Organizing and sensing connections

Tucked away in a couple of paragraphs of the brilliant paper by Cynthia Kurtz and David Snowden, there’s a highly generative insight. The authors make a distinction between the kinds of connections within an organization and then correlate the strength of these connections to the Cynefin quadrants. I accidentally backed into these correlations myself once. What particularly interested me was the introduction of connections into the Cynefin thinking space, so I am going to riff on that.

First, I’ll deviate from the paper and introduce my own taxonomy (of course). Looking at how information travels across a system, let’s imagine two kinds: connections that relay organizing information and connections that relay sensing information. For example, a reporting chain is a graph (most often, a tree) of organizing connections: it is used to communicate priorities, set and adjust direction, etc. Muscles and bones in our bodies are also organizing connections: they hold us together, right? Organizing connections define the structure of the system. Nerve endings, whiskers, and watercooler chats are examples of sensing connections  — they inform the system of the environment (which includes the system itself), and hopefully, of the changes in that environment.

With this taxonomy in hand, we can now play in the Cynefin spaces. It is pretty clear that the Unpredictable World (my apologies, I also use different names for Cynefin bits than the paper) favors weak organizing connections and the Predictable World favors the  strong ones. Organization is what makes a world predictable. In the same vein, Chaotic and Obvious spaces favor weak sensing connections, contrary to the neighboring Complex and Complicated spaces with their fondness for strong sensing connections.

Seems fairly straightforward and useful, right? Depending on the nature of the challenge I am facing, aiming for the right mix of organizing and sensing connections of the organizational structures can help me be more effective. Stamping out billions of identical widgets?  Go for strong organizational connections, and reduce the sensing network. Solving hard engineering problems? Make sure that both organizational and sensing connection networks are robust: one to hold the intention, the other to keep analyzing the problem.

Weirdly, the causality goes both ways. The connection mix doesn’t just make organization more effective in different spaces. It also defines the kinds of problems that the organization can perceive.

A team with strong organizing connections and non-existent sensing connections will happily march down its predetermined path — every problem will look Obvious to it. Sure, the earth will burn around it and everything will go to hell in the end, but for the 99.9% of the journey, their own experience will be blissfully righteous. The solution to war is obvious to a sword.

Similarly, if that engineering organization loses its steady leader, weakening the strength of its organizing connection network, every problem will suddenly start looking Complex. The magic of constructed reality is that it is what we perceive it to be.

This might be a useful marker to watch for. If you work in a team that merrily stamps widgets, and suddenly everything starts getting more Complicated, look for those tendrils of sensing connections sprouting. And if you’re working at the place where the thick fog of Complexity begins to billow, it might be the environment. But it also could be the loss of purpose that kept y’all together all this time.

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