Blowing $#!t Up with Liminal Cynefin

from Liminal Cynefin: the final cut?

Being Human podcast host Richard Atherton interviewed Dave Snowden for an episode (<-- link) titled Managing in Complexity.

I've written a bit on Cynefin and how it's positively impacted my perspective on policing -- tactical, community relations, investigative, intelligence, supervision, training, and policy to name a few aspects. Cynefin and Snowden's more generalized work continues to be helpful in understanding complex adaptive systems, various environments, and the functions within them. (If you're new to Cynefin, I recommend reading up on it, and maybe starting with this video. Otherwise, you'll be lost!)     

Cynefin is one of several frameworks or depictions that resonate with me. (OODA and of course The Illinois Model are a couple of the others.) I still have trouble wrapping my head around some of the stuff that Dave talks about, despite his excellent use of metaphors and examples from a wide selection of fields and subjects.  One of the hard-to-chew topics is that of liminality. As written in a previous blog of his:
The liminal area in complex, bordered with complicated is in effect a domain of experimentation, or pilots, prototypes and iterative experiments. - Dave Snowden in "Liminal Cynefin: the final cut?"
In conversations with Dave, I get the impression he subscribes to the idea of a (wide?) threshold between Complicated and Complex, whereas I'm inclined to describe it as more of a spectrum. What we agree upon is that through probing, experimentation, study, and resultant understanding, we can shift some situations from Complex to Complicated. (I have been quite outspoken that certain contexts, such as democratic politics, are perpetually Complex - impossible for movement into ordered domains!)

In his interview on this Being Human podcast episode, Dave dug a little deeper into the newer liminal domains of Cynefin. While he explained it, I couldn't help but think of an older blog post that I wrote on the training of explosive breachers in police tactical units:
In it, I describe some of the experiential learning theory used by specialized police officers who build explosive charges to defeat barricaded doorways and opening other entryways into fortified buildings or rooms. Effective training for explosive breachers involves assembling charges with the intent to fail. It's as if we are talking about multiple (& relatively time insensitive) safe-to-fail experiments a la Cynefin!

Each and every explosive charge used in training is logged into a journal. It documents the types of construction materials, fortifications, and a few other variables. With a growing journal comes a growing body of knowledge that begins to cluster variables into patterns.

The more robust the journal (and the experiences of those responsible for it), the closer those persons get to defining decent or good practices.  There is also, as this sort of specialized skill is adopted by more and more units and teams. a growing body of knowledge in explosive breaching that is shared between those in the niche.

There are also circumstances or situations that have so few variables (and can be accurately accounted for), an argument can be made that explosive breaching specialists have damned near agreed upon best practices!

But back to this journal: Explosive breachers consult the journal during both training demolitions as well as in real-life emergency operations. Breachers match up the situation or challenge in front of them with historical data. They use the data as a guideline or benchmark to construct an appropriate charge with sufficient but not too much power. Depending on the reliability, size, consistency, or strength of the patterns (or data), we can be looking at either Governing constraints or Enabling constraints.

The thing is that, because of Richard Atherton and his Being Human podcast, I think I've made some progress in digesting some rather deep aspects of Cynefin and complexity in general. For that, thanks Richard and Dave.

So have I made a reasonable connection here with the liminal version of Cynefin to something in my world? It certainly feels like it. 

The purists will lambaste me if I'm on the wrong track. That's definitely Obvious. ;)


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As for now, my singular safe-to-fail experiment is to see whether or not Snowden objects to my unauthorized, but well-intended(!) use of his digital drawing at the top of this blog post...

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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