The last couple of years I have been making use of Cynefin to make sense of complexity in project organizations. Cynefin has helped me to make sense of how projects differ and how to cope with these differences.
More recently I discovered the Panarchy model. Just like the Cynefin model the Panarchy model helps to make sense of complex systems. Specifically, it helps to make sense of the dynamics of evolving hierarchical systems with multiple interrelated elements. The panarchy model originated as a framework for understanding resilience in social-ecological systems. I think it may also have a great potential as a sens-making framework in the context of project organizations (that clearly fit the description of “evolving hierarchical systems with multiple interrelated elements”).
The Panarchy model suggests that systems follows a four-phase adaptive cycle of (1) “exploitation” (r); (2) “conservation” (K); (3) “release” (Ω); and (4) “reorganization” (α). Quoting the Resilience Alliance: “The adaptive cycle exhibits two major phases (or transitions). The first, often referred to as the foreloop, from r to K, is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation. The second, referred to as the backloop, from Omega to Alpha, is the rapid phase of reorganization leading to renewal.”
The metaphor of the adaptive cycle helps to make sense of the evolution of practice in organizations as depicted in the figure below. Similarly it can help to make sense of the evolution of the (hierarchical) systems (with many interrelated elements) that we are building.
Equally important, the adaptive cycle can help to make sense of the mechanisms that we use to improve practice. I have seen people use and misuse the concepts of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act). Using the adaptive cycle metaphor we can clearly situate both cycles.
Ecological and social-ecological systems form nested sets of adaptive cycles. The larger, slower cycles generally constrain the smaller, faster ones and maintain system integrity. From the Resillience Allience: “The fast levels invent, experiment and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful, surviving experiments. The whole panarchy is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combines learning with continuity.”
Also within project organizations we observe nested cycles. We can see organization-wide practice development at a longer time-scale (multiple years) and we can see practice development at the team level at shorter time-scales (weeks and months). We can see product evolution at the time-scale of the product life-cycle and we can see product evolution at the time-scale and scope of individual features.
The metaphor of nested adaptive cycles can help to make sense of the interactions between these different levels.
Shorter adaptive loops (of teams and features) can reinforce the longer adaptive cycle (of the whole organization and the product). The effect of these reinforcing loops on the value curve is reminiscent of the so familiar J-curves and S-curves.
Similarly, shorter adaptive loops can weaken the longer adaptive cycle. The system risks to go into a state of cascading failure.
I am sure I have only scratched the surface here. I decided to put this post out anyhow to get early feedback. So, all input and feedback welcome! I will update the post to improve it.