Intervention design for complex issues

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 17, 2004
Filed in Collaboration

The Cynefin framework can be used to identify complex issues. In this situation, the term ‘complex’ does not necessarily mean that things are ‘complicated’; rather the term means that these issues are more than the sum of their parts. In other words, it means that a group’s behaviour cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the behaviour of individuals. There is thus a difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’.
Most modern businesses assume that their issues are complicated, and that problems can be solved through the application of analytical tools—such as trend analysis, fishbone analysis (determining cause-and-effect relationships), and psychometric testing. This Newtonian, linear, and mechanistic way of thinking dominates our working lives. Although it might be valid for the parts of a business that are ordered and regimented (such as well-defined business processes), this thinking is inappropriate for complex issues (such as culture, trust, innovation, and so on) in which many people are interacting and from which group behaviour emerges.

A Cynefin intervention design method called ABIDE (attractors, barriers, identity, dissent, and environment) recognises the difference between complicated and complex issues. ABIDE helps organisations to identify leverage points at which a small action can have a big difference. More importantly, it recognises that a business must relinquish control and direction if it is to harness complexity. It must focus on changing the barriers that encapsulates a group’s behaviour, and then monitor what happens at the group level. This is a new way of thinking about the management of organisational issues.
Using this approach, small interventions (rather than projects) are required to change the attractors and barriers. We call them ‘interventions’ because they are designed to intervene in the ‘natural’ way of things. They are undertaken to create a ‘disturbance’—thus allowing new patterns to form. This approach is different from a project in which a clear end-result is envisaged from the outset. A project approach assumes an ordered world. In contrast, interventions are small ‘probes’ that are designed to create new possibilities.

Interventions do not therefore constitute a ‘set-and-forget’ strategy. They must be monitored. Monitoring might take the form of collecting narrative at intervals to identify the new patterns that are forming. It might involve managers walking the floor and listening to people (especially the murmurers). It can involve observing behaviours, identifying the information brokers in the organisation’s social network, and listening to their views. It could involve seeking out the sceptics, seeking views from outside the organisation, and learning to ask non-direct and creative questions that reveal the early signs of new attitudes and beliefs being formed.

Every exercise in monitoring is like taking a snapshot that effectively ‘freezes’ time. This provides managers with the time they need to make decisions. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann has suggested, harnessing complex issues requires the taking of ‘coarse-grained’ images. Our natural tendency is to take fine-grained pictures so we can see each grain of sand on the beach. Understanding complexity requires coarse-grained images at a resolution that shows the overall pattern of the beach and the pattern of the bathers on it.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Intervention design for complex issues

    An excellent bit on the difference between complex and complicated problems over at Anecdote.
    Most modern businesses assume that their issues are complicated, and that problems can be solved through the application of analytical tools—such as tr…

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