EMERGE - Coaching & The Cynefin Model

A whale emerging from the ocean

The other day I attended a workshop on coaching. During the workshop, participants were split into twos based on their ability (or non-ability) to tie a tie and were then asked to coach the other person in how to tie a tie. Part of the point of the exercise was around the fact that coaching someone on how to tie a tie is in fact very difficult. We immediately want to tell, or demonstrate how to do it.

This got me thinking about coaching and its relationship with Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model for managing complexity.

Just to quickly go through what coaching is. Coaching is a discipline whereby a coach asks an individual questions to help them to work through problems that they are having. The coach is not the subject matter expert, the coachee is. The coach does not advise or offer suggestions to the individual, but rather draws out from them what is already within them.

Now for the Cynefin model. The word Cynefin is welsh, and means “The place of your multiple belongings” essentially it is a model for managing complexity and it looks like the diagram below.

It hypothesises that there are different types of systems, based upon variables and how the variables interact. The quadrants are:

Simple – A simple system is one where cause and effect is easily established. The tying a tie is a good example of a simple system. There is a right way to tie a tie (depending on the type of knot you desire) and there are many wrong ways. Therefore problems that arise in a simple system (i.e. I don’t know how to tie a tie) lie in the realms of best practice.

Complicated – A complicated system is a system where there are many variables, and cause and effect is hard to establish, however it can be established. This is the realm of experts who are able to diagnose problems within the system. Dave Snowden calls this the area of good practice. Due to the complicated nature of problems that arise within a complicated system, there are often many solutions to the problem, all of which are viable.

Complex – A complex system is a system that involves many variables. The variables are constantly interacting with one another and changing one another through the interactions. A tiny change in one variable can have huge consequences for the system. An example here is a rain-forest. If a damn is built in a river within the rain-forest it could potentially wipe out entire species. Cause and effect exists within a complex system, however due to it’s transient nature it is not possible to assess, therefore this is the area for emergent practice. When we want to solve problems in a complex system we should create safe-fail experiments. We should then heighten the parts of the experiment that are working, and dampen those elements that are not. In this way, a solution to the problem emerges from the data that we are receiving.

Chaotic – Finally, a chaotic system is a system in free-fall. Cause and effect cannot be established, and action needs to be taken immediately to bring the system back into one of the other quadrants.

The middle section (disorder) on the diagram is where we are unsure which system we are dealing with, and the important thing here is to establish what system it is.

Now you may be wondering, what does this have to do with coaching.

It is my belief that different forms of instruction to solve problems for individuals overlays with the Cynefin model. It looks like the model below.

Here we see:
Simple – telling
Complicated – advising
Complex – coaching
Chaotic – doing

In a simple system best practice is king, and best practice – honed through experience, process and documentation – is best delivered through a tell approach. There is a best way to do something, and that is best communicated in a straightforward way.

In a complicated system – good practice is king – and due to a multiplicity of solutions, advising is best. Laying out all the options so that the individual can choose the one that works best for them.

In a chaotic system – action is required. From an individual perspective we can see this as an extremity i.e. attempting suicide. The first thing we need to do is to act to stop them from going through with it. We need to bring them back from chaos into another system, and only then can we address the problems (through counselling and other professional means).

Now we come to coaching. Humans themselves are complex systems (particularly when seen in the light of their social context). Networks are complex systems. The way that we interact with our environment is complex. Therefore simple and complicated answers won’t cut it. Instead the master of the system (the coachee) has the knowledge to solve the problem. It is the coaches role to question the individual and to draw this knowledge up. From this the individual will begin to see a solution emerging from the data that is being drawn out.

This is the role of the coach.

When we speak to our friends and colleagues about problems they are experiencing, we can be tempted to tell them what they should do, or to advise them what we would do. 

Instead, maybe we should step back, and take the time to ask key questions to help to draw out the solutions from within them; to help them view the problem in new lights and uncover solutions that are within them, to help them make sense of their problem within a greater context. From this, solutions will emerge that they can own, and that they can use.


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