Cynefin and Product Management

A few days ago I suggested that product managers could get a lot of insight from the Cynefin model, especially the Complex region of the model. Liz Keogh said this well:

When you start writing tests, or having discussions, and the requirements begin changing underneath you because of what you discover as a result, that’s complex. You can look back at what you end up with and understand that it’s much better, but you can’t come up with it to start with, nor can you define what “better” will look like and try to reach it. It emerges as you work.

Product management is a complex domain

The fundamental challenge with product management is that your first solution to a problem sucks. And it can suck a lot of different ways. It might not actually be a problem. Your solution might make the problem worse. Your solution might make that problem better, but cause another worse problem. Your solution might be boring. It might break. It might give the wrong answer. It might give the right answer, but too late. There are many different modes of failure.

In short, you start by thinking you know something, but the only way to tell if you really know it is to do a test. In #prodmgmt, you start by thinking you know something, but you have to test to be sure. Share on X The test will likely tell you that you don’t know anything. So then you respond by creating a new test.

Cynefin has a model for what to do in a complex domain

Getting back to the Cynefin model, the key words are Probe, Sense, Respond in the Complex region. And is it just me, or does this process also sound just like the Lean Startup Build, Measure, Learn cycle? Roughly speaking, you get these equivalences:

  • Create and run test = Probe = Build
  • Understand results = Sense = Measure
  • Change assumptions = Respond = Learn

The key points of Cynefin and product management

  • A key characteristic of complexity (in the Cynefin sense) is that you don’t know much. There are no guideposts, and what you think you know is likely to be wrong.
  • You need a methodology that lets you explore the territory
  • There are dangers – of finding local maxima – because there’s no map, you don’t know if the hill you’re climbing leads to a mountain, or even if there are any mountains
  • Everything you find out will change what you thought you already knew

Use the Cynefin model help deal with complexity

Does this sound like the real experience of product management and product design to you? If not, let me know.

Next: What do you need from a tool to handle this situation?

About the author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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