Cynefin Organising Principle 1: Distinguishing between sense-making and categorisation

I first encountered Dave Snowden and Cynefin back in 2003 when we were still working for IBM.  I felt an immediate resonance when I encountered the Cynefin Centre’s Complexity and Narrative based consulting methods as I never felt comfortable with the one-size-fits-all recipe-based consulting approaches I’d had to apply.  The acknowledgement of the importance of context and that Best Practices are only valid within very specific boundaries was a breath of fresh air.

The Cynefin Centre produced a document with the “organising principles” or heuristics underlying their complexity-based consulting approach – I found them extremely useful, but they’ve fallen by the wayside over the years.  I thought this might be a good time to resurrect them.

There are 12 principles in 4 categories – I’ll unpack each in a series of posts.  The four categories are:  The Nature of Reasoning; The Role of Management; Consultancy Practice & Intervention Design.

1. Distinguishing between sense making and categorisation (The nature of reasoning)

Cynefin comparison

“The classic consultancy two by two matrices are categorisation models.   Give people such a model, 200 items of which only half fit, and they will still make them all fit.   Humans have a strong tendency to classification using existing frameworks; this is a form of pattern matching which also leads to stereotyping (racism being only one of many examples). “

It’s interesting how deep our penchant for categorisation can be, for many of us it is our default way of seeing the world.  Dave often asks workshop participants a simple question:  which of these go together, and which is the odd one out … Cow, Chicken or Grass (maybe think about your own answer to this question before reading further!)

If you said Cow and Chicken go together and Grass is the odd one out, you used categorisation-based thinking to answer the question (Grass is a plant whereas Cow & Chicken are both animals).  If you answered Chicken, you used relational thinking as the Cow has a relationship with the grass.   (You can read more about this test here)

When dealing with complex systems, relational thinking is much more valuable than categorisation.  Paul Cilliers writes:

“Complexity is a characteristic of a system, and arises because of the interaction between the components of a system; it is not so much the properties of the individual components, but their relationships with each other that cause complex behavior. The properties of the system emerge as a result of these interactions; they are not contained within individual elements. Decomposing a complex system into individual components destroys the system properties.”

Our seeming obsession with categories also influences our people practices and relationships – and even how we perceive ourselves.  For some reason most people seem to love being categorised (or to categorise others), which explains the popularity of personality assessments like Myers Briggs and DISC.  There seems to be a prevailing belief that if we know which box someone fits in, it makes it easier to manage or relate to them.  I can certainly see the value of greater self- and other awareness, and personally love the Clifton StrengthsFinder (it doesn’t use boxes!) – but I’ve never seen simple categories that could wholly describe the complexity of our humanness.

Cynefin focuses on sense-making. Individually, the term “sense making” describes the complex process by which a person makes sense of the situations they find themselves in and acknowledges the many subtle influences of perceptions, biases, goals, identities, and memories. Organisational sense-making involves all of this at the collective level, describing how groups of people develop shared meanings that make sense to the group.  

The perceptual basis of sense making is why the Cynefin model is a contextual (or phenomenological) model rather than a physical (or ontological) one.   People think in abstract representations of reality, and understanding how those interpretations are patterned and can be patterned is vital to the Cynefin approach.

Most people start off using the Cynefin framework as a categorisation framework, which has high utility and value but it only scratches the surface of what the framework is really about.   It neglects the fact that the framework is a primarily a dynamic sense-making framework, and that the movement of issues or projects between the domains is what is of real interest.   The Cynefin domains of disorder and chaos are also more transitory than static – things tend to move through them, they don’t remain there for long.  Categorising something into those domains therefore doesn’t make much sense, except in the very short term.

Sense-making is more flow and less about making things fit into static categories.  For more on this, read this excellent post by Dave :


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2 thoughts on “Cynefin Organising Principle 1: Distinguishing between sense-making and categorisation

  1. I’m also a fan of StrengthFinders. 🙂

    The categization tendency is strong. When our org did our first Cynefin mapping event many people wanted to make the lines first. That day we learned to hide the permanent markers early on.

  2. Great post! One important aspect that help explain our need to categorize is the different way of what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’. System one takes fast decisions based on pattern recognition, system 2 is more reflective of what is actually there. Categorization is done by system 1. I usually don’t like comparing us with our evolutionary ancestors (especially when talking about diet), but in this case it makes sense to be quick to categorize a lion as dangerous and thus react with running away. That is how our brain functions. So if we want people not to quickly categorize but use relational thinking, we need to stimulate system 2 so it is awake and able to intervene in the quick decisions of system 1.

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