Known to Knowable to Complex to Chaotic: A Management Approach

Photo credit: Mihoko Maeno

Photo credit: Mihoko Maeno

NOTE: It has been pointed out that the 4-part model here is heavily borrowed from Dave Snowden and the Cynefin framework ( The intent wasn't to position this as novel, but want to offer credit to the source of the structure.

A simple question:

If you were going to be thrown into a fast-moving river, would you rather have a map or a canoe?

Much of the world of management is built around drawing maps. And maps are wonderful things if the things that the map represents are manageable. All too often we confuse the map with the terrain, though, and we imagine that while many leaders would like the map, many of those in the water would prefer the canoe.

Management practices ought to support a level of complexity that reflects the real world that people live in. A potentially useful frame is to consider that we operate in four worlds, and management (and leadership) is the skill to support people in navigating those worlds and recognizing when a shift has occurred and when new tools are necessary.

1. The Known (Training + Experience)

The Known is the space where our training and experience is most useful. Problems are either predictable or similar enough to past issues that we can confidently deal with them. What is "known" is completely based on the context of the individual and their experiences but most of us recognize when we're doing something that we know how to do.

2. The Knowable (Learning Capacity + Community)

The Knowable is a function of our learning capacity. Some problems require a bit of hard work to figure out but we can access the resources (human or otherwise) to make sense of it. This is the classic case of knowing what we don't know and then putting the time in to make it known.

3. The Complex (Adaptive Capacity + Collaboration)

Here's where things get a bit murky. The number of unknowns is high enough that any plan must reflect our ignorance of what will come. Adaptive capacity becomes the primary determinant of success as technical (Known) responses cease being effective. This area embodies the quote often attributed to Einstein that, "The thinking it took to get us into this mess is not the same thinking that is going to get us out of it." Here is the canoe, the tool that allows those in the water to survive long enough to make sense of the map. Processes such as scrum support people rather than processes and offer incremental improvements that break down the complex terrain into "knowable" tasks and behaviours.

4. The Chaotic (Resiliency + Shared Values)

This is the white space on the map -- the unknowns that we are unaware of. Chaos is increasingly defining organizational life as the level of interconnectedness increases. Dealing with chaos requires a different skill set again to allow for people to find their feet and start moving into the complex. We've found that resiliency, at the individual and collective levels, is the capacity best-suited to dealing with chaos. Organizationally, a strong set of shared values allows individuals to operate in spaces where their knowledge is useless and where the context is unknown and unknowable.

Managers must be able to identify what state a team is in and then offer appropriate support and tools to either move them into the known and knowable states or generate a space where team members can autonomously enter those states themselves.

The tsunami in Japan is evidence of how this can work. Many stories emerged of how stranded commuters walked hours to their homes in an orderly way while shops offered wireless and charging to allow for them to keep connected with their families. Chaos became complex as all understood the need to return to their homes and the need to support those in their long walk. Checkpoints were established to ensure that the weak and the lost were directed forward, at least until the next checkpoint. The complex was broken down into knowable steps that encouraged progress. Finally, as people returned to their homes and internalized the horror of what happened, the complexity and chaos began to take shape as calls for reform, lessons learned for future disasters and a near constant communication from the Japanese people to themselves.

Our educational systems are built on mastery, on ensuring that the reach of the known and knowable is as broad as possible. Unfortunately, many of the world's problems will only come from surrender, a surrender to a larger collaboration and a surrender to the limits of our own ability to understand. All four capacities therefore become critical for effective employees, teams and organizations. Training, a focus on continued learning, adaptive capacity and values offer a framework for interacting with the world, particularly for those closest to the river.