Cynefin, Panarchy, PDCA, OODA and value creation curves

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”).

Adaptive cycleThe 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.

Adaptive cycle and the evolution of practice

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.

Adaptive cycle, PDCA and OODA

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.

Nested cycles

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.

Effect of reinforcing loops

Similarly, shorter adaptive loops can weaken the longer adaptive cycle. The system risks to go into a state of cascading failure.

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.

This entry was posted in adaptive cycle, complexity, cynefin, panarchy. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Cynefin, Panarchy, PDCA, OODA and value creation curves

  1. Wim Bollen says:

    Some thoughts…
    Where to place collapse and imposition? So is cascading failure a system collapse (in cynefin from simple (standard practice) to chaos(novel practice)) where events in smaller cycles (independent) hits the bigger cycles and a period of chaos is entered until a new normal is established in K and released in omega?
    I suppose imposition is also a revolt. We all know stories about where a system is forced into a certain state (e.g. pesticide offering a (very) short term solution to a plague but in the mid term polluting the environment). It is also a kind of revolt leading to a new normal (e.g. mono culture agriculture with reduced biodiversity as a result). In project management it is imposing a one-size-fits all management approach leading to reduced resilience and agility of the organisation.

  2. Reblogged this on Thinking Out Loud… and commented:
    A short, comprehensive overview of the Panarchy Model. Guess I’m not the only one believing this can be a guiding theoretical model for business management.

  3. Patrick, I find your post very concise and therefor I took the liberty to re-blog your post!

    I’m fascinated by the use of the Panarchy/Adaptive Cycle model for Business Management as well. I’ve spend a series of post on my blog on this, starting with

  4. Dave Snowden says:

    I’ve always seen Anarchy as one dynamic within Cynefin

  5. Dave,
    Is it fair to say that Cynefin and Panarchy address the same in a different representations and with different emphasis? In the Panarchy model, the dynamics takes the centre stage in the representation. In Cynefin the different domains take the centre stage. I understand that Cynefin allows for multiple dynamics (e;g. collapse and imposition). Panarchy also caters for multiple dynamics but by the way it is represented, emphasises the anarchy dynamic. I tend to use the Panarchy model exactly when I want to emphasise this dynamic. In different contexts different representations seem useful to me.
    Does that make sense?

  6. P. Cade says:

    Patrick, I would like to build on your idea of applying Panarchy models to project management, as a diagnostic tool in looking at how to apply change depending on where system/product is at. For instance in the r to k phase you most need builders to extend and add. So I have been using the model as a diagnostic tool to better understand context. For more on this area consider Ferguson etal’s paper on integrating resilience theory and transformative change to water utility. I am sure you will find their conceptual models interesting. see

    They talk about a diagnostic tool for institutional change.

  7. Pingback: Aging Orgs – Change Strategy

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