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Using the Cynefin Framework to help with process improvement

·3 mins

I’m a big fan of the Cynefin Framework. It’s useful for sensemaking in many areas and one way I use it is for process improvement. If you’re not familiar with Cynefin, do check out the wiki first.

Where are we, really? #

I have worked with process improvement for years and there are many great exercises, workshops, and tools to use. The Cynefin Framework is one of them. I was part of a process improvement initiative for a process to onboard services. The general opinion was that it was too hard for the teams to go through the onboarding process. It required support from someone already familiar with the process and have gone through it before. Every onboarding was different and not all steps was necessary for every service but it required an expert of the process to figure out what steps were needed and how to go through them. The working group immediately started to try to find solutions to improve the process. A popular suggestion was to create an onboarding team that was dedicated to supporting the teams going through the onboarding process.

I had another idea. I wondered, where is this process now in the Cynefin Framework? Are we solving the right problem? We are often very quick to jump to solutions before identifying what the real problem is.

Listening to people who knew the process and had gone through it before, it sounded as this process was positioned in the liminal space between Complex and Complicated. Sometimes it seemed they had to probe-sense-respond, and sometimes sense-analyse-respond was the way forward. Creating a supporting team would fixate the process in the Complicated domain. Here we find good practices and need experts to find the best way forward. Everyone seemed happy with that, but I was wondering why we wouldn’t strive for getting the process into the Clear domain? It should be obvious for anyone how to go through the process, the teams should be able to do it themselves. We wouldn’t need a special team assigned. I was deemed to idealistic. It would not be possible, it’s too complex. But looking at the Cynefin framework, it wasn’t complex at all. It was Complicated. And I think it shouldn’t have to be. Simplify the process. Automate where possible. Make it easier for people to do it themselves instead of requiring experts to guide them through it. We should work to improve the process and move it to the Clear domain.

In this particular example, that didn’t happen. Some improvements were made to simplify the process, but it would still require expert help to go through it. However, the special team was no longer on the table which could be considered a win. To me, it was still a good example of using the Cynefin Framework to make sense of where we are and where we would want to be. Then we’ll figure out how to get there …

Jimmy Sjölund
Jimmy Sjölund
Jimmy Sjölund is an organisational transformation expert with extensive experience sparking change at large, multinational companies. As Principal Agile Practitioner at Red Hat, he’s focused on creating organisational improvements and improving team excellence through agile and lean workflows. He’s published articles and book chapters on topics like work visualization techniques, asynchronous collaboration, and leading through open principles and behaviors. Jimmy is a seasoned public speaker at several conferences, including Agila Sverige, ScanAgile, All Things Open, and more. He serves as an Ambassador for the Open Organization project and community.