Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Introducing Cynefin to Your Team


Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve had a brainstorm about possibily introducing Cynefin to my department because I suddenly realized it would help us conceptualize and strategize about some things.

So I looked up games for introducing Cynefin and I found one that introduces Cynefin using Legos! And I read it and it is actually VERY similar to a game I do using Bornimago magnets/balls to introduce curriculum theory… Few things excite me as much as using tactile game play to explain complex theory! Legos ftw!

Ur welcome 🙂

Also, I just started realizing that one of the disconnects between AI in education is that the more technical/scientific trained people tend to expect complicated problems and frame them within good or best pratice. Whereas people in most social science and humanities recognize the complexity and…so technical people will tell you why AI can replace teachers by listing 10 characteristics or functions of teachers and ticking them off. As if you could actually list JUST 10 things that ALL teachers in ALL contexts do, and prioritize them properly (let alone the aspect of an IT person probably choosing the wrong list anyway). Creating the list gives the impression that it is tick-off-able. But i you need to question the list first!

In education there is rarely ever a best practice. Some things are good practice. Most things, honestly, are “this worked for me that way with those students that year in that context and worked again slightly better next year when I did this, but failed miserably the year after even though I did exact same thing”.

Also, the breakdown of Cynefin is not that different from the break down of social theories from instrumental to constructivist to poststructural (more difficult to identify critical within Cynefin, as it’s sort of mixed up with poststructural I think). I only noticed this NOW because of how similar my magnets game is to their lego game, like some of the instructions are almost identical. It’s uncanny, really.

What I would do is play the game then ask my colleagues to reflect on which aspects of our work tend to fall in which domain and whether sometimes we overthink something that’s simple/complicated and other times we oversimplify things that are in the complex domain.

One of the things I’ve been trying to explain for MONTHS now is that when you’re innovating (and here innovating means new to YOU) things will always be a bit emergent until you find your feet and then maybe something that was in complex domain moves to complicated, or maybe not… But it’s rare (though possible) that something was in complicated domain and you overthought it by treating it as complex and created emergent practices from scratch when a good practice already existed that you could have used.

One more example of something in complex domain? Questions of inclusivity. They will always be poststructural, solutions will always be partial emergent and contextual. Always. Heck, including a blind person differs dramatically from including w deaf person. Many solutions will be mutually exclusive to some.

I’m gonna stop here for now


  1. @Bali_Maha I have all kinds of stuff to share with you if you’re interested and I’d love to hear what you’ve learned, read, tried…

  2. I wrote this couple of years ago.
    Maybe shared the link earlier.…

  3. I’m so excited that you’re interested in Cynefin because I want to geek out about this. Thanks for the invitation to do so on your blog. I’m sure by now you are very familiar with the various graphic representations of the framework. In the foundations course I took with Cognitive Edge last year they walked us through an introductory activity that demonstrated how they build a Cynefin model contexualized to a given system.

    I was working with a table team of folks from Boeing and Washington state government, so we needed a system we all had experience with. They asked us to think of a time we had experience with needing health care and all the decisions that went into care and treatment. We wrote the decisions as “story fragments” on sticky notes, jotting things like “got a second opinion,” “chose my doctor based on a recommendation,” “decided to discontinue use of steroid.” When we had a table full of sticky notes, they gave us a blank piece of chart paper with a simple categorization statement on each corner.* The bottom right corner, the simple domain, was something like, “specific rules or instructions had to be followed.” The top right corner, the complicated domain, was something like, “had to consult experts or review sets of good practices.” The top left corner, the complex domain, was, “had to experiment or try a few things to see what worked.” The final corner, the bottom left, represented the chaotic domain where we “had to make decisions to manage a crisis.”

    The paper was still blank at this point because the last step of this activity was to create an authentic Cynefin Framework by stringing yarn between the different domains based on the stories that landed in each quadrant of the paper. To get to that point we had to take all of our sticky notes and put them in somewhere on the paper, with the fragments that were the clearest examples of each domain going in the extreme corners and the fragments we were unsure how to place landing in the center of the paper, which would represent disorder when the model was finished.

    Anyway, I could have sworn I took a picture of our model but apparently I did some housecleaning in Google photos and deleted it– whoops. What I do have is the method paper behind the activity, which I will send you. The health care example was a great way to start for us because none of us were talking about our own areas of expertise, which helped us think about the framework without our biases coming into play. This simple activity, which may have taken us 90 minutes by the time we strung our yarn on the paper, hung our charts on the wall, and gallery walked the room, is one way Cognitive Edge helps develop models of systems with various organizations. The idea is that you can’t create a model of a human system using technology (or any other means really) because the only model of the system is the system itself due to the complexity of human systems. Hence the need for this type of sensemaking activity.

    *On the method paper I’m sending you this key part is called “define a number of relevant heuristics and an exemplar story for each sub-domain to define that sub-domain for the issue at hand.”

    • Awesome! Thanks Joe… I may try something and send it or blog for feedback. Thanks for geeking out w me

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