Improving Wetware

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Cynefin Framework for understanding Methodologies

Posted by Pete McBreen 17 Mar 2019 at 20:22

Dave Snowden is writing up the Definitive History of the Cynefin Framework, so I thought it was time to mention it here. Dave was one of the creators of DSDM that I covered in my Questioning XP book, so it is nice that he has now come up with a way to talk about methodologies

Cynefin Domains Picture from above article, hosted here to avoid putting load on other server

Cynefin documents five different domains, earliest documentation is in article on Complex Acts of Knowing back in 2002/2003.This link is an archive of the Creative Commons version of Complex Acts of Knowing in case the Wiley link goes down.

  • Obvious - this is the domain of Best Practices, where everyone knows how to operate, so it is process of just doing what everyone knows how to do.
  • Complicated - this is the domain of learned expertise, there are multiple good answers, but careful analysis might be needed to discover the way forward. One metaphor refers to this as the domain of the bicycle, if it is not working right you can take it apart, discover what is broken and then reassemble it.
  • Complex - this is the domain where good answers are only discovered in retrospect. A metaphor for this is that of the frog - you cannot take it apart, discover what is wrong and then reassemble it, you have to try different treatments on the whole organism. Dave Snowden talks about Safe to Fail experiments in this domain.
  • Chaotic - this is the domain of no clear cause and effect, so you just need to take action to try to move out of the chaotic state into one of the other domains.
  • Disorder - this is the domain of not knowing which domain you are in.

There are some things in software development that fall into the Obvious domain, but mostly there is an existing product or library that handles this domain for you. So if your application needs to store some data, then depending on what the data is, the choice of the filesystem, transient cache, a database or offsite cloud storage will be obvious. There may be some debate as to the flavour and/or vendor of the storage mechanism, but storing data is a known problem with well known solutions.

In part some of my Software Craftsmanship book was raising issues about using techniques that are relevant to the Obvious domain in Software Development. A Factory with a mechanical metaphor is appropriate for the Obvious domain, after all we know how to assemble a car. But the reason we know how to assemble a car is because experts working in the Complicated domain did a lot of Design for Manufacture work on the design of the car so that it could be economically made in a factory. Designing an assembly line is a very complicated process, but once it is built, it is Obvious what you are supposed to do at each work station along the line.

In software development, all of the Obvious domains are well served, so what is left is the Complicated and Complex domains where off the shelf solutions are not available. Looking back up to the image of the Cynefin domains, some Methodologies are better suited to domains that are not very Complicated, bordering on the Obvious, others like Jim Highsmith’s Adaptive Software Development are targeted at working in the Complex domain, with the three project phases of speculation, collaboration and learning.