Transformation involves embracing Disorder

There is much debate in the Agile community around the notion of “change” — particularly distinguishing between “transition” and “transformation”.

The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework as described in A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making by David J. Snowden (@snowded) and Mary E. Boone (@maryboone) offers valuable insight.

The Cynefin framework describes “five contexts defined by the nature of the relation between cause and effect”.

Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on the facts.

Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered — there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns.

The ordered world is the world of fact-based management; the unordered world represents pattern based management.

The very nature of the fifth context — disorder — makes it particularly difficult to recognize when one is in it. Here, multiple perspectives jostle for prominence, factional leaders argue with one another, and cacophony rules. The way out of this realm is to break down the situation into constituent parts and assign each to one of the other four realms. Leaders can then make decisions and intervene in contextually appropriate ways.

The Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic Domains

The simple domain is characterized by “clear cause-and-effect relationships evident to everyone; right answer exists.” The simple domain’s decision model involves sense-categorize-respond leveraging best practices.

The complicated domain is characterized by “cause-and-effect relationships discoverable but not immediately apparent to everyone; more than one right answer possible.” The complicated domain’s decision model involves sense-analyze-respond leveraging good practices.

The complex domain is characterized by “no right answers; emergent instructive patterns.” The complex domain’s decision model involves probe-sense-respond leveraging emergent practices.

The chaotic domain is characterized by “no clear cause-and-effect relationships, so no point in looking for right answers.” The chaotic domain’s decision model involves act-sense-respond leveraging novel practices.


Underlying the Cynefin framework is the science of complexity.

A complex system has the following characteristics:

  • It involves large numbers of interacting elements.
  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.
  • The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.
  • Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.
  • Unlike in ordered systems (where the system constrains the agents), or chaotic systems (where there are no constraints), in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.

Transition and Transformation

Fundamentally, transition commonly involves focusing on the simple and complicated domains where change is managed while transformation commonly focuses on the complex and chaotic domains where evolution is fostered through creative destruction (or renewal/resilience via destruction/death and creation/birth).

As many practitioners in the Agile community embrace evolutionary change (versus “managed change”), they embrace the complex domain, however, real transformation must embrace disorder (and not any particular domain) to foster authentic and natural evolution! How? Artful Transformation!

Artful Transformation explicitly integrates, in Phase II and III, Edgar Schein’s notion of culture (“external adaptation and internal integration”) with complexity’s notion that “elements evolve with one another and with the environment” and with complexity’s notion that “the agents and the system constrain one another.”

Artful Transformation does not embrace the complex or chaotic domains (or the complicated or simple domains), but embraces disorder:

In the space of disorder, we know something very valuable — that we do not know. We need to gain more understanding (in every way possible) so that we can find patterns and react to them.

We commonly refer to this as a “blank page” essentially empowering us to appreciate the enterprise within context and simultaneously view it from an infinite number of perspectives — to embrace disorder but find “the way out of this realm”!

The debate in the Agile community around the notion of “change” — particularly distinguishing between “transition” and “transformation” — emphasizes why so many are able to embrace change (and “transition to Agile“) but not embrace disorder (or embrace chaos) (and “foster transformation”)!

For more on Artful Transformation, see The Primes and Viral Change!


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