Interview with Dave Snowden by Kornelia Trzęsowska

How important is managing complexity (and chaos) in a time of crisis?

Assuming you are referencing the EU Field Guide of that name than very. For the first time, it lays out a comprehensive set of methods and approaches to allow organizations to prepare themselves to handle the unknowable unknowns and also, the unknown known. The first is by focusing on creating an organization that has the ability to respond dynamically to uncertainty as it emerges and the second is by using employees as a human sensor network, to allow leaders to find people who are seeing things that other people are missing.

Why you are fed up with frameworks?

I’m not, I’ve created a few in my time. I’m fed up with people calling loose collections of methods with context-specific applications as frameworks and treating them like a religion condemning other ‘framework’ users as heretics. Worst still people collating any method into an overarching Borg-type framework destroys diversity in the environment.

What is the difference between a framework and an open-source ecosystem?

One is an important part of the other. Any ecosystem will require methods, tools, frameworks and so on to work and it will need them to interact to produce novel, emergent outcomes.

Dave Snowden Speaking
Fot. Dave Snowden’s archive Prof. Dave Snowden speaking

On AgileByExample 2022 you mentioned the Agile open-source ecosystem you work on. Can you give our readers more details about this solution?

It’s pretty simple – we break down methods, tools and frameworks into their lowest coherent level then allow them to combine and recombine in different ways in different contexts. So I can take Scrum as one example, the lowest level of granularity includes a sprint. There is no reason why I shouldn’t, in some circumstances, replace the sprint with a three-month timebox or the retrospective with continuous scanning. It is what good consultants do anyway – they select and modify aspects of method sets to the local context. What is the value of this ecosystem for managers who are trying to make their organizations more agile? Right now they have access to the frameworks, tools, and techniques. They can combine their own framework. Do they need the ecosystem? Hexi, which is the ecosystem, will allow them to recognize what they have done to date, then add or replace things in an evolutionary pathway. That was you don’t start with a highly disruptive and ineffective ’transformation program’ and instead through multiple interactions between people and methods over time enable a transformation of the organization and more importantly the services it offers. In effect, you can combine the best of many approaches from different vendors rather than lock yourself into something based on an average of other companies’ practices. Not only that you can go directly to the originator of the method for training and support.

What will be the key elements – pillars of this ecosystem?

Well, there is a core kit that provides for different types of interactions, key concepts, disruptive concepts and quotations, common errors and so on. Then multiple extension packs for different methods or tool sets with their methods broken down to that optimal level of granularity. There is also supporting material for brainstorming using different typologies and a host of other ideas that are starting to build into the ecology as people get involved. Critically it’s open source – anyone can produce a set, or provide material and we will produce without censorship. No lock-in. Training in facilitation will emerge, both physical and virtual and we are already experimenting there but it won’t be a locking. Every Hexi in the kit has a QR code that takes you to back up material, in our case, our method cards link back to the open source Wiki and that is available to other participants or they can use their own.

A red car is heading lighttower, that is in distance hidden partially behind white clouds
Fot. Michael Held on Unsplash

Complexity and uncertainty management methods seem to have recently become a priority for organizations and strategic decision-making. There is a lot of talk about VUCA, BANI, Black Swans and your model. What should we choose to manage different areas today?

Cynefin is a framework, not a model! A model seeks to represent reality, a framework should provide different perspectives on reality. VUCA, BANI etc. for me fall into the ’so what?’ category. They describe something we already know, they don’t tell us what to do. Cynefin also provides guidance as to what you can and can’t do depending on the context so it is a description that leads to action rather than just a description. Taleb with Black Swan did us all a favor in bringing attention to something that the whole foresight community was ignoring, but then the ‘so what?’ question follows. The EU Field guide says to do three things: Firstly, to stimulate the formation of informal networks across silos so that knowledge and information can flow quickly in a crisis – focus on building the pipes don’t worry for now what will flow through them. Secondly, to use your employees and customers as a human sensor network so that Black Swans become visible early enough to do something at a lower energy cost than after they are self-evident. Next, to map what you know at a fine enough level of granularity that you can rapidly repurpose existing capability for novel use, you won’t have time to invent things from scratch.

All of those (plus a lot of other things in the guide) are about creating an organization that is naturally resilient, not about trying to forecast and plan for that which cannot be forecast, or even if can will not gain sufficient attention early enough.

What are the emerging trends that leaders should pay special attention to?

One really – we are moving into a world where there are few if any uncertainties. Scenario planning may make you more vulnerable as it may restrict your vision, instead, we now look (my latest framework) at mapping the energy cost of change and from that watching the pathways with the lowest energy cost, mapping the counterfactuals (the things which are unlikely to change) and so on. Understanding where we are and what could happen next is more important than trying to second-guess the uncertainty. I’d also be very cautious about the current trend to digitization (and all management fads). If it is heavily promoted by leading management consultants proceed with extreme caution. Humans are not computers and vice versa, you need to know the limits of effective digitization and the value of analog processing.

How to be successful in juggling multiple demands at once?

Use networks, follow coherent pathways (we can measure coherence) and ignore incoherent ones. Do small things in multiple areas that keep options open for as long as possible.

An economic recession seems to be inevitable in the coming years. What key elements of the Cynefin modality are able to help managers make decisions that will minimize the risk of mistakes?

For complex issues you can’t afford to lay off capabilities that have evolved over time, so focus. Cost reduction works in ordered domains by cutting things, ion complexity by using things in different ways. Recessions create opportunities for innovation but few companies focus on that. Again the EU Field Guide has recommendations on specialist crews to manage in a crisis and that can be taken sideways into responding to a recession.

Dave Snowden speaking
Fot. Fot. Dave Snowden’s archive Prof. Dave Snowden speaking at UX Brighton 2016.

This is an extremely challenging time for leaders and communication with the public seems crucial for stability and managing emotions. Can you point to any specific case of chaos management from recent years? Pandemic, war, organization behavior.

Oh, the response of New Zealand to the pandemic, decisive action to keep options open for as long as possible, the UK and Sweden did the opposite with different results which is worth looking at. The Ukraine situation is causing a complete rethink on warfare with civilian engagement, drones etc. and those in the field are dinging solutions that we should be looking at. Otherwise, a large part of our work is measuring attitudes in populations – that is key as attitudes are lead indicators and small micro-nudges can keep things stable and allow focused interventions – that is a whole two-day session in its own right by the way but you can find stuff on our web site about citizen engagement.

We have noticed that you like to make notes during panels. How do you ‘organize’ your personal knowledge and how do you manage it in Cognitive Edge? What are your favorite methods, tools and techniques you practice in your organization?

I use four colors in four fountain pens!  Blue or black for notes, green for my thoughts, red for action. I also have a lot of books with a lot of notes in the margin – and I can find stuff there quickly. I am a great believer in Wikis and we moved out methods into an open-source one a year or so ago so that theory and practice are maintained by a community. I talk with a lot of people and connect with people rather than try and codify their knowledge. My recent keynote at KM World summarizes that, and the three frameworks.