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Complexity Self-organization

Managing Crises with Cynefin

Last Updated on May 12, 2021

A Short Review of a Paper

I had recently the opportunity to read an interesting document Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis. A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin framework. The document was created by Dave Snowden and Alessandro Rancati for the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EU Science Hub, to serve as a “field guide” to “navigate crises using the Cynefin framework as a compass.” Following are my 2c about the matter discussed in this paper.

I was expecting some kind of “rules of engagement” type of document from something that is identified as a “field guide”for managing complexity, but the authors seem to approach to a crisis, not only as something that needs to be dealt with (managed) with, hopefully, minimal losses, but also as an opportunity for the implementation of (lasting?) organizational changes:

During moments of stability, when bureaucracy and conservative interests tend to grow in importance, organisations evolve into a deeply entangled complex system, like bramble bushes in a thicket or the root system of a mangrove swamp. In a crisis, much of this entanglement can and should be surrendered to the moment There is a real chance to sense, see and actuate new forms of simplicity to increase the overall agility and resilience of the organisation.

Chaos places us in a very fluid context: first we have to gain some form of control, then we need to empower informal networks through light organisational structures. Resources need to be radically and, possibly, permanently reallocated. Life is not going to be the same again, even if we escape unscathed from the situation We can’t predict outcomes, so we need to shift and move at speed and be open to new possibilities on the journey; manage the risk as well as the possibilities. The only thing we know for certain is that there will be unintended consequences: we must be prepared for those too.

This is actually not a bad idea, because a crisis induced “chaos” is, as someone nicely put it, “a blessed place where old rules fall apart while new ones are not jet available“, so scared bureaucrats might, in this situation, be more open to accepting change than when things are “normal” and they are in control. I think, however, that it is very unlikely measures implemented in such a “fluid” crisis situation to keep the organization above the surface can be preserved after the situation is normalized again.

If we accept that every radical organizational change has some characteristics of an “insurgency”, Thomas Sowell’s words of caution from his book Knowledge and Decisions sound appropriate:

“… the kinds of people attracted to the original insurgency, under the initial set of incentives and constraints, tend to be very different from the kinds of people who gravitate to it after it has become successful and achieved a major part of its goals. By definition, an insurgent movement forms under a set of incentives and constraints very different from those which it seeks to create.”

It is ultimately the people who remain in the organization after the crisis that will have to maintain (or not) whichever measures were implemented while dealing with the crisis. In the above document Snowden and Rancati identify the need to “empower informal networks through light organisational structures” which, I think, means we have to recognize and make use of those people on the fringes of the organization that often (not without personal peril) “bend the rules” only to keep things going, people that don’t have too much use (or respect) for formal organizational structures.

While these people with their creativity and ingenuity can sure be a great asset in managing a crisis, the problem is that, in order for this to work, informal networks like that have to already be present in the organization. These networks are based on trust and built over long periods of time. Any attempt to create them by “fiat” in the middle of a crisis, by introducing a “breakfast” or some other kind of “informal” meeting, is likely to fail. In order for these “light organisational structures” to be useful in a moment of crisis, any useful informal network must be recognized and given a proper place in the organization before the crisis occurs. Standard organizational policies and procedures should recognize, document and facilitate the use of “best practices” that are already in place in the organization and not force the use of processes that are part of one or another contemporary fad.

The other suggestion in the document about a “radical reallocation of resources” has also pitfalls of it’s own, if, as I assume, the term resources contains also “human resources”. Throwing more money (if available) at weak spots in the organization may not help during the crisis, but it won’t for sure do any harm. For the people of the organization, however, being in a state of crisis means lot of uncertainty. Sudden “radical” reallocation of people (reorganization) may add to that feeling of helplessness. What the organization needs the most in a crisis is stability. Again, as indicated before for the using of informal networks, the introduction of organizational changes during a crisis is, IMO not the best strategy.

I will not go any deeper in the analysis of this document aside from saying that, in my opinion, it is an excellent primer for process improvement, but I’m not sure if it can be as useful as a “field guide” for crisis management. Here are just few reasons that pop in mind:

  • A crisis is not a good moment for starting organizational changes. It is better if changes are implemented in “quieter” periods and any crisis situation is then used for the validation of the organization’s “fitness”.
  • The goals for organizational changes, in addition to increasing the efficiency of the work in its primary domain, must also address resilience during periods of crisis. Fortunately, the best solutions implemented for the former may be also useful for the later.
  • A resilient organization should already have all the processes and procedures in place that provide the ability to detect (or even predict), analyze and manage crisis situations.
  • It is normal, and should be expected that, in moments of crisis, rigid, top-down, bureaucratic structures crumble under the pressure of uncertainty. Using lean and agile supporting (control) structures as a matter of organizational principle becomes then of paramount importance.

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