Cynefin simulation – create aha feeling in 20 min on how to plan and deliver in complex situations

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Cynefin Framework

Time: 20 – 30 min
This simulation needs a group of at least 8-10 people, or better 20 people, and a big space where they can spread out and move around to give impact. The simulation isn’t time based, it doesn’t matter how long it takes the group so no stress is put on them, it is purely tasked based.

Read more about Cynefin by Dave Snowden on Wikipedia >

Here you can download the Cynefin Framework poster (PDF) for high resolution >

1. Stand in order of height – Simple or Obvious

Give the instruction: “place your self so that you stand in the order of hight”.
This is usually easily done. Sometimes you can observe that someone acts as a project manager, telling people where to move.

Ask the question to the group: How difficult on a scale 1-10 was this?

Approximate point of discussion
It was easy, you could easily make quick decisions on where to stand just by looking. You didn’t need to do any research or create a strategy. It was easy to act. If they had a PM you can talk about that and if it was ok to act as an PM in this project.

2. Add one more parameter, the time it took you to get here – Complicated

Give the instruction: Now keep the order you are in, but add one more parameter to it; the time it took for you to get here this morning.”

This will get a bit more tricky. Most groups have someone who realizes that they should add the new dimension as a new axle, but watch the behaviour, it is not all that manage to communicate it to the group and make them test it. Sometimes they might start doing weird solutions and you as a facilitator need to give more strict directions. If the space lets you, you want them to spread out in the room for the next step to have an impact. Sometimes the PM is trying to lead here as well, that usually fails.

Ask the question to the group: How difficult on a scale 1-10 was this?

Approximate point of discussion:
Now you had to ask each other to learn about the time it took in the morning. It was not quite that easy, and you also had the hight to take in consideration. If they had a PM you can ask how it worked out this time, if they didn’t have an PM this second time but the first, you can ask why that person didn’t act as PM this time.

3. Add a third parameter, time – Complex

Give the instruction: Keep these two parameters in how you are placed, spread out in the room. Pick the two people furthest away from you (if it´s a big group the can just pick one). Count quietly how many steps you would have to take to go to these two people, shout out the number and raise your arm when your’e done.”

Show them what type of steps they should take, one feet tight after the other. Ask them to count the steps quietly in their head, and when they are done shout out what the number is and raise their hand (so you can see that all are done). When all are done, say: “Let’s go! Walk to that person, step by step.” They will realize quickly that their estimation is wrong. Push them to continue according to plan.

Ask the question to the group: How difficult on a scale 1-10 was this?

Show them the Cynefin model.
Simple/Obvious – The first exercise was in obvious conditions.
Complicated – The second exercise was in complicated condition.
Complex – The third exercise was in a complex condition.
Chaos – We don´t show this, but you can talk about it, an example of how we react in chaos is “What would happen if suddenly a Tiger would appear in this room? How would you react?

Ask the group: “How is it in your organization, and what type of leadership and planning do you have?”

Approximate point of discussion:
How easy was it to do an estimate in this situation? Should any of you like to have the PM role here, running around and telling people one and one to change direction too meet that person, and do you think your estimates would have been correct? Could it have worked if you were able to change your plan? Aha!

When things change over time we have no way to analyze and plan for how the solution should be, and we need to be able to change our plan after learning. When in complex situations, as in most digital- and software development, we have learned that we need to use prototyping and testing, delivering often to validate that our solutions are working, and that we actually are solving an existing problem – and not make any detailed plans ahead.

Go through the Cynefin model and talk about how we need to work, plan and lead our deliveries to be successful in complex situations – Probe, Sense and Respond, and that we need to find new ways of working based of previous knowledge and good practices that fits the current organisation, situation and culture.

Good luck!


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12 thoughts on “Cynefin simulation – create aha feeling in 20 min on how to plan and deliver in complex situations

  1. Hi Mia, I am planning to hold a familiarization session with a group of agile practitioners with C3 cards. I had ordered 10 packs last year.
    My question is regarding use of 7 black, non domain specific cards. Out of these use and timing of use of these is understandable (please let me know if understanding is incorrect.
    1) Let’s take 5 – use any time when the team is trapped in rabbit hole
    2) What’s the problem – use any time when the focus is lost
    3) Most risky assumption – use in Complex domain to de-risk the biggest risk
    4) Smallest experiment – use in Complex domain to make sure smallest possible experiment is undertake.
    If you can provide guidance on following, which domain they can be used? And when?
    A) Find value
    B) No idea
    C) Call an expert

    1. Hi Kurshid!

      Sounds like a great plan. Did you read the post with one of the Agile coaches from iZettle? He describes a bit how they do it, not in such a detail, but a bit over all.

      Let’s see if I can give some more guidance on the cards… I,ll do one more reply on that on my laptop 👍🏻

    2. 1) Let’s take 5 – use if someone needs to take a break
      2) What’s the problem – use any time when someone can’t understand what problem to solve
      3) Most risky assumption – use in Complex domain to de-risk the biggest risk
      4) Smallest experiment – use in Complex domain to make sure smallest possible experiment is undertaken (probably define the experiment better, hypothesizes and assumption)
      A) Find value – use if you need to slice smaller and find out what the value is, could mean they need time going out to meet with customers if no one knows
      B) No idea – someone who has no idea what domain, or can´t grasp the size or risk
      C) Call an expert – the team needs to get help from an expert to deliver. Usually in the complicated domain. But they can use it anytime if they feel they lack some competence.

      Good luck with the workshop! Would be fun to hear how it went!
      Best/ Mia

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