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Organisations, Cynefin, and the Theory of Constraints

January 12, 20232 min read

Organisations, Cynefin, and the Theory of Constraints

(Disclaimer up front: I have not spent nearly as much time studying Cynefin as I have systems thinking, so there may be gaps in my knowledge. Part of why I’m writing this is to see if people can help me close those gaps, if they exist.)

I keep thinking about the relationship between Cynefin and Theory of Constraints (and systems thinking more generally). It has come up in conversation many times since Cynefin came to my attention (2013ish, I think).

If you think about organisations in terms of Cynefin, they’re often referred to as complex. Because they can’t be perfectly understood, no matter how much time you spend studying them. You can’t identify exact cause an effect for many behaviours. Probe-sense-respond should therefore be the most appropriate behaviour.

But I also keep coming back to Theory of Constraints, which takes a different view. Eli Goldratt said, “Every situation, no matter how complex it initially looks, is exceedingly simple.” And based on how people respond to constraints, I think he’s probably right.

So while it may be impossible to identify what exact stimulus creates which exact effect, within organisations (or any people-based system), there are highly predictable patterns.

Deming knew, for example, that if we incentivise people with targets, the majority of people will destroy the company to meet their incentives. People will destroy the company to do what’s best for them as individuals.

Patrick Lencioni knows that if executives are set against each other, the majority of people who work for them won’t be able to resolve the resulting problems.

Goldratt knew about Parkinson’s Law, and used it to inform his project management method.

The variance of individual behaviour becomes more predictable as larger numbers of people are brought together. So while it’s often impossible to predict exactly how one person will respond to a given organisational change, it’s much easier to predict how the organisation is likely to change. And it’s so predictable that Deming was able to help transform an entire nation’s industry using a handful of simple rules.

Using Theory of Constraints, a lot of the apparent complexity of organisations disappears. What looks like complexity actually turns out to be noise. And by taking the time to understand the organisation, it becomes a much simpler beast, with predictable points of intervention, and predictable reactions to changing conditions. And time after time, when put to the test, this view of organisations turns out to be correct (or correct enough, since all models are wrong).

So either organisations fall into the Complicated domain, and most people simply don’t understand them well enough to be able to effectively act on them, or they’re a poor fit for Cynefin because they’re Complex-but-predictable.

Anybody have any insights that can help illuminate how these things might fit together?

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