Coronavirus Learning Log Week 2: Communicating and Cynefin

My findings this week focussed on finding new ways to communicate. This blog post will expand on those ideas:


  • Learning to think in theoretical terms of complexity and the cynefin framework
  • Working on a collaborative, peer to peer level with the WAO directors and Auditor General
  • Making sure to distribute tasks among ourselves evenly
  • Avoiding retrospective coherence
  • operating in a space that can feel ‘outside of the world’

Complexity and Cynefin

We had a webinar with professor Dave Snowden this week; His theoretical work around the Cynefin framework, has been an important part of our learning as a department, so I’m going to try and explain the theory as best as I can with relation to Covid-19.

In its simplest explanation, the cynefin framework, is a way of facilitating people to make decisions. It plots challenges on a scale of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic:



This is the realm of ‘Best practice’ solutions that we know work:


  • the relationship between cause and effect is easy to work out
  • Snowden gives the example of ‘’changing a light bulb’’.
  • Working from home is a good example of a simple solution for office closure, as it’s something we’re already equipped to do
  • It’s important to make sure ‘’best practice’’ doesn’t become generic practice, to stop crises becoming chaotic when they occur


This is the realm of ‘Good Practice’, and more difficult to figure out solutions:

  • Experts may disagree on cause and effect, but there will always be at least one solution
  • An example of this could be performing a medical operation – most people wouldn’t have the knowledge to do that
  • In the first week of remote working Sam Williams’ laptop broke – this required him to see a member of our IT team
  • It is possible for Complicated to become Simple, as knowledge improves and becomes widely shared


‘Emergent practice’ – learning as we go along – is key here

  • Relationships between cause and effect are not immediately visible in this scenario
  • This requires setting up ‘safe to fail’ experiments and trying new ways of working to find worthwhile solutions
  • One example of this is the shift to online event we’ve had to do. We initially didn’t know if this was going to be workable
  • In vaccination development, lots of trials are being carried out around the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine


Novel practice’ or deciding action is vital

  • There is no relationship between cause and effect
  • The aim here is to take decisive action to move to a complex situation as fast as possible
  • Governments have had to take very decisive action to stop the spread of the coronavirus

Peer to peer facilitation

A key component of complexity mentioned by Snowden, is the idea that traditional hierarchies can break down in complex situations.

Part of the focus of unnatural hierarchy’s, can be an insistence on targets and quota’s which are often relaxed during a crisis

Crises require an acknowledgement that different people have abilities and knowledge, which the leader may not have

We are hoping to extend our research into innovative ways of working across the organisation and public sector bodies who are willing to engage. This requires using the communication tools at our disposal to reach out to staff and create a web of connections.

Sam and Chris have developed a sense maker tool to aid in the project.:

This allows Audit Wales to respond appropriately to the Coronavirus. Chris Bolton mentions ‘I’m having to change the way I work’.

This tool allows us to gather good, emerging and novel practice, from different perspectives.

From there, we can analyse this information to provide insight, sharing when appropriate.

Vitally, the task helps us achieve our purpose of connecting people and organisations.

Making sure to gather in real time helps avoid distortion and retrospective coherence

Distributing tasks

‘We are hugely connected as a department. Everyone’s got a piece of unique knowledge’ says Chris Bolton, pointing to the fact that crises such as this one can require more horizontal forms of order

Sion Owen tells me that he understands the way we go about ourselves as a department, referring to the focus on letting staff learn new skills focusing on a ‘safe to fail’ way of working, whereby you don’t get punished for failing

I can personally relate to that in the sense that ideas such as ‘safe to fail’ and ‘complexity’ seemed quite abstract when I first encountered them – now they feel like part of my thought process!

A quote is circling round in my head about GPX being told that we are ‘no longer incidental’. By making sense of those ideas we can realise we all have our part to play and that complex situations require no one to be incidental

Avoiding Retrospective Coherence

Pictured: How I imagine a story vs how it actually happened

Retrospective Coherence is the idea that when we tell a story we imagine it as an ordered sequence of events. This often reflects the sequence of events that people ‘think’ happened. It can also be highly biased and reflect things like an event from one person’s perspective, how they would have liked events to transpire, or a version that represents their view.

There’s nothing wrong with retrospective coherence. I’ve employed it here. However, our aim behind trying to collect information in real time is to capture what was felt, decided and understood, avoiding the formulaic nature of post incident reviews.

In their interviews with me, each member of the team has mentioned that they’ve made notes throughout the week. I wrote a post a few weeks ago where I talked about pretending to be a journalist at an event on town on community councils. One of the responses I kept getting was, we’ll brief the ‘press later’ i.e. we’ll consult and then get back to you’. This perfectly represents the dichotomy

Operating ‘Outside the world’

‘I’ve been seeing stories of people flouting Coronavirus guidelines’ says Debra Allen

‘Other people are scary’ says Sion, drawing attention to the fact that the government guidelines involve trust, while increased isolation from each other during this situation, fosters mistrust: ‘first time I’d been outside the boundary [of our house and garden] for a week and a half. I don’t know what we’d do with the kids if we became ill’

Snowden points out that in a crisis you need to find consensus for what would otherwise be unacceptable change. Case in point: banning gatherings. ‘Start to do that by finding the experts you previously ignored and apologise’ he advises, giving the example of doctors who have to use expertise to decide who lives and who dies as illustration of difficult decision making.

More than one member of my team describes the society we’re living in as feeling ‘dystopian’. Snowden goes on to compliment the fact that because the social distancing restrictions contain some flexibility, people like Sion can still ‘attack the garden’ as exercise. ‘You can’t over constrain the system…full constraints like the ones in Spain wont work for three months’

Due to the measures taken to combat the epidemic and the possible effect they may have society, he points out ‘after this is over the politics will be horrendous’,

While I don’t want to get into the political processes in this country, the US, or the rule by decree laws just passed in Hungary, the way we interact with each other now will affect the way we think about society. Panic buying, crossing the street when you see someone coughing – these are responses to a complex situation, that have implications.

It’s in this context that Sion says ‘The longer I’m outside the world, the more scared I am of it’

Learning Opportunities

  • Using the Cynefin Framework as one measurement, thinking theoretically about the work that we do can be an alternative way to asses ourselves, finding out if the activates we consider standard are worthwhile, or require a rethink. It can also help to make sense mentally of your behaviours, by giving you a framework to measure them by.
  • Traditional hierarchies may not work in a crisis, so it is important to use peer to peer networks to asses each other’s strengths and abilities, and to work in democratic, team orientated ways in order to improve decision making and work to utilise everyone’s abilities, to achieve good outcomes.
  • Do not overburden one member of the team, giving each other opportunities to learn from different experiences, and realising the necessity of failure as a learning method.
  • If there is a new practice or idea emerging, capture it! Don’t wait until after this is all over to provide an account of what worked and what didn’t. Chances are that’s going to be laced with retrospective coherence!
  • Realise the larger scale implications that the Coronavirus will have on society. Many people are beginning to think that society will never be quite the same again. Try through your work and your behaviour to make sure that the lessons learnt from Covid-19 can serve positive ends.

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