Cynefin Framework: Ordered Systems


The right side of the Cynefin diagram represents ordered systems. Most of the time, even when a system is clearly unordered, we try to interpret it and change it as though it were ordered. I will go into more detail about how poorly such an approach to change can work in the next post.

Simple Systems

The lower part of the diagram covers what Snowden calls simple systems. As a very simple example, consider a form that your organizations submits every month or every quarter because the form is required for you to maintain some employee benefit. Basically, filling in the form assures some agency of government that you are doing the same thing you were the last time you submitted the form, and the form, signed and sent, makes you liable if you aren’t doing things right.

You update each time if there is anything that is actually new. A more involved version of this same concept of a simple system would be tweaking a personnel policy because of a change in your organization or the rules regarding such policies. Most of the time, with a little effort, you can figure out what needs to be tweaked, make the changes, and be done with it.

Snowden describes these activities as “Best Practices”. There is a right way to perform these actions and once you figure it out, you can pretty readily keep doing it right. You identify the task (Sense), you connect what you Sense to a task you have more or less done before (Categorize), and you Respond with the appropriate output.

Much of day-to-day work for most people falls into this kind of system.

Complicated Systems

Systems are called complicated because they have lots of parts. Think of an airplane, like a 747, or a computer. When a complicated system is being designed, the relationships between the parts need to be rigidly constrained. We don’t want the wing of a 747 to suddenly decide that it needs to be somewhere other than remaining attached to the plane. Also, while the parts are optimized for being a part of the 747, they are not necessarily optimized for what they could be if they weren’t part of the 747. It is a bad idea to have one part that will last forever and another connected to it that fails with great regularity. In complicated systems, parts and their maintenance are often tailored to each other so that failure of the system as a whole won’t occur.

Much of the design of our organizations and change groups become complicated in this sense over time, as we get bigger and have more complicated constraints (laws, audit requirements, 3rd party contracts, etc.). These design changes are usually done because they can’t be avoided, and we tend to add the changes and make some adjustments in the rest of our organization or group to accommodate them. It is like trying to remodel the 747 while it is flying.  Optimization doesn’t enter into our organizational results because we have to keep the doors open while we design and make the changes. After such changes, organizations usually go through a process of running into “pain points” that didn’t exist before the change. We muddle with these to make them work as well as we can, but some aspects of such change will show up in employee stories about the problems in the organization for years. Some will even outlive the employment of every person who participated in the original change.

If a change is particularly difficult (say, rewriting your retirement plan to make it compliant with a new Federal law), you might hire an expert to help plan and implement the change (say to draft a compliant plan which you can then tweak to fit your organization). Even though you end up with a plan, it had to be created part by part in the same way that you would design or build that 747.

This need for real design is the reason why “Analyze” replaces “Categorize”.  The notion of problem solving rather than matching an exact solution is the reason why Snowden describes this quadrant as “Good Practice”. Nonetheless, understanding (making sense of) a complicated system can be achieved one piece at a time. Think of the metaphor of a “blueprint” (I’m old enough to remember when blueprints were blue). While you may not be able to get the whole of the 747 inside your head, you can go through the entirety of the plan by using the design documents and the narratives attached to them. Much of what we think of as funding proposals qualifies them as complicated systems. We are constructing them a piece at a time, and organizing them in a way that will show the proposal reviewers what we expect to happen and how we expect to make things happen. A blueprint. In fact, most strategic plans are also blueprints. This may seem obvious to you as you read that last sentence. But as I hope to show you in the next post, blueprints don’t work well with complex systems, and they don’t work period with chaotic ones.

Introduction Cynefin (video)

Advocacy and Sensemaking


Although we tend to think of advocacy as a kind of service, like other social services, it isn’t. The reasons why this is true have nothing to do with advocacy being “better” than other services. Rather, advocacy is different from standard services because it has a different relationship to the target of its actions than standard services. Along with this difference in target relationship, an advocacy effort uses a different nonstandard framework to make sense of a target and, for that matter, itself as an organization.

Sensemaking is a concept that developed in the 70’s, and it has gone through a variety of reformulations over the last few decades. For an advocacy organization, all the usual ways of making sense of their advocacy effort and their target certainly apply (identity, retrospection, and so on). But the relationship between an advocacy organization and the target of its change strategy requires a unique effort in sensemaking.

This is because the relationship between an advocacy organization and its change target is evolutionary. For typical social service systems, the relationship between the system and the person receiving services might well focus on changing the person, but the social organization expects to remain the same after the person has received services. Such organizations work very hard to stay the same after the delivery of services. In fact, this relentless focus on staying the same is one of the most criticized dimensions of working in social services.

I have looked for years to find a framework that respected this evolutionary relationship, and that allowed it to be understood in less abstract terms than a “coevolutionary change relationship”. I ran across the Cynefin Framework some time ago, and, although it is targeted at large enterprise and governmental initiatives, the model is a very useful one for understanding change efforts by small advocacy organizations, and informing our change efforts by making sense of targets. I am going to put together a few posts to introduce the model. This post will be an overview focused on the image above.

The first thing to recognize about what the diagram means is that it describes how we understand (make sense of) the target of our advocacy. That’s why the little area in the middle (disorder) is there. We often find ourselves facing an advocacy challenge on behalf of our constituents with no detailed understanding of how or why the particular challenge arose. In fact, initially, it is often unclear what the target of our change effort should be. We must “make sense” of the issue and potential targets to build a change strategy. The four categories that constitute the possible sensemaking, the meaning that the target has for us, with ordered systems on the right and disordered systems on the left. The red words are the actions we must take to build a useful understanding of each specific system type, and they are in the order we must take them.

I’ll give you two short videos, one very funny and the other a short, if challenging, introductory video to review before my next post:

How to organize a Children’s Party (3 minutes)

The Cynefin Framework (8 minutes)

Next time, I’ll talk about the Ordered side of the diagram.

Aging Orgs


From “Discovery Kanban”


All living systems age. Even organizations. This doesn’t mean that organizations die like human beings; but, there are lessons we can learn about how our organization evolves over time. In much the same way that our personal aging changes us irreversibly, so too does the passage of time alter the range and focus of our Mission 1 and Mission 2.

In the system theory framework, there are four general phases of “aging” in complex adaptive systems (including advocacy organizations):

“The Panarchy model suggests that systems follow a four-phase adaptive cycle of (1) “exploitation”…; (2) “conservation”…; (3) “release”…; and (4) “reorganization”….” From,  Cynefin, Panarchy, PDCA, OODA and value creation curves

  1. Exploitation: For advocacy organizations, exploitation is a way of thinking about the universe of possibilities that exist when that organization first begins its advocacy work. It is an unfortunate fact that oppression and marginalization of devalued communities creates a very large context in which advocacy can take place. The choices that an advocacy organization makes when it begins to interact with this universe of advocacy possibilities are usually a mix of the worst problems the community faces and the immediate resources that the organization has. Regardless of what drives the choices, these initial decisions create the learning environment for the advocates. This learning environment can have a profound effect on the development of the organization and its advocacy. So, for our goals, exploitation is really learning.
  2. Conservation: The most common way Mission 1 and Mission 2 interact is the use of M1 to generate resources that become the core of the organization’s strategy for Mission 2. In other words, the organization uses it’s core passion to generate resources to keep the organization going. “Resources” doesn’t just mean money. They include a governing board, reputation, social support, staff capabilities, and organizational infrastructure like equipment, fund-raising events, financial documents, and so on. Over time, what was done earlier in the development of resources constrains what can be done later. So Conservation doesn’t just mean saving. It also means the conservation of a path of organizational development. As useful as such an approach is, it reduces the flexibility of the advocacy organization.
  3. Release: Release in organizational terms means the breakdown of the organization’s ability to pursue its core mission (M1). This can happen because the organization has become a bureaucracy and only pursues its own maintenance (M2), because it has altered its core mission to something that no longer inspires support, or because it has become corrupted and is only a tool or opportunity for its staff and stakeholders to exploit for their own individual ends. Whatever resources remain are “released” into the environment, and abandoned or picked up by other organizations.
  4. Reorganization: The resources released during Phase 3 begin to reorganize themselves immediately. It is the reorganization that allows the possibility for exploitation or new learning.

In later posts, I will discuss each of these phases in greater detail. It is the case that advocacy strategy has to match not only the problems of a supported devalued community. That strategy has to fit the phase of the adaptive cycle in which the organization



Ways M1 and M2 Degrade One Another

Very old picture of St. George on a horse spearing a dragon

Mission 1 (M1) is the core reason your advocacy group or organization exists. It is the purpose of your passion. Mission 2 (M2) is all the stuff we do to keep our group or organization going.

M1 and M2 do not necessarily complement one another or necessarily oppose one another.  Their relationship is complex and changes over time, sometimes very quickly. There are a lot of reasons why their relationship is so volatile:

  • M2 decisions are common,essentially daily. M1 decisions are rarer, more consequential. So, over time M2 tends to overwhelm M1 even though at heart M1 is more important.
  • Managers are gradually socialized to privilege M2 issues over M1. When M1 and M2 oppose one another in a decision, there is a gradual inclination to favor M2 the longer a manager has worked for the group or organization. This is framed as “realism”, and often becomes the typical way managers judge all organization problems.
  • Boards, mostly because they have even more superficial relationships to decisions that pit M1 against M2 tend to develop the same attitude over time.
  • Staff are reinforced for a similar prioritization of M2 over M1 through sanction and punishment when they choose M1 over M2
  • Funders and regulators have all abstracted their concerns away from M1 because the M2 framework can be easily (if inappropriately) applied to any purpose. Thus, RFPs, reporting requirements, audits, and similar monitoring methods all deeply favor M2 over M1.

The cumulative effect of all these pressures is the gradual corruption of M1 over time, and a movement toward group or organizational survival as the primary fulcrum of decision making. Bureaucracies are large scale examples of the end point of this process.

Mission 1, Mission 2


Our commitment to creating and maintaining change for our community requires us to juggle two different, equally important missions, or purposes.

Mission 1 is the reason why our group or organization exists. Mission 2 is all the things we have to do to keep the group together or the organization’s doors open. We usually combine these two missions in our minds. We assume that if we do something to support one of the missions, it automatically supports the other.

In the back of our minds, though, we know this isn’t true. If our change work goes on long enough, eventually we will find ourselves sacrificing one mission for the other. Often, we believe that we have no choice. Commonly, we sacrifice our core mission (Mission 1) to keep the doors open (Mission 2) in one way or another. We may not want to do this, but it isn’t clear how we can serve both of our Mission Masters all the time.

It is true that Mission 1 and Mission 2 can pose opposite demands on us. But, the relationship between Mission 1 and Mission 2 is not as simple as that. Throughout an organization’s evolution, Mission 1 and Mission 2 pose unavoidable challenges. Sometimes the two missions reinforce one another, sometimes they interfere with one another, and sometimes (mostly) they pose complicated questions to us about the best way forward.

Some basic ideas:

  • A change effort that is solely focused on Mission 1 is like a firecracker. There is a lot of meaningful noise and then silence.
  • A change effort that is solely focused on Mission 2 is like a zombie. There is a lot of action and noise, but no meaning.
  • Mission 2 demands occur daily. Mission 1 demands are rarer. Since we tend to value what we do most often, Mission 2 will tend to dominate Mission 1 over time.
  • Hierarchical management values Mission 2 over Mission 1 both in terms of day-to-day work, and, as each new manager gradually becomes a member of management culture, in moral terms.
  • Boards almost always value Mission 2 over Mission 1 and view their fundamental purpose as maintaining and expanding Mission 2, with only a proforma commitment to maintaining and expanding Mission 1 9especially if that expansion of Mission 1 undermines Mission 2).
  • Government regulation is entirely focused on Mission 2, for all the IRS noise about educational and charitable purposes. As a former boss of mine once said, “They never get you for not doing your mission; they always get you for the money.”

Given all this, is it any wonder that organizations and groups gradually lose their focus on Mission 1?

I wish I could tell you that there is a simple way to manage the collisions of Mission 1 and Mission 2, but there isn’t. In fact, we must struggle to manage each collision as a singularly unique challenge to our commitments to our core purpose and keeping our doors open.

I will be addressing aspects of this continuous struggle in future posts, but if you have the time, review my presentation on this issue.


Why Our Change Efforts Lose Steam



I’m sure that everyone reading this has been involved in change efforts for our disability community at various times over years to decades.  Like Sisyphus, we push the boulder up the hill and, if we are lucky, it only rolls back down part way.

There is value in viewing this dynamic of “3 steps forward, two steps back”, like crafts people viewed their work on building cathedrals in the middle ages. The cathedral started before they were born, and it continued to be built after they died. They were part of a multi-generational community working to create something permanent and beautiful.

On the other hand, our advocacy for change can and has had profound effects on the day to day lives of ourselves and the other members of our disability community.

We keep at it. We do this because of the bonds we have with the rest of our community, built on our own and others experiences of oppression, discrimination, and our own personal experiences of devaluing. We keep at it because it would be a betrayal not to.

But, we can do better. The systems we are trying to change are called complex adaptive systems, and every time we try to change them, they adjust. We also change when we try to change those advocacy targets.

Is it any wonder that we seem to circle around to the same issues in new guises?

One reason we lose steam in our ongoing change efforts has to do with the realities of running an advocacy organization or group. Trying to keep our eyes on the prize and also keeping the group running or the doors open is tougher on us than we know. That will be the topic for my next post.


Intentional Change


Change is a universal phenomenon. But not so much intentional change.

Not that there isn’t a lot of time and effort put into intentionally changing our world. Our effort is immense, complex, relentless, and infuriatingly difficult.

Part of the reason the effort is so infuriating is that we succeed, at least partially. When we do, our success is immediately attacked. Our complex efforts globally to create humanly meaningful and genuinely useful social justice change are assaulted by equally complex forms of obfuscation and dismantling to counter our successes, not unlike the resistance that builds to antibiotics because of the very use of those antibiotics.

This is the definition of our current struggle, and it seems as endless as evolution itself.

To increase our success in this struggle, we have chosen to improve our planning and execution skills, to professionalize our approach to change. The entire ecosystem of social justice change has  embraced this framework, from funding sources to specific individual change interventions. Being able to write proposals that specify a complex causal change network, through the use of tools like logic models and similar planning frameworks has become an important organizational skill.

But, there has been a cost to this professionalization, a cost that is subtle.

To put it bluntly, we have contracted the scope of our hopes to fit the requirements of concrete measurable outcomes and other marks of operational planning. Such outcomes are a normal part of operational planning but are not really the point of the change effort. Operational planning is necessary to achieve change, but it is a tool, not the source of the drive for change, or  a true guide to change effectiveness.

That source is the dreams and hopes of devalued communities for the fullness that life should offer. The leap from those dreams to an operational plan, without an intermediate step, forces us to degrade our hopes.

By focusing on operational planning as the key of our change effort, we create a gap between those dreams and our actual efforts. That gap has been widening, and as it grows bigger, the changes we actually create become smaller, abstract, and disconnected from the real source of our passion for change.

This blog is about restoring the power of our passion.

You can get an overview of the framework for the posts to come by looking at the slide decks I have built based on this theme.  You can view or download a pdf file of the slides and notes at:

If you need an alternate format, email me, and I’ll get one to you.

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Change Strategy: Making Our Lives Larger by Norm DeLisle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

About My Work in Change Strategies

Crazy Quilt of Change

In late 1970, about a year after I returned from combat in Vietnam, I had an epiphany about change that was so powerful, it started me on a 45-year journey to understand both the general change of the world and the ways of intentional change. I came to this post-combat world and this epiphany with a deep experiential understanding of social justice from being immersed in Catholic social justice theology.

I started working in a small medical clinic that supported families with children who hadn’t been institutionalized (the standard practice at that time). There were no supports for families that made this choice and choosing to keep their child left them bereft of community. The clinic’s goal was to enable knowledgeable management of the child’s medical and nutritional issues and to build a support plan of activities (PT, OT, sensory, etc.) that would enhance engagement between family members and the child. The point was in part to improve the child’s functions and ability to engage the larger world, and partially to teach family members, friends, and relatives, that this child, no matter the reach of the disability, was working hard to accomplish the same things that every other child struggled to achieve, albeit in a different, more complex way.

From this fortuitous and strikingly powerful foundation, I worked in a crisis intervention program (which I eventually ran), provided substance abuse therapy, worked in a school setting focused on children with severe learning disabilities, became an advocate in Michigan’s Protection and Advocacy Service, staffed a state council on employment rehabilitation services, and most recently, ran a state level rights and community organization called Michigan Disability Rights Coalition. I am currently a consultant to MDRC to maximize the impact of thmission-focusedused activities.

These different work experiences and the struggles of those with whom I worked forced me to come to grips with my own ableism in regard to the many, many communities of people with disabilities, and with my own experience of severe depression, social anxiety, and PTSD. I also learned through change efforts, both successes and failures, the mechanisms of the labyrinthine systems of support that constitute the societal response to the utter devaluing and social confinement of all people with disabilities. Struggling with these systems taught me the reality of change effort, and the myriad implicit ways that such bureaucratic systems undermine their own purposes and the passion and commitment of their employees.

Parallel to my work in this ongoing stew of change, I also tried to find conceptual frameworks that I could use to enhance my understanding and support my change efforts. One part of this process was a notion that each area of human knowledge developed a theory of change along with the development of the field. I began a task, that would take a number of years, to explore these different frameworks of change by reviewing a first year text in the field, and following up with one or more texts that included essays by members of the community. Such multi-author texts always convey information about the academic community’s views on change, even if that theory of change is not a direct topic of the text. My expectation was that, by reviewing a number of fields in this manner, I would discover a residue that would constitute a common framework of change that would have general use.

I was wrong. Instead, I found that there were a number of frameworks that only partially overlapped, and that these frameworks had very different implications for successful change. I had settled on distinguishing ongoing change as the general environment, and intentional change, formulated as advocacy. These various change frameworks had different implications for the use of advocacy as a tool of intentional change.

At the core of this journey was the growth of my understanding of systems theory, a large scale framework that has continued to evolve and split into many threads ( a system of frameworks as it were). My current work focuses on only some of those threads, the ones I believe are most useful to small advocacy organizations and groups. Combined with the ongoing insights I gained in my practical work, I have reached a point where I feel I need to begin to communicate what I have learned. That is the work of this blog.

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Change Strategy: Making Our Lives Larger by Norm DeLisle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License