08 April 2018

The pros and cons of considering frameworks and models


For a while now I have watched students and business associates try to pluck models (sometimes from thin air) and apply them to whatever problem they were trying to solve.

Recently a friend of mine tried to combine two quite different models to see if he could find some insight in to his next steps. This post is a few of my thoughts about the practice of thinking about and applying models and frameworks, as well as some feedback from Brad on these two specific models.

Lets start with a warning:

In their recent book "The Heretics Guide to Management", Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati warn us that just as children cling to Teddy Bears to sooth their fears of the unknown, so can we all cling to various business models, strategic plans and operational budgets like they will solve all our fears if we are just faithful to them. Sometimes they are useful and give insight, but once the underlying assumptions no longer hold true, clinging to them becomes a fetish - one we often want to defend at all costs. I want to mention this up front because the danger of dabbling in new models, assumptions and ideas about how your world works is that you actually think you find a silver bullet thereby closing down your future creative possibilities while simultaneously giving yourself false confidence in a complex situation just because your new map tells you which direction to go.

Using models to kick-start our creativity

It is actually this set of possible steps that neuroscientist Beau Lotto points out as being the way we can increase our creativity and not just solving novel problems but increasing our ability to understand them in the first place. In this recent video on BigThink, he discusses how our brains evolved to avoid one thing: uncertainty, and so it is only capable of making small logical steps in order to avoid highly stressful cognitive dissonance. So when we see people finding creative, almost genius solutions to problems, we assume they are just really smart, but actually it is the range of "adjacent possibles" being much larger due to the broader, more complex and nuanced assumptions that they hold. Have a quick watch. I'll wait here 'til you get back.

The message is simple

Stop looking for silver bullets and start challenging your assumptions (all of them) while exposing yourself to as many different ways of viewing and thinking about the world as possible. Give your mind the raw materials for the creativity to happen.

Sometimes it is the process of questioning and comparing that leads to the answer, not the model itself. In the medical field it is called "praxis" as real-world data is compared with theoretical models, leading to action, more learning and hopefully the refinement of models or even a new addition to the scientific literature.

(As a side note, I should add an extra component from Matthew Walkers research in to how the brain consolidates these ideas during REM sleep. In his book "Why We Sleep", he presents some incredible evidence for the importance of a full 8-hours to integrate your hard won insights not just into tacit memory, but also to draw the long-bow connections that deep insights arrive from in the days that follow. Whether you are interested in knowledge, innovation & creativity, or just think you don't need that much sleep, I cannot recommend this book highly enough).

Following Brad's adventures

We don't need to be totally academic about it, but switching between theory and practice can lead to key insights as Gary Klein reveals in his new book "Seeing what others don't".

A good friend of mine, Brad Adriannse, recently posted his thoughts doing exactly this by wondering about the intersection of two models as part of his "self-unlimited" journey. Brad's scribbles are shown on the left and his post and initial thoughts are here.

This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, his approach is less about bending the facts to suit a model and more about using the models as a set of lenses he can look at his situation through to see if anything becomes clearer (expanding his set of adjacent possibles). Secondly, he combined two, quite different models with a clear expectation that a combinatory insight may evolve. Finally, he didn't go build some new thing by himself. Instead, he started a conversation about similarities, differences and how the various intersections may be of benefit. Nice approach.

So lets talk about these two models - Is Brad on to something?

The two models he is considering are the Cynefin framework and John Boyd's OODA Loop.

It turns out Dave Snowden (the inventor of Cynefin) discussed this in his blog in 2012 and I liked his thoughts on the two because of the way he saw a different sort of OODA Loop being required depending on which Cynefin quadrant you are in. This is classic Cynefin - that is, find out what sort of problem you have before deciding what approach you take to solve it. My only problem with his argument, was that it only seemed to show one side of the interaction between the two. Let me explain.

Cynefin is a framework. It describes the different ontological spaces that a problem can be categorised as, therefore what is their nature and how are they best approached.

OODA is a procedural method invented by John Boyd to assess Dogfights in the Vietnam war. Standing for Observe, Orientate, Decide & Act, it overcomes both inaction and misreading of facts in highly fluid situations and has been applied in many different contexts, not the least of which being business and more specifically, management.

I should note that Brad disagrees with me here, saying that OODA is a Tao, rather than a procedure, but my point remain: One (Cynefin) categorises phase-space. The other (OODA) categorises a series of events over time.

Given this, I think there should be two (or more) interactions.

Firstly, with OODA as the time-based boss, I see Cynefin fitting in as a sixth sub-category in the "Orientate" phase. This not only helps understand more about the observation, but has two extra advantages. 1) It lends itself to not only informing the decision, but more importantly, in how the decision should be approached. And 2) it allows for reassessment of the Cynefin quadrant during each cycle instead of assuming that the problem is fixed in one space only (something that I thing Dave missed in his original post but Joseph Bradley tells me was worked out shortly thereafter).

This is especially important if you are trying to apply this to Roger Martin's "Knowledge Funnel" method where you are actively trying to move from problem to solution through the Complex (R & D), Complicated (Design & Delivery) and Simply (Operations) spaces.

The second linkage would therefore be the link from OODA to inform Cynefin. This would allow people already using OODA to refine it by placing an iterative operational model around the problem space in terms of Cynefin. However, I think more importantly, it would provide a clear, (and hopefully corporately endorsed) approach to dealing with the central Disorder space. Dave only touches on this in terms of a non-deliberate entry into Chaos (via the middle yellow arrow through Disorder), but by triggering a Cynefin review whenever a project or market moves into an unknown space I see real promise for challenging and valuable conversations to be spawned as a part of normal corporate process (an hopefully well before the consequent problems from inappropriate approaches arise to threaten the budget, or the entire project itself).

Summing up

So it seems Brad might be on to something and could help us The bottom line is Brad is applying these models in an attempt to separate what is complex and what is complicated and therefore how you should approach each. Well done! You should give it a try too.

I hope many more see how helpful this approach can be - even for truly wicked problems - without falling in to the Teddy Bear trap of course. To be creative, we have to unlearn millions of years of evolution. Creativity asks us to do that which is hardest: to question our assumptions, to doubt what we believe to be true. But Beau Lotto is right when he says it is actually the only way for us to reinvent ourselves for our changing reality.

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