How To Choose Between Pattern-Based Leadership vs. Fact-Based Management



โ€œCreativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.โ€ — Edward de Bono

I found an interesting article about contextual decision making.

It’s “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” an article in Harvard Business Review by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone.

The idea is about tailoring your decision making approach based on the context.  You can use the Cynefin Framework to figure out which context you’re operating in, so you can choose the most effective response.

The five contexts are 1) simple, 2) complicated, 3) complex, 4) chaotic, and 5) disorder.

The key is to determine whether to categorize, analyze, probe or act.

The Characteristics of Each Type of Context

Based on Snowden and Boone, the following table summarizes the five context types in the Cynefin Framework:

Context Type Characteristics
Simple All? Every? Never? Repeating patterns and consistent events; Clear cause-and-effect relationships evident to everyone; right answer exists; Known knowns
Complicated All? Every? Never?Expert diagnosis required; Cause-and-effect relationship discoverable but not immediately apparent to everyone; more than one right answer possible; Known unknowns
Complex All? Every? Never? Flux and unpredictability; No right answers; emergent instructive patterns; Unknown unknowns; Many competing ideas; A need for creative and innovative approaches
Chaotic All? Every? Never?High turbulence; No clear cause-and-effect relationships, so no point in looking for right answers; Unknowables; Many decisions to make and no time to think; High tensions
Disorder All? Every? Never?This context is particularly difficult to recognize because of multiple, competing perspectives. The recommendation is to break it down into its constituent parts and assign it to one of the other four realms

When to Choose Fact-based Management

According to Snowden and Boone, simple and complicated are part of the ordered world.  How to respond as a leader in simple and complicated scenarios:

  • Simple (The Domain of Best Practices) – Sense, categorize, respond; Ensure proper processes are in place; Delegate; Use best practices; Communicate in clear, direct ways; Understand that extensive interactive communication may not be necessary.
  • Complicated (The Domain of Experts)  – Sense, analyze, respond; Create panels of experts; Listen to conflicting advice.

When to Choose Pattern-based Leadership

According to Snowden and Boone, complex and chaotic are part of the unordered world.  How to respond as a leader in complex and chaotic scenarios:

  • Complex (The Domain of Emergence) – Probe, sense, respond;  Create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge.  Increase levels of interaction and communication.  Use methods that can help generate ideas; Open up discussion: set barriers; stimulate attractors; encourage dissent and diversity; and manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence.
  • Chaotic (The Domain of Rapid Response) – Act, sense, respond;  Look for what works instead of seeking right answers; Take immediate action to reestablish order (command and control); Provide clear, direct communication.

If the network has seen the pattern before, maybe it will be useful again.

Is your challenge old wine in a new bottle?  Or new wine?

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  1. JD,

    This was fascinating. Now I have to make a decision about how to make a decision in any given context! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I like the way you made the complex theory so simple to understand, with three words in sequence for each situation. It’s interesting also to note the domains that each decision-making type can come under.

  2. Hi J.D.

    I have never heard it put this way before. You are a great writer, only you can explain something like this.
    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  3. Pure gem.
    I like it a lot – it helps recognize the situation at hand and act accordingly. It applies to consultants too. Consultant is sort of leader when working at customer’s. The situations you are describing here are all there when delivering the service – simple, complex, complicated, chaotic. Chaotic is actually prevailing for consultants – why calling consultant in first place anyway? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Good stuff!

  4. @ Daphne


    I’m still trying to rationalize it, but I think the key is that some problems can be analyzed and solved in a linear, deductive way, while others have to be reverse-engineered from working examples, in an inductive way. To put it another way, some problems you can’t just logic your way through, instead you need to test and find what works and look for patterns.

    I think the other key is that it’s important to avoid analysis paralysis, and when you aren’t sure what to do, start taking action and pay attention to feedback.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I suspect I may need to boil this down further at some point as I learn some more distinctions. So far, think the big ah-ha is that sometimes you can act on facts, but other times you need to act on patterns and intuition.

    @ Alik

    Thank you. I agree – it’s a great way for consultants to provide leadership. Conultants can help make sense of the chaos and share the patterns that work.

  5. This document is a very brief and valuable one.I found very interesting part that you have explained “disorder context” very clearly.excellent job.good luck!

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