I worked with a district leadership team this past summer and fall to prepare for reopening their schools. Like many others, their plan included defining the safety and health of staff and students as a significant priority, getting devices into students’ hands, and preparing teachers to teach in remote settings.

As we met in mid-November to review their plan and look at their metrics, I could sense a feeling of failure and frustration in the group as we analyzed their numbers. Student engagement numbers on software had trended down, over 50% of their students had a failing grade in two or more classes, and a considerable number of students had just quit showing up entirely.

As we began to discuss the why behind these numbers, one astute central office leader offered, “We knew we would have problems, but did we use the way we always solve problems to solve these problems? Did we not realize this time would be very different? Did we solve these issues from our old thinking way of thinking?”

An astute question, to say the least. If our old ways of thinking are not sufficient for today’s times, what can leaders do, and how can we develop a new way of thinking? I have been pondering this a lot lately.

The Cynefin Framework

A few years ago, I had run across a new framework called the Cynefin Framework, which helps leaders understand the type of problem they encounter and how to address them. The basic idea underlying this framework is that not all problem or problem spaces are the same, so applying the same process to all issues may make them worse. 

To orient you to the framework, take a look at the diagram below. There are five domains, or you could call them problem types: one in the middle called Confusion, and four others named Clear, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic. The domains on the right side are referred to as ordered in that problem here are knowable and predictable. We have the knowledge and skills to solve these types of problems. Another big difference on the right side is that as you move from Clear to Complicated, more interactions or parts of the system become involved requiring more expertise. That is why these types of problems become complicated.

Source: Corrigan, 2020

As you move counterclockwise around the figure from Clear and Complicated on the right side, the left side domains are considered unordered. Many aspects of problems here are unknown, unpredictable, and little to no knowledge is available to use for our solutions. The domains of Complexity and Chaos are different in that the system involved around the problems are always in flux, self-organizing which lead to new phenomena emerging. For instance, even though the leaders in our opening story thought they had planned for everything, engagement problems emerged. Chaotic systems lack any meaningful constraints, and everything seems like randomness and crisis. 

Another way to understand this is that if you start in the Clear domain, the further you go counterclockwise, the less stability the system possesses and the less order you feel. The middle domain or Confused means you and your organization struggle with seeing the problem because of your own biases, habits, and entrenched ways of solving problems. In the Covid crisis, none of us has seen these issues before, so we are confused about what to do. It is relatively easy to slip into the Confused domain in any of the outer four domains before moving between them. 

To help you think about the issues that have come with the Covid-19 crisis, school leaders can begin to use the following guide. 

  • If the problem is obvious, things are tightly connected, and there is a best practice known to solve it, it probably resides in the Clear domain.
  • If the problem or issue has many parts to it, has a knowable answer but requires an expert to solve it for you, it probably resides in the Complicated domain.
  • If the problem has many interrelated elements, and you are unsure if there is a solution and no one has an answer to it, it probably resides in the Complex domain.
  • If the problem or issue feels like a crisis and you don’t even know what to do, you are perhaps in the Chaotic domain. 
  • If you have absolutely no idea what to do, you may be in the Confused domain.

While different problems may be in different spaces for various schools, once a problem is placed into a domain, the actions you take as a leader will need to vary in each domain. The same problem-solving process will not work in different domains. 

  • In the Clear domain, you will have the skills or knowledge somewhere in your organization to solve, so your actions will be to sense the problem, categorize the type of situation, and respond by applying the best knowledge we have available.
  • In the Complicated domain, more interactions happen, so you need to sense the problem, analyze it by breaking it down into its subcomponents, and respond with your plan.
  • There are no answers available in the Complex domain, so you need to probe the problem through small interactive testing to learn from your efforts. You next sense what worked or didn’t and respond by running another test or scaling your tests that do work.
  • In the Chaos domain, there is no order at all, so you need to choose someplace to act, sense what happens, and act accordingly. Your role at first is to stabilize things first, then figure out the best place to act.  
  • In the Confused domain, work to define the exact problem and ways your own mindset may be getting in the way.

Back to the Crisis

So if we had used this framework from the start, how might this leadership team think differently?

  • The team could have stated in the confusion domain a bit longer and parsing the problems between what had obvious answers and those that didn’t. 
  • Health and safety issues would have been placed into the Clear domain since solutions were obvious.
  • Issues like moving curriculum online and remote teaching would have been placed into the Complicated domain since numerous interactions were needed between teachers, curriculum specialists, and technology staff.
  • Once problems like student engagement or mental health issues began to emerge, these would have been placed into the Complex domain since no apparent answers were available at the scale being felt. Small tests could have been run to probe what students needed and possible solution. As other issues began to emerge, this framework could serve to help leaders determine how to approach them. 

In sum, the Cynefin Framework is a useful guide to help you understand the problems that are occurring and apply the right actions. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we may have been trying to keep the problems on the “ordered side”. When in fact, many of these issues reside on the disordered side. Looking ahead, do we need to consider emerging issues from new ways of thinking?

Until next time!