a company called what's next. And we spoke on enabling constraints. And Tom was very gracious to give some of his time, time to me for this for this conversation. It was really interesting, because he, he wrote a blog post about this that we can we can link to as well. But the way he described it was enabling the word enabling and the word constraint are in direct opposition to each other, and how any constraint can actually feel enabling, but it depends on how the constraint is defined and enforced on the system. So what does that mean? And we had a chat, Alex, about developers from time to time, we don't think we have enough time that we want to spend in our software to make the decisions that we think we need to make for the sake of the longevity and safety, and the general well being or extensibility of an application or code base. And so in one argument that usually comes up is the 20% rule. Was it Google that came up with the 20% deadtime. So they get 20% of their data? Originally? Yes. Yeah. So they published this as a practice, and a lot of other companies have adopted it. And it's an engineer's discover the 20% time, and they usually ask for that. But it's different. I think, if it happens in speaking and context to the enabling constraint. If an engineer is given 20% of their time to act as they, they think they need to, for the sake of creating a better product, the constraint is time. So they're constraints, only 20% of their time to behave that way. That makes sense. So now, does that feel like a constraint to you now?

Alex Bachuk 34:36

It feels like an ask.

John Masse 34:38

It does. Yeah. But I'm, I just want to tease out the constraining part, like what we're constraining an engineer's time. So we're constraining around 20% of time. So the point here that Tom was making, and I apologize if I'm butchering this, but an enabling constraint isn't me going out as a leader hearing about Google doing this 20% time with their dev team and then going to my team and then saying, Hey, guys, 20% of your time, you could do whatever you want, guys and girls like this, right? It feels very different as a constraint. That's more of a governance at that point. It's a governing constraint, instead of an enabling constraint, because enabling constraints require the those being constrained to participate in the development of that constraint. For instance, in my team, we use the developer sprints, so we get two weeks to do to plan and act the way we think we need to to be successful for a certain duration or an increment. We didn't go by the way of the 20% time. But does that mean 20%? Time wouldn't work for another team? No, I don't think that's true. I think it absolutely could. But the dev sprint work for another team? Sure, it could. But the point of the enabling constraint is that the the system that is constraining participates in the definition of what it is.

Alex Bachuk 35:58

I think it overlaps with motivation, commitments and accountability, right. So if I'm an engineer, and I see this mass in the code, and I want to fix it, if somebody else comes in and tells me I have, like, I have to fix it, maybe I'm not going to be as motivated to fix it. Or I will feel differently about the asset, as opposed to if it's coming for me, I see the mass, I discovered it, I'm motivated to fix it, I'm gonna go and ask, and I spent 20% of the time constraint, right. 80% is the constraint not 50, not 60. But 20%. Or maybe it's a translates to one sprint, or a week of time. So if it's coming from me, I'm asking for it, I want to enable myself with this constraint. To go and fix those technical debt or whatever is there as opposed to it was coming from somebody else as a JIRA ticket, and it's part of the sprint is like, I'm not really motivated to fix it. So that that's a different type of constraint.

John Masse 37:00

Yeah, I think for us, a name like the deadline was also mentioned as an enabling constraint. But think of who's defining the deadline. If it's an outside party telling us that or a team that we run that I expect x to be delivered by y, that is a governing constraint. And enabling constraint is You and I are having a conversation. And we say, Let's do our best to get this done by next Friday. That is an enabling constraint, because deadlines are good tools to help us be accountable to ourselves and making decisions and getting work done. But they're how they're applied to our teams. And our systems can vary. So that's where I think like the enabling constraint and really fits in well, I think, is really interesting. And it's worth thinking about, if we want to separate governing constraints from enabling constraints, governing constraints we apply to a system for the sake of constraining, right, what can happen, and then enabling constraints allow for emerging practices, I think more naturally.

Alex Bachuk 38:07

Yeah, I think another example is reducing the scope. If you have a big project, how can you reduce the scope so you can get get it done? make it simpler for your team to to the finish it, you introducing more constraint? How do we constrain the scope even more, so it becomes simpler, so it's more possible for us to get it done on time or whatever other constraints we have.

John Masse 38:28

The other thing that's really important with within an enabling constraint, or to come up with a good enabling constraint, and this is also something Tom said is says you have to talk to your team. Talk to your team about what is it about your day that makes you feel like you're enabled? What enables you? And

Alex Bachuk 38:48

Then that's the key word enable, right?

John Masse 38:50

Yeah , right. That's right.

Alex Bachuk 38:53

So how does that relate back to complex? How does this that enabling constraint relate to complex systems? How does it help? So I'm in this complex, unknown system? That's a lot of connections, I'm thinking of it as a graph. Like it sets a big graph with lots of connections as opposed to complicated as a as a tree. It's more structured. Right? So I'm in this graph, I'm in the middle of this graph, like with the lots of nodes and connections and everything. How does this enabling constraint help me

John Masse 39:24

Agile might be an interesting one. So if let's look at agile as let's maybe let's talk about it in a complicated this kind of walk it through in practice, obvious complicated and complex and try and see what that feels like. So we know agile, the building blocks, you have a scrum. You have the daily standup you have several ceremonies in the in your inventory, you have retrospectives, you have sprint planning, backlog, grooming all that stuff. So if I was going to treat agile as an obvious practice, then I would probably try it. To use things like the, the agility score, right? So I forgot the term velocity. Okay, so a team uses velocity. And I think it's probably a good one. teams use velocity to measure their output, right? Their ability to deliver increments to the customer in an obvious and portraying agile in as an obvious tool, and then we would say things like, Well, everyone should have the same velocity score. Right? I saw you made, I

Alex Bachuk 40:29

said, I don't think you're listening. Alex made a face. I don't agree.

John Masse 40:35

Well, that's okay. Good. And that's actually that that's your intuition working right now, by the way. So let's look at let's, I think velocity is a good because I got a response out of you. So now let's look at velocity as a complicated, right, and the complicated space. So I would look at velocity as so good practice, there might be I'd be looking for an average. Right. So there's like an average or a median that I might be getting closer, okay, across multiple teams. Right. Now, in a complex with emerging practice, I kind of like the velocity for me, is largely like, I'm looking probably more for the extremes. So I'm going to look at the lowest, and I'm going to look at the highest. And then I'm going to try to understand what's happening in the lowest category. Because in context, that might be okay. And I'm what I want is more of the folks that have the higher velocity score. But I also have to understand the decisions that they're making on the higher end, for instance, how do they size things? Like if they allocate, like eight points to something that took two hours to do? Is that really a fair measure? It's not that it's wrong. It's just that in context of that team and how they're operating, that's what how they're getting those points. So then I might look at closer, okay, well, who's kind of in the middle range here? How are they operating? What are they? How do they think of like they're working? How did they score their work? And then that might help me identify a position or style of thinking that those folks have. And then I'll look at the folks that have the lowest velocity, and try to say, like, find in complex and term is an adjacent possible. So what's the behavior right next door to where the lowest velocity scores exist, that we can kind of start nudging or coaching this team into, and something that David says, David Snowden says to is, using the terminology, less like this more like that, and that you're continuously running experiments, using enabling constraints. So talking to the team, like, hey, how do you feel enabled? How do you score points? Oh, that's interesting. Have you tried this, or what could help us better breakdown, like maybe there's something wrong in the process, and then talking to the team about how they're working together, and then from the team, using tools like the retrospective to identify experiments that we could use to then see if their point or their velocity score begins to improve over time? And that's, in my opinion, just using velocity and how we use agile? How if I walked it through each of them, or how I could treat it would would look like, Does that help?

Alex Bachuk 43:26

So So yeah, and so in the complex, they can velocity as an example, and the flow is probe sense and respond the probe, see if it works? sense? Can you nudge it or not? in which direction and then respond to actually do it right, based on the on the feedback and kind of keep in this loop. Keep iterating keep probing keep trying, like, should you do more of this or more of that.

John Masse 43:52

Right. And in the practicing in complex systems, we also develop parallel, safe to fail experiments. Because the whole part of the probing is understanding what reality is, and then making sense of where we're trying to go and responding to experiments. And either we amplify the things that we want to keep, or we mute or diminish the things we don't. And that's how the system evolves over time.

Alex Bachuk 44:27

Okay, makes sense.

John Masse 44:29

The last one here is, is the environment chaotic? And chaos is tricky. I think chaos has, at least in my growing up or understanding of the term, chaos is put in this really bad light. It's very negative. But I believe in some of the stuff I was tweeting about, I think chaos can actually be a great tool. And the same thing with being complex. As leaders, we tend to think of one thing get really caught, like, very complex, I'm trying to be careful not to throw complicated out too often. But when it seems very complex, it tends to be overwhelming. And we want things to be more obvious. And what I've really appreciated about Cynefin and complex complexity theory is it makes me feel more comfortable that the world is just complex complex. In general, it's just a complex place to be and to give up trying to make everything obvious, but enjoy the process. Or at least for me, my inner story or inner dialogue is let's have some fun working through this complex scenario, using what we understand about the world and the skills and the things that we've learned. But with chaos, chaos is decoupled. So there's no coupling between things. It's impossible to draw any lines between cause and effect. And it's lacking constraint. So there's no constraint at all. And if our environment is chaotic, then we are to act sense and respond, seeking novel practice and novel meaning, like new new ideas, and new ways of working.

Alex Bachuk 46:16


John Masse 46:17

I'm wondering, I'm trying to I was trying to think, this morning about an example of when I felt like things were chaotic.

Alex Bachuk 46:24

Yeah, I think I read in the book, and you can even book there was an example of COVID. COVID happens, right? Everything is upside down. Right. So the the general rule is never waste a crisis. Right? Okay. So I think the example is, even though it's chaotic, deploy two teams in chaos. One is innovation team, and try No practices, try different things. Because it's a completely new environment, completely chaos, it's a good opportunity to innovate, introduce something new and try different things. And at the same time, deploy a business Recovery Team, don't go out of the business, while this is happening. So this is how you react, or act in this chaos, try to innovate and try to normal practices, how can you do something differently to survive, and at the same time, try not to go under and under, try not to go out of the business?

John Masse 47:28

Right? So that you gave me some ideas. So I'm gonna think of popping corn. And it's a terrible metaphor, but I think it's, it's simple enough for us to kind of talk about how to act in in chaos and walk through acting, sensing and responding. So I'm imagining like a flat surface area that's very large, and it's covered in popcorn kernels, and I turn on the heat, and then the popcorn starts to pop. And I mean, while you can make a connection between the heat in the kernels, there are no guarantees on which direction the popping is going to go. Right? It's just gonna, it's gonna we just know it's going to pop, we just don't know where it's gonna go. But if my goal if the goal is that, so that's the environment, right? So corn is popping on, let's say, it's a massive surface, and these kernels are flying all over the place. And now that's our environment, come into this environment, it doesn't matter, right? Like the metaphor of the tree falls in the woods doesn't make a sound. Right? So Does, does adding sense in order to these popping kernels, even matter, but maybe it does, once a leader emerges when we say, okay, we need to get this popping corn, we need to get it into a bucket, so that we can serve it at the movie theater. And so the first thing we do is we'll probably act, okay, we'll say like, I'm going to put up a wall here, I'm going to create a barrier, and then the popping corn will bounce off that and stay within these confined areas. So I'm gonna try to constrain it. So I may I do that. And then I look and I observe and what's happening, and maybe some kernels are still pop, I'm sensing that things are still a little bit disordered. So then I develop the next response to that, right. So I'm responding to that effect of things still falling outside of the boundary. And then I act again, until I get to the place where I've now confined this thing, or I've at least moved it from chaotic to complex, because now maybe I've constrained the corns but I still haven't gotten them into like human hands, like maybe people like butter or salt or whatever. And so then I need to now probe sense and respond to the to how people are behaving to the product I'm now giving them after I've gone from this kind of chaotic place, or area, but also novel practice, I think is the thing that I'm really attracted to with chaos is that chaos puts us in a position where we have to think of new ways of doing the same thing. Something that's, or a phrase that I hear is rapidly repurposing of existing or known components. For instance, I think we do that all the time with technology. It's not that we're doing anything differently. It's just we're reorganizing things like we're reorganizing code parts constantly to create novel experiences for or for humans, you can look at web redesign is a is another easy one to kind of pick on. Because we could say that you're we're always dealing with boxes, we're just moving them and organizing them in different ways. We're always dealing with text and typography. It's just that we're treating it you have serif, sans serif, those those emerged for specific reasons they had different those are new ways of, of creating characters for the sake of human consumption.

Alex Bachuk 50:53

Okay, do you think like startups would be a good example for a chaotic system, like I just recently saw Bizly I was. We were involved in Bizly. I worked with them later. So they were in the, in the physical meeting business. Like they were organizing physical, like in person meetings for companies like they would take care of all the logistics and organize meetings. Now with the COVID, everyone works remotely. So whether they do, it's a chaos, right, it's outside of their control, they can't really do anything. It's a different environment. They pivot into online meeting organizers. So they would organize the the agenda, they would organize meeting notes, they would organize the logistics of zoom and invites and everything. So it's still kind of similar, but it's a novel practice. They repurpose their idea of efficient meetings into something completely different.

John Masse 51:53

Yeah, I think that's, that's interesting. I struggle with that one a little bit. But I think it's still a good example. So their acting was based on the response to COVID. So they decided to pivot and they used sensing to understand where to go next. And they responded by building a new product.

Alex Bachuk 52:15

Well, they repurpose with product they had, they had some parts of the product of how to organize efficient meetings, right. And they repurpose some of the parts into online. Whereas not, of course, it's not the same. It's not in person meetings, but some parts are the same how people interact with each other. Again, the agendas, the organizing, who's hosting the meeting, all the logistics, what makes a good meeting, they repurpose that into online. So they are not making money, again, from the physical space, because they were kind of taken margin from the the, the room they rented and whatnot. But now they don't have that. So they repurpose some parts, not all of the parts into something different.

John Masse 52:59

Yeah, I'd say that. That makes sense. Right? So it was the repurposing of their existing technology to create a novel product. And to practice for them. It was novel for the industry at large. There's some stuff creeping into that space. But for them, now they're competing with everyone else in this in the remote setting.

Alex Bachuk 53:22

Although I don't know, in this case, I think there is a constraint, like people can't work in person or cannot meet in person. Is that a constraint? Oh, yeah, I know. You said chaotic, doesn't have effective constraints.

John Masse 53:36

It's lacking constraints. Determinants use. So I'm going to act that's a that's a good one. Because chaos in the stories that the Dave Snowden tells us a story about trying to host a child's birthday party. And chaos being just there's the kids are just showing up. They're discovering drugs, there's no constraint they've broken into the liquor cabinet. They're experiencing life in their own way. And there's nothing right. There's nothing that helps us understand the connection between cause and effect. Like from life in business, I think. Yeah, so COVID, I think is a is an interesting one, because at the same time, you're right. COVID created a whole it's a whole set of constraints. And these are

Alex Bachuk 54:25

it's a chaos at the same time. Because what was true before it's not true anymore. And everything is out of order.

John Masse 54:34

Yeah. Hmm. So yeah, I mean, I think that's that's gonna be a takeaway for me to think about more.

Alex Bachuk 54:41

Borderline borderline. Yeah, let's leave it at that.

John Masse 54:45

Well, cuz because I want to use I'm thinking of using so I've been toying with this term of like chaos orchestrator chaos orchestration is where you create a safe area where you remove constraints or enough constraints in a controlled way. To allow for the emergence of novel ideas or new ways of working, for example, some companies will go off and build an innovation team. And those teams are sometimes given complete freedom, they get their own budget, they get their fueled with whatever, and they can hire the talent that that they find relevant. They can locate themselves wherever they want to in the world, there's just no constraints at all. But the subscriber the stake or technical stakeholders of an innovation team, are those curious to know what's coming out of them. So maybe there's maybe even if there's no deadline, right? You don't give an innovation team, an innovation team, any governing constraints outside of just maybe even a blank check for how much money they can spend. And then you just hope and pray something happens.

Alex Bachuk 55:48

Sounds like a good deal to me.

John Masse 55:55

Right? It does. But to me, I think that's they're completely decoupled. And even they can behave in an act however they want to, they're lacking constraint. But also for the sake of we're doing this on purpose for hoping with the hopes that novel practice will emerge. And maybe some kind of new innovation will be captured, that we can take and move into complex and move it along. And that's the other characteristic of the Cynefin framework is that it's about moving things from one quadrant to another. And as a leader, understanding that or being in a position where you develop an understanding of the state of the system you're in.

Alex Bachuk 56:37

Is called the separation. The lines between the quadrants are called liminal line. So it's it's fluid, it's flexible, you're always like floating from one quadrant to another one back and forth. When you're in that moment of making decisions.

John Masse 56:53

Yeah, because there are some things that will become obvious. And you want to pattern those out and create and adopt best practice. It's not that that is irrelevant. It's just that as leaders, what we tend to do is live in the complicated obvious parts of like system parts, and invoke our own decision making only from those positions. And so it limits us a lot. And the other thing that I think was really important from this is that if I'm a new leader, going into a company, that's an existing system at work. And so if I come in, and I just do a reorg, without talking to anyone, without meeting with the teams, or getting to know what's going on, then I can break a lot of things that could have been really good, or really powerful. So there's this sense accountability, as leaders that we have two systems in motion, or systems in play. And we see that sometimes too, when technology, any organization really is embarking on some migration, or they're going to change something about how their technology works. And while from a best practice perspective, feels really good, might have actually destroyed a lot of things that were really helping the business and the application teams along to be successful to begin with. So as leaders, it's really important for us to ask questions, and try to ground ourselves and our decision making and tools as leaders in reality, and being specific, instead of just working on this ideal case of Oh, I've used this tool once before you are going to use it to and just may have forcing a complex system to just deal with it. Yeah, that happens a lot. Yeah, it does. And I don't think it's, I don't think it's, I'm not trying to pick on it. I'm just trying to change my mind about how I work within a system like that. And also, you know, obviously you and I can't control everybody. That's actually something that is considered as a constraint is other other humans that we're interacting with their perception of the world. They're thinking of what's important in their priorities, or how they think and how often there's their internal survival mechanics are being invoked. We can't control those things. So as leaders, we have to look at those as constraints and ask questions and defeat naive arguments or identify intellectual immaturity, where people argue for the sake of arguing but if you ask a couple of questions, they don't really know why they're making that argument. They just think that there's something worth talking about, pretend potentially, there is.

Alex Bachuk 59:40

Yep okay do so to finish it up. Just want to summarize these quadrants and what to do and when you know you're in each of them. So to me sounds like when you're in the obvious state and obvious environment, you should just categorize and then respond.

John Masse 59:57

To sense-categories-respond.

Alex Bachuk 1:00:00

Right. When you're in complicated, you want to start with analyzing and then responding.

John Masse 1:00:06

Sense analyze, respond.

Alex Bachuk 1:00:08

So what are the sense?

John Masse 1:00:10

So both of them have lead with sense making first.

Alex Bachuk 1:00:14

Right. So you sense meaning like you should understand and then analyze.

John Masse 1:00:19

Yeah, what I like about sense is kind of like asking the question, is this obvious? Okay, this is obvious. Now I'll start to categorize things like I'll start organizing my Lego blocks for yellow and red blocks or whatever.

Alex Bachuk 1:00:35

And then analyze them.

John Masse 1:00:36

And then I'll then so that's in a sense, I categorize them. And then I respond like, okay, we'll always put these in these two buckets, and that's the job.

Alex Bachuk 1:00:46

Okay. And then with complex, you start with probing, you start with, how do I know how to start nudging in, in each direction, and then sense, and response? So nudge and then see how the response what the feedback is.

John Masse 1:01:03

So probe is take a sample, go have a meeting with the with a team, talk to your leaders, and then while during the probing sense, and get an idea of what's happening, and then respond with a sit with parallel safe to fail experiments.

Alex Bachuk 1:01:19

Okay. And then with chaos, you should just act because there is no correlation between what is it? Cause and effect, right, so you just act and then see what happens and then sends and then respond.

John Masse 1:01:32

Right! Yep. Okay, that's right.

Alex Bachuk 1:01:35

All right. Make sense? Cool. Now I understand it much better.

John Masse 1:01:39

Or at least a little bit better? Yeah, the both of us right? Yeah, we both been doing this. And Alex has been so much fun talking about this. And we've been meeting a lot of really kind and generous people really excited about chatting with Dave, Dave Snowden. Hopefully that's going to work out and happen for us this month.

Alex Bachuk 1:01:57

well. At least we covered fundamental, we understand the framework. And now we can take it to the next level and go deeper and be more philosophical and yeah. Interesting conversation.

John Masse 1:02:09

then we can start talking about adjacent possibles and the fish bladder.

Alex Bachuk 1:02:13

Yeah, well, it's a it's a, this, this framework or method is complex in itself. So yeah, maybe we can start with probing and certain thing and then responding.

John Masse 1:02:24

Yeah, I guess the closing thought is, we usually sometimes we think of frameworks as things we can pull off the shelf and start to use that I don't, that's not what this is. I don't think thinking on complexity is a state of mind. It's a mindset that we develop. And so if anyone is going to participate in Cynefin, or thinking about complexity theory, it's, we really have to redesign how we think about the world, and our, how we participate in it. And it really is a discipline, I'm always trying to catch myself, using trying to strive for best practice. We always thought that that's what made good software, best practice leads to good software. But it's people that make good software. And software is only can only ever be good. Not great.

Alex Bachuk 1:03:13

Yeah, well, framework means I just looked it up. It means an essential supporting structure. It's a structure. So this is the framework, it gives you a structure to think about sense making or decision making. It gives you a structure if there's a work what quadrants with the description, what to do in each one. To me, it sounds like a framework.

John Masse 1:03:33


I completely agree. But it for me is, maybe it's my engineering mind, or I'm thinking like, Oh, I'm gonna pull react off and then we're off the shelf. And I'm gonna look at the docs don't become obvious to me how to use the thing. And well, complexity. It's, it's not as obvious.

Alex Bachuk 1:03:51

It's a complex framework.

John Masse 1:03:57

All right, Alex.

Alex Bachuk 1:03:57

All right. Awesome. Well, thank you.

John Masse 1:03:59

Yeah, thank you, man. Thanks for tuning in to the Pragmatic Lead Podcast. If you found this conversation interesting or helpful, we would appreciate your feedback. If you want even more content like what you just heard, check out pragmatic lead comm if you have a story to tell, send an email to pragmaticlead@gmail.com and someone will be in touch. Thanks again.