Cynefin Context Cards – Enabling Discovery and Delivery and Innovation in Agile teams

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cynefin context cards

Much too often we see organizations where there are many handovers end to end from understanding there is a customer need to actually delivering something to solve the customer need. This is one problem that causes not only long lead time, but also it kills innovation and it often result in the wrong solutions. The reason is that we too often don’t understand the complexity of the problem, and treat it as a simple or complicated problem. To enable changed thinking and also a change in behaviour, we created these cards.

We are all as humans eager to go in to the “solution domain” to early, it´s just human and we´ve all done it. Perhaps because it´s much more fun to ideate, and often that’s also what we get rewarded for. This makes us often solve either the wrong problem, or find the wrong solution – both leaving us without impact. When solving complex problems it is important to stay in the “problem domain” for a bit to learn about the problem, the context and the people who has the problem.

When we work in Agile teams we need to find ways to take in both complex not yet solved problems in to the sprint, as well as deliver on those already discovered solutions that we know will work. Often we call this continuously discovery & delivery-something many Agile teams struggle with since the ordinary scrum way to do estimates in story points does’t help teams stay in the problem domain, but often forces them to move in to the solution domain premature. Asking teams to estimate solutions creates a fixed mindset apposed to a growth mindset which is what we need to be able to build an innovating learning culture, otherwise the problem will show when the team try to build it, making it take longer, or when the customer uses the solution making them call customer service complaining, or leaving the service.

These cards are a tool to enable that growth mindset and open upp dialogues between the people and competences needed to understand the problems and build the solution needed to create business and customer value.

How can you use them?

You can of course use them any way you like, but and we´ve already seen teams find new innovative ways to use them. Our initial idea was that the team plays one and one, just as with regular scrum planing poker, but first they figure out in what domain they are in, obvious, complicated or complex – and then, they can choose between cards in that range, story points in the obvious domain, T-shirt sizes in the complicated domain – or just time boxes in the complex domain. This enables the team to start experimenting in time boxes to figure out the problem, test solutions & then start to build & deliver when they know they have solved the business problem.

To enable everyone to do the estimation someone with insight in the business problem (the PO or the customer perhaps) needs to describe what it is about and asnwer any questions the team might have.

It´s important that each and every person first think by them selves of what domain the item might be in, we need to get every ones view on what they believe it is. That´s the true value of a cross functional team.  Then when every one have shown their cards, you have the discussion between the people furthest apart in domains to see what they have perceived differently, and then furthest apart within the domain chosen by the team.

When doing this “estimation” it might be that you need to invite other people then just the team, you need to get the people closest to the customer to join in to make this work, so invite your client, the stake holders, the UX and design people, the architect and others who might be involved to deliver customer value end to end if they are not already part of your team (then you might notice that they need to be in your teams process some how ;).

We have learned that it might be a good idea to put a Cynefin poster on the table between the team to show in what domain you think it is first, and we will in our next version of the printed cards add plain domain cards as specific cards, but until then you can ask th eteam to use the full deck of that domain.

Also we believe it´s a good idea to do an experienced based exercise with the people you have invited for this the first time, to first experience the different domains and then also get the theory behind them to understand what the different domains really mean. You find the description of such a great exercise, and the Cynefin poster in high resolution for printout here >

Background story – and soon the cards will be in our Webshop

It´s been a week since we received the first shipment of our new Cynefin Context Cards from the printers, and we’ve already used them in learning sessions with over 25 teams with great result. We’ve since then had people coming by our office to get their card decks to use in their teams and sent decks to friends across the world. We also put up a give a way last week on Social Media with over 30 people from all over the world telling us why they want two decks of cards. We are totally blown away by this huge and positive response as well as the great result we could see instantly in the teams we’ve coached. That’s why we have decided to give it a try and to set up a web shop to sell the cards online. We´re planning on launching it in mid September.

Sign up for our newsletter if you want to get notice when the web shop is up >


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