Exploring synergies and interaction between the Cynefin Framework and Theory of Constraints

As our business contexts become increasingly complex, the success rate of large scale transformation efforts and projects are rapidly decreasing. Many have been looking for answers to improve their performance and results, often jumping from one method to the next in search of “The Answer”.  It is not uncommon nowadays for people to have studied and attempted to apply the work of different thought leaders like Deming, Goldratt, Senge and Snowden. This often leads to more confusion in an already confusing context.

The seeming similarities between the CynefinTM Framework and the Theory of Constraints are quite obvious. Both were created by thinkers with a foundational knowledge of Physics, both seek to provide insight into systems, both provide focus for meaningful change, and of course, both mention constraints.  What is less obvious is whether they are complementary or contradictory approaches; for example, it is unclear whether the word “constraint” means the same thing in both approaches.

The CynefinTM Framework is primarily a sensemaking typology that enables us to identify the kind of systems we are dealing with and the appropriate responses or approaches for each context. It is not intended to be any sort of simple “recipe book” or step-by-step problem-solving approach. Complex Adaptive Systems are such that any sort of prescribed approach is likely to fail, especially simply copying “Best Practices” that worked for someone else. The CynefinTM Framework provides a way to engage with these complex systems with a pragmatic theory of change:

  • What can we change (in the present)?
  • Out of these, where are we able to monitor the impact of our changes?
  • Out of these, where can we rapidly amplify success and/or recover from failure?

The CynefinTM body of knowledge doesn’t tell one how to answer these questions but can help guide you in sense-making and using your domain knowledge to find answers.

The Theory of Constraints, on the other hand, actually did start out as a more prescriptive method, specifically intended to handle problems in factories that led to late deliveries, high cost, and poor quality. Eli Goldratt’s first book, “The Goal”, tells the story of a factory manager who has 90 days to significantly increase his plant’s profits to avoid it being shut down. He realized that many of the means of traditional management are either of no use or are actively harmful. He, therefore, focused on improving flow by removing physical bottlenecks, or constraints, in his factory to enable success.

Goldratt originally wrote the book partly as marketing for his production planning software company, but he discovered that people were getting good results from simply copying the approach in the book. This piqued his curiosity and led him to abandon the software industry and concentrate instead on, in his words, “how to teach the world to think.”  TOC branched out to look at other types of constraints and created a more generic approach to problem-solving. The TOC Logical Thinking Process is designed to solve any problem by using necessity and sufficiency logic to find the answer to 3 key questions:

  • What to change?
  • What to change to?
  • How to cause the change?

At first the three questions from the CynefinTM Framework and the Logical Thinking Process of TOC seem similar, but are they?

One of the biggest potential disconnects between the two methods is around dealing with complexity. In the CynefinTM Framework, the Complex Domain is where analysis cannot give you a sure answer and the best way forward will often be obscured (as if in a fog) and can only be found through experimentation. But in Goldratt’s last books he embraced the idea of what he called Inherent Simplicity in which a complex system can be understood and the fog blown away to expose a simple underlying approach to management.

While those certainly sound contradictory, we invite you to join Steve and Dave for the upcoming Masterclass Exploration which will show that they are actually very similar and, again, open up the path for complementary uses of the CynefinTM Framework and TOC. This Exploration will explore this relationship, the respective underlying principles, and show how they are fundamentally complementary and can have a catalytic result when used together

I discovered the CynefinTM Framework after practising Theory of Constraints for about 10 years. I knew that TOC was especially good at finding ways to deal with difficult situations, but there still seemed to be problems that defied solution. When I began learning about CynefinTM, it became clearer to me under which conditions different problem solving and management systems worked or didn’t work. It helped me get out of a “Tool War” mindset of “My method is better than yours” and to realize that the context and the method needed to match. All methods work in a context they map to. That, then, led to the realization that the sensemaking of CynefinTM and the methods of TOC were a good match.  What I’m looking forward to in this Exploration is the opportunity to share those thoughts with others. And, I’ve always found that I learn a lot whenever I can interact with people. In this Exploration I’m looking forward to sharing some of what I’ve learned and then learning even more from everyone’s collective insights. – Steve Holt

Click here to register for this event: Cynefin™ and Theory of Constraints:  Explorations with Dave Snowden and Steve Holt, February 20-21, Seattle

Steve wrote a series of guest blogs in 2010 where he also looked at the synergies and interaction between the CynefinTMFramework and Theory of Constraints.


Photo by Greta Farnedi on Unsplash

Twelvetide 18:12 lle i enaid cael llonydd

Writing this series has been an interesting process – a few of the posts were planned but in the main I just started writing with a view to seeing what would emerge. Speaking can be like that as well and allows you to respond to the audience in the moment. Ok you have to be confident of self and of subject but its a delight when it happens although it can also fail. More so in writing as you don’t get the feedback and looking back I would now change some of these posts if (and only if) I was writing them again. My intent in this final post final post is to try and bring together the various strands and themes through the question of meaning, or more precisely how to live a meaningful life; something to which I content ethics and aesthetics are key. The title of this post is a welsh phrase, linked to Cynefin which means A place for the soul to rest although with the voice of a native speaker (and that doesn’t include me) the very sound conveys its meaning. I’ve talked about the soul a few times in these posts in the context of animation rather than some mystical other and its key to the general theme here. We are more than our material needs and interactions – both as individuals, as families, clans, tribes and even as a species.

Now the sense of meaning which seems fundamental to the human journey seems to arise from the evolutionary advantage of being a social creature and the ability to innovate by novel (exaptive) connectivity enabled by art. So I can a reason for all of this within the evolutionary pathway of human kind. But knowing how something arise is not knowing what it is, or what it is becoming. Most of what we are evolved for one purpose then exapted for something else; survival by serendipity rather than savagery. So Art having being functional in allowing for resilience becomes valuable in itself and engenders a sense of wonder, a sense off the other that translates to our feelings in nature. I’ve used pictures from walks in Snowdonia that have varying levels of significance for me and walking is a spiritual act as far as I am concerned. I always remember getting to a pass in the Alps and seeing a small discrete monument to a priest who had died of a heart attack on reaching the pass. I’ve always said that is the way I want to go, quickly without the chance for regret in a place of considerable beauty; some other poor bugger can carry me down, erect a funeral pyre or leave me for the ravens (my spirit animal by the way when I’ve engaged in that tradition of meditation). The drive to gain meaning by other than the material self enables considerable sacrifice (and key word for future blogs and for survival in the modern world) in the service of others by many of the people we admire and hold up as exemplars. I’d like here to use the words of one of my favourite philosophers Kierkegaard:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (…) I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognise as the most important of all.
Søren Kierkegaard

Now you can delete the “God wills’ part of that if you want and it still stands. The phrase come alive in me reflects the idea of animation which is central to this. Overall my argument is that ethics and aesthetics have become an end in themselves, while retaining their evolutionary usefulness. The failure to teach them both formally and in practice in schools and daily life is therefore pragmatic, we cannot lead to virtue in the sense of its use by Aristotle.

The other big idea in this series that I need to do more work on is the idea of tropes/assemblages/strange attractors as allowing us to understand what is acceptable and excusable in a specific historical context with then individual judgment is required and for which you can be held accountable. That idea is exciting me and I’m looking for input before I develop it in future posts.

Either way that is another Christmas series over and I’ll turn next to some reflections on memory and sentiment before developing some of the key themes coming up in the wider work of Cognitive Edge in 2019 starting with the role of narrative in society and organisations. In that context our first retreat of the year is a critical event.


The banner is the classic view of Snowdon from Capel Curig with Llynnau Mymbyr in the foreground taken at dusk during out November Cynefin Centre Retreat

Twelvetide 18:11 the numinous

I first came across the idea of the numinous when I picked up a second hand copy of Rudolf Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy which I picked up on one the Ampleforth retreats I mentioned in a previous post. Otto saw the idea of holy as conveying moral perfection, but he saw the numinous as more than that, a condition sui genesis that cannot be taught but has to be invoked; it has a sense of mystery which is itself inexpressible. It carries the sense that there is more to life than my mundane interests. Even the self styled new atheist Hitchens used the term favourably. To know something other than the material sense does not of itself imply a religious belief. The sense of wonder, of something other than ourselves, is key to ethics. Now that returns me to an earlier theme about the importance of children’s literature to settling the patterns or dispositions of ethical behaviour. A good example of this is the classic Wind in the Willows which conveys the values of Edwardian England in a gently unfolding of foolishness redeemed, sacrifice for friendship and the fulfilment of obligation. Now in the most of the popular adaptations of the book the critical chapter VII titled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is omitted; to my mind a tragedy. For those unfamiliar in stands between the point at which our anti-hero the Toad has been condemned to 20 years in goal for a series of car thefts and reckless driving. I’ll quote the final two paragraphs of chapter VI to make the point:

‘Oddsbodikins!’ said the sergeant of police, taking off his helmet and
wiping his forehead. ‘Rouse thee, old loon, and take over from us
this vile Toad, a criminal of deepest guilt and matchless artfulness
and resource. Watch and ward him with all thy skill; and mark thee
well, greybeard, should aught untoward befall, thy old head shall
answer for his–and a murrain on both of them!’

The gaoler nodded grimly, laying his withered hand on the shoulder of
the miserable Toad. The rusty key creaked in the lock, the great door
clanged behind them; and Toad was a helpless prisoner in the remotest
dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the
length and breadth of Merry England.

In Chapter VIII Toad escapes thanks to the kindness of the Goaler’s daughter and the book moves at a faster pace to its conclusions. But in Chapter VII the Mole and Ratty, searching for the lost son of Otter find him on an island in the river find in the presence of Pan “nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, childish form of the baby otter.” This is a magical chapter in its language and imagery. The Rat whispers “‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me”. The Mole “ felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him”. The transition is important as it places the animals in the numinous, that which cannot be reduced or rendered mundane. now this is pantheism which still underlies a lot of human experience. These last few days I have been in my Cynefin, the mountains, valleys and water of Snowdonia. I have had that sense of wonder that comes encounters with nature as it does with music. It’s not an experience that can be reduced to some utilitarian calculation: it just is. One day I walked with good friend, sometimes we talked but often we were silent; only possible with the best of friends.

Tomorrow is the last post in this series and time to pull together the various threads.


The banner picture shows the impact of late evening sun in Cwm Idwal

Twelvetide 18:10 integrity

In my opening post I mentioned integrity as one of the key words I wanted to address and in this post I want to link it to the idea of virtue – Philosophers amongst you will anticipate a reference to Aristotle here and I’ll come to that. The reality of human existence that that we both change, and are changed by our social and physical environments. We are materially engaged (and its not always for the good – think global warming) but that engagement tends to the particular rather than the strategic. That which animates (another Aristotelian reference by way) us is more than the material but it based on it. From time to time in the flow of human meaning and understanding we get saints – those able to stand above the tyranny of the immediate and the mundane – and change the environment. But sainthood is rare and we can’t predicate the future of organisations or society on an assumption of sainthood. Mind you, too much of the popular management literature assumes that with its multiple idealist models of the perfect leader etc. So if we want to institute or enable ethical behaviour we will need something more realistic and pragmatic.

In yesterday’s post I talked briefly about habits and the reality is we fall into these and many are socially constructed. The phrase Don’t take it personally its just business for example is a unethical trope all too common in Anglo-Saxon mercantile traditions in which the ability to make a profit is used to justify what in an family interaction would be enough to have you ostracised. I often think that’s a good business heuristic by the way – would you do this to a member of the family? If not then why are you doing it to me? To claim you have always behaved with integrity while betraying long standing friendships and interactions involves a discontinuity between rhetoric and action. In fact as a general rule the more you claim an ethical quality the more it tends to indicate you know in your heart of hearts you have lost it. It’s not enough to excuse or explain, you need to hold yourself to account. The adage of Do unto others as you would have others do unto you goes hand in hand with an eye for an eye in this respect!

Given the constant novelty of human life (the essence of the brilliant Gaping Void illustration) the context of ethical decision making constantly changes. That brings us to the idea of virtue and here I want to quote from the Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the theoretical sciences. Its methodology must match its subject matter—good action—and must respect the fact that in this field many generalizations hold only for the most part. We study ethics in order to improve our lives, and therefore its principal concern is the nature of human well-being. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional and social skills. But he rejects Plato’s idea that to be completely virtuous one must acquire, through a training in the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, an understanding of what goodness is. What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.

They key point here is that is not something called ‘goodness’ that can be defined. Instead we have to create circumstances in which the habits of virtue emerge naturally. In which social interaction excludes behaviour that is unethical. We combine abstract knowledge of what is right with the day to day habits of behaviour which mean that virtue comes naturally to what we do. In that respect the more physical interaction we have the better – virtual interaction too readily falls into hostility and conflict because it is not mediated or constrained by the multiple clues that we pick up in social interaction. In a virtual environment we can avoid the micro-conflicts and contrasts that make us think again. We lack integrity both in out interactions and in our self, our soul.

The banner picture is from the summit of Carnedd Llywelyn looking south to Tryfan and beyond taken yesterday. One of those magical winter days where the sun creates a sense of mystery with only the silhouettes of the mountains are visible.

Twelvetide 18:09 habits & the soul

One of those quotes from the bible that most people are, at least in the western tradition, aware of comes from Mark 8:36 “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Fewer people recall the context with ease – its the point where the ‘betrayal’ of Judas is about to result in the arrest of Jesus. It is significant in that it links to ideas of grace and sacrifice, both of which have secular significance. I’ve mentioned both in this series but expect more in the future.

Now to be clear I am not using soul here in the sense of some will o’the wisp thats animates the corporal and material, more in terms of its wider definition (quoting here from Merriam-Webster: a person’s total self, an active or essential part, a moving spirit,the moral and emotional nature of human beings, the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment, spiritual or moral force. The essence of all of this is that is more to being human that simply satisfying material needs for survival. Our sense of empathy, the ideas that underly charity, the use of art, the sense of something other than ourselves; these are all art and parcel of what it means to be human.

However with life come habits of personal behaviour, was of working and thinking that become patterns we can’t escape. At a personal level I had been trying to loose weight for most of my 50s but constant travel got me into the habit of comfort food on arrival at yet another hotel and the Chinese take away in Marlborough had a lot of one last time visits. It took the diagnosis of Type II Diabetes to trigger a break in those habits; I now say its the best diagnosis I ever had as I rediscovered many of the things I had loved and was lucky enough to capture it early enough to reverse it. We are not in detox January and we know an absolute change of that period is sufficient to break a pattern of approaching alcoholism or at least dependency. It’s not a rational choice, most of the time habits have high utility as they reduce the burden of choice, but they also entrain those choices. At University we had an annual Chaplaincy retreat to Ampleforth Abbey that provided a reset. In my business unit in DataSciences days a one a year trip to holiday cottages with two days of fun followed by two days of where are we, where are we going provided a form of ritual disruption of habits – a chance to make changes.

I’m pretty convinced that ritual disruption of day to day habits is critical to health. It doesn’t mean you change per se, but you have a chance to examine those patterns. Personal empathetic confrontation can also be key. It’s very difficult to say (in effect) I know this is wrong but I think its legal so I’m doing it anyway if you are talking face to face, but a lot easier if you succumb to the basic cowardice of an email. The depersonalisation of communication through text means that bad habits can easily become worse as its too easy to avoid disruption – habitual rudeness is a major issue in the modern world and adding the odd smiley face doesn’t really make much difference.

Then on a wider level we have what Bourdieu called habitus, the idea that in our social interactions we constantly make our own habitats while adopting different identities and roles. Context is dynamic but patterns easily form. A lot of people have suggested that SenseMaker® is an encapsulation of the research that Bourdieu advocated and I agree with that. It is a way of measuring, or at least indicating the stable patterns (I call them tropes) of peoples day to day existence. By enabling a decision maker to see outliers, to read stories, to confront how their interpretation differs from others; all of those capabilities are the equivalent of the retreat or the disruptive diagnosis – a chance to re-examine where we are.

And of course art is disruptive, the reason for my using Gaping Void material in this series. Ethics without disruption is too easily perverted: the banality of evil



The banner picture is from the summit of Moelwyn Mawr yesterday, the clouds parted early afternoon after a wet morning – perfect conditions for the landscape photographer and it was a good walk as well! Very slippery as I discovered to my costs twice.

Twelvetide 18:08 meaning making

Some years ago I was at an Academy of Management meeting in Washington DC to receive an award for original contributions to the field of knowledge management. As a part of that I had to make a presentation of an early version of Cynefin to a well educated audience and get immediate responses from Max Boisot and J C Spender, neither of who take prisoners. Many years later JC and I shared a stage in Barcelona to give tribute to Max’s life. The main theme of JC’s response to my presentation was to say that I was making meaning a problematic world in the same way that knowledge had become problematic in the previous decade. It was a complement, when words become problematic it means we are exploring deeper level of (sic) meaning in the concepts they trigger and represent. He articulated something I was starting to intuit, namely the question of how to we create meaning which links to the wider question of how to be make sense of the world in order to act in it. That being my definition of sense-making and one I’ve been comfortable with for some time now.

So in the eight post in this series and the first in 2019 and I want to argue that both ethics and aesthetics (my two themes of this series in case you had forgotten) provide meaning in our various embodied acts of meaning in an increasingly fraught socio/eco-system. In a real sense I think the search for meaning is part of what it is to be truly human. In that context aesthetics allow us, through abstraction and a sense of the other allow us to move beyond the mundane and the material, with ethics should bring us back to reality of our responsibilities in respect of social actions (both proximate and remote) and with the environment in which the concepts of stewardship and sacrifice are necessarily entwined. I’ll unstitch that last sentence later in the year by the way in a reflective review of Terry Eagleton’s latest book. Complexity theory in the main argues that interactions are more important than agents, and in my view agency is my ethically engaging in those interactions rather than focusing on the needs of the agent. To have meaning, is to help others make their lives meaningful. That also involves the responsibility to future generations to create both moral progress and environmental sustainability. In both cases 2018 wasn’t a good year for humanity.

In that context aesthetics are key, they allow us to to use abstractions to see things from different perspectives, to represent the common place and make it extraordinary, to inspire and initiate change and above all to ask questions that require more than the common place answers of habit. Meaning making in humans has always involved art, ritual and multiple levels of social interaction from the mundane needs off survival to the reflection on the the nature of existence itself. We make meaning by a constant need for discovery and exploration, by reflection and, yes, rhetoric. Without the means to explain, to teach, to inspire there is no meaning.

Tomorrow I’ll look at habit and touch on habitas, but now its time to head for the hills for my new years hike. Walking in the hills encompasses embodied abstraction and for me at least is a key aspect of personal resilience and a means to gain perspective.


The banner picture shows Snowdon (on the left) taken from the south. A circular walk encompassing Cnicht and the Moelwyns which I plan to repeat today, at least in part. The picture comes from a delightful part of the walk that passes many small lakes such as this and former slate mine workings before ascending to Moelwyn Mawr.