Of Scuba Diving, Cynefin, & Value Delivery

It struck me recently that a good way to understand and perhaps even react to the challenges of modern management science and organisational value delivery might be to consider scuba diving.

Imagine, if you will, that an organisation or project might emulate a scuba dive, with a remarkably similar line of coherency through Cynefin.

What on earth am I talking about? Bear with me… I’ll explore organisations, basic Cynefin principles, workflow, and, of course, the diving part.

How is this relevant to business?

A number of the current issues faced by organisations run enough gauntlets that entire consultancies and processes have sprung up relating to Agile, Lean, Complexity, Problem Solving, Value Delivery, Training, and other integrated practices. Each one of these is a part of a whole flexibly applied approach, rather than a singular answer.

That entire industries – let alone organisations, or business units – are now traversing a little-understood landscape which is seeing them intensely pressured, plus a loss of value delivery, is becoming widely recognised. Both Dave Snowden (Cognitive Edge) and Katherine Kirk (Agile Coach/Speaker) speak globally on the subject of the changes in management, industry and business resolution, and more and more companies are realising there is a piece of understanding missing around delivery of value.

It is extremely difficult to persuade leadership to go against tradition, company culture, and the tempting expectation that data can be summarised for simple repeatable decision, even when these are clearly impeding innovation or expansion (as is now seen cross-industry – the stifling of innovation and a downwards dive of productivity, Snowden). Often, either an adjustment may instead need to be made in an organisation where it can be safely demonstrated, or the enviroment shifts such as it has no choice but to react appropriately to survive. The second is usually not desired, as it probably requires crisis management – but handled correctly, this is where true innovation also lies (Cynefin, running innovation solutions teams with crisis management teams, Cognitive Edge).

In both instances we have instinctive or conditioned reactions which may worsen the situation – requiring a more reasoned approach – and a general inability to intuit the necessary actions.


So why the sinking feeling?

In pondering upcoming dives and my current consultancy, it occurred to me that there were some remarkable parallels and takeaways between business and diving, and that the latter could be used as a good example of some of the concepts.

Scuba diving is an interesting lesson in avoiding reductionism, agile assessment of situations, considered action with the ability and requirement to act immediately if appropriate, refining a plan to get the maximum effect with limited resources, and required planning and high levels of order that can be – and are – still immediately affected by unpredictability and complexity. At the same time, all divers involved strive to improve the dive as much as possible until the dive ends; kaizen, if you will.

You require strategy, tactical responses, and a lack of politics and ego for a dive to be safe, productive, and succeed. Every diver is a stakeholder, and empowered to give valid input; every diver drives success of the dive.

In any situation when you are diving, you are in an inimicable environment that is extremely unforgiving for the unprepared or error-prone. Most of this is easily avoidable via preparation, understanding and action (or calculated inaction). Recognising warning signs is key, because your options are constrained by several critical thresholds.

If you encounter an issue when you are diving, from a minor adjustment up to a major incident, there is a standard response:


Following these steps as much as possible is critical, as panic not only drastically increases use of your limited, most valuable resource (in this case, air) but it can lead to potential loss of life.

For me, this sequence is an interesting parallel/precursor to engaging the more involved responses of sense-making and Cynefin.


Cynefin – a closer look

This is a good moment to explore the basics of Cynefin and how it can be used to optimise organisations and situations. I’ll go into more detail in another post, but for now, we’ll focus on the basic model and what it contains, and I’ll give some diving and business related examples (and hope it makes sense!).

Cynefin is a framework created by Dave Snowden and Cognitive Edge, and is a constantly evolving, science-based method of understanding anthro-complexity and how to best manage human issues. Human issues affect everything in our lives, because everything we do relies on human interaction – organisations, products, services, families, and more are MADE of – or by – humans. It works on a naturalistic basis to allow sense to emerge from data rather than the usual human practice of attempting to force data into categories for understanding; this latter approach often constrains our perceptions and our options, but is our usual method for dealing with things.

Management science and organisational disruptions are two areas Cynefin has been applied to with great success.


The Cynefin Model. All rights reserved Cognitive Edge


Here we have a very basic Liminal Cynefin model, with seven domains. The main four domains are:

Obvious, dealing with ordered things anyone can grasp, such as moving a mouse on a computer and watching the cursor move with your actions, or swimming up or down to move up or down in water; direct and obvious cause and effect. The danger here is complacency – because if failure happens, you fall off a “cliff-edge” into chaos and crisis.

Complicated, dealing with ordered things requiring expertise to understand, such as developing in a coding language, or understanding the gas mixes at relative depths; multiple possible causal links.

Complex, dealing with unordered things that are not obviously causal and require experimentation and feedback to understand, such as a new software release’s impact and estimation of success in a marketspace, or currents and weather changing during the course of a dive; no causal links and a requirement to probe before you can respond appropriately.

Chaos, dealing with unordered things that have no causality and are in a state of crisis/emergency, such as new software blue-screening multiple client’s mission critical servers upon release, or a sudden loss of bouyancy control underwater; no time to explore cause and effect, you must act immediately to avoid catastrophic failures. Innovation typically lives here.

In addition, we have the central domain of Disorder, in which we are not yet sure which major domain a situation falls into, and two liminal domains:

Complex/Complicated, which is the liminal dynamic you can transition from unorder into order through (and back if required). This is where Scrum and similar Agile concepts, Lean, Kanban and Kaizen (and others) sit. I’ll cover these in another post in more detail.

Chaos/Complex, where controlled shallow dives into chaos can be performed to spark innovation and new goals, or you can move from crisis to complexity by the imposition of constraints.

It’s worth noting that Liminal Dynamics (i.e. the transitions between states) are at least as important as fitting things into the major four domains, and constraints and practice are both areas that influence understanding too, but I’ll attempt to cover Cynefin another time with regards to problem solving.

The last two things I want to mention about Cynefin here are that 1) order and unorder are both manageable and have different applications, briefly explored in my post Fearing Change and Changing Fear, and 2) each major domain has a sub-model which traces a path of coherency (the logically supported optimal continuous pathway of productivity in business; a way of understanding the degree and nature of evidence that supports either a planned action or a situational assessmentSnowden) and links the domains from Chaos through to Obvious. Again, more about this another time.

So, there’s some Cynefin in a nutshell!


Relating Cynefin to scuba diving

We can compare these by investigating the actions integral to diving. With regards to the base scuba diving precept of Stop-Breathe-Think-Respond, you would encounter it mostly with Complicated, Complex and Chaotic domains once the dive has begun.


The base planning is set often in the Obvious domain: for example, the set up. Have you checked your BCD inflates? Have you checked your air quality? Have you cleaned water out of the connector? Have you used your second stage so you know you can breathe? Do the gauges work? And so on. These are step-by-step stable best practices anyone can (and must) carry out which are vital to success.


But then we have a foot into the Complicated domain. Do we need to calculate NOx % for a mixed gas dive? What is our calculated depth limit so we don’t potentially die from oxygen toxicity? How are we monitoring this? What depth limit and surface time, what decompression time will be required? These requires analysis and expertise. Not everyone can do this intuitively and follow instructions, because there must be understanding, experience, and responsibility. You shouldn’t get on a plane within 24-48 hours of diving because of pressure differentials, for example, but without certified knowledge you might not know that.


Complexity is moved into as soon as we’re off, even before we’re on the boat. Weather can change quickly. Currents change. Visibility changes. The plan may beome unfulfillable as set out. Many unpredictable factors occur that require us to probe the process and change goals based on the feedback, both as the dive commences and continues. Stop-breathe-think/probe-sense-respond. Concurrent dives may also occur in multiple adjecent locations to maximise chances of success in uncertain conditions, which can then be taken into account for future dives.


Thankfully Chaos doesn’t happen often, but it is always a very real danger on a dive. A malfunction, an environmental shift, or lack of experience or ability can turn a peaceful relaxed dive into a stop-breathe-think/act-sense-respond emergency scenario.

For example, the time a novice had trouble with bouyancy and was ascending in 7m of water with propelled boats overhead springs to mind. This was rapidly moving towards a crisis area requiring action. Before the Divemaster could intervene, another novice grabbed his weight belt to help pull him back down and it slipped down to his ankles, making it worse – he shot up like a cork!

It wasn’t deep enough for decompression problems, but it was shallow enough for boat-to-the-head problems, which can be quite terminal.

This was lurching into duffers better dead (Snowden/Ransome) areas a little too accurately. Immediate crisis management was implemented (the Divemaster and I grabbed a fin each and gently pulled him back down whilst his belt and BCD were fixed), using innovation (we used a typically non-tactile bit of gear to stabilise him as he gained practical experience of adjusting critical gear underwater, subsequently explaining this to the others post-dive), and we then transitioned back into the base “project” of the dive with thankfully no damage except his frantically-used air, and a number of lessons learned by all the newcomers. The dive was ultimately cut short as a result, and deviated from the route.

So we traversed a path of coherency, including a recovery from crisis management. There is generally more response time for this in business, but considering the organisation as an organism (or better, an ecology) means it’s relative, and just as impactful.

Diving is more critical to us because we can’t breathe or ascend uncontrollably. We are in a hostile environment, and we know it every second. We are forced to deal with this to be safe. But business should be considered in every bit as critical a fashion, as the market is also hostile and unforgiving, and critical timescales are relative (companies are bigger and slower). Sink or swim; complacency kills.

One note of interest is there no single fail-safe per se in diving, because if something can go wrong it will go wrong. Instead, there is a strong concept of multiple concurrent options that can be implemented during a scenario that have variable chances of being the best option depending on circumstances (I can think of four if your main regulator stops giving air off the top of my head, for example). It’s not quite safe-to-fail probes in complexity, but it has similarities. Scuba diving is about resilience for the sake of safety.

Most of the domains of Cynefin are passed through on many dives in one way or another, and an organisation is immersed in them and has its own line of coherency through them too, both in part and as a whole. Resilience is key in business, too, both at an organisational level and a project level.


So what can we learn from all this?

Now you’ve read the above, take a moment to try applying this to a past or present organisation, and see what correlates. You might be surprised how many similar domains fit a business goal, culture, methodology and leadership requirements as fit the overall structure of a dive.

Consider how approaching a situation as if it were a dive could have provided better results (or not!). Consider as well how what you understand of the concepts of Agile, Lean, WIP limitation, improvement, and problem solving would apply to a dive, and to your example organisation.

You can also try using examples from a dive, which are simpler than a company’s projects, and apply them to situations you feel parallel. I’d love to hear some of them in the comments.

The purpose of all of this isn’t to focus on diving, of course, or suggest it’s immediately translatable to business; it’s to prod a different perspective, another application of principles that are key to both.


Should we run organisations/projects more like a dive?

I think there is a good argument for consideration, if nothing else!

Diving is an interesting operation which succeeds when it is collaborative; everyone diving is a stakeholder. Everyone is empowered to make suggestions, get the attention of the group, and – if one suffers a mishap – the group responds as a whole to mitigate the issues to produce the optimum possible continuing flow of the dive. As soon as you hit the water, every stakeholder is continuously reacting and improving the group’s experience – via bouyancy, adjustments, suggestions, and constant, communicated feedback from the surrounds. You inevitably experience better flow by the end of a dive than the start.

The concepts of Kanban are very much involved. Every diver consumes air differently, has different buoyancy, trims differently – all of these affect the overall dive time, depth, and quality on an in-progress basis. Movement speed is limited to the slowest mover; dive time is limited if there is a problem, by the first to reach their air reserve, body composition and potential hypothermia, or even descent into the chaos of losing track of a dive buddy, at which point an immediate constraining if/then scenario kicks in and the entire dive ends.



Safety is first, success/enjoyment is second, and new goals may arise as all divers experience multiple probes regarding the direction, focus, or decisions of the dive. Strategy is adhered to overall, but the optimum path is per dive, not set for every dive. The dive emerges from the situational data; we don’t categorise and limit the dive unless it crosses into chaos. Although there is overall loose hierarchy in terms of a Divemaster/guides, it is more of an ecosystem, where everyone is focused and has stakes in delivering the value. Everyone is trusted to do so. By and large, everyone delivers. It’s worlds away from how businesses mostly run, but it’s startlingly similar to how businesses are beginning to understand they should run. The interest in Agile and similar methodologies is huge, but sometimes poorly understood; industry has yet to decipher the new landscape of value delivery.

Loosely translated to a company, you can probably see how running in this fashion would be efficient and beneficial. Long term company safety is critical; there’s no point in succeeding in an immediate project if it harms the longevity of the organisation. Projects should enhance it! Collaboration and investment throughout the entire value stream is key, and organisations should not be afraid to work towards goals that may shift slightly. Understanding how and why is important.


Applying these parallels to Business

Many organisations are currently adrift in an unfamiliar – and in terms of understanding, hostile – environment. With the fast shift of the global economy, service-driven offerings, and the clash of bureacracy and entrepreneurialism, the drive to achieve, to innovate, to be successful has never been higher – and companies can struggle to keep pace.

I’ve seen organisations getting more and more desperate to deliver the value they know they contain, only to stall due to reliance on adherence to the old methodologies of getting back on track (cuts, leadership changes, management fads, old school management techniques, reductionism, simplified recipe transplants, demands to innovate something to stay relevant, and on), or a misapplication of the new buzzword, Agile, and related patterns.

Incorporating Agile techniques is a very valid and beneficial action, as long as it isn’t immediately constrained and “certified”, or only used in the manner of a Cobra Effect – in other words, appearing to be done, using the language and visible basics, but actually not being undertaken correctly or sparking zero cultural change.

And therein lies a large part of the issue – Agile can’t be Agile if it’s constrained and simplified as a recipe for organisational transplant, or if it’s not really implemented at more than the surface, but these approaches are how many companies appear to be trying to implement it.

The name of the thing is not the thing – most of us buy the label, not the merchandise” (Weinberg).

It’s also worth noting that no single framework, and consequently few single consultants, actually hold the keys to everything. Agile, Lean, Kaizen, Scrum, and other manifestos/frameworks are all part of something larger, and fit in certain places and not others. Cynefin is a little different; it is an attempt to scientifically and naturally understand this, by defining actions and language, gauging complexity according to naturalistic methods, and allowing the data to give us sense rather than attempting to forcefully categorise it to suit us – because, as we’ve seen, being in the midst of situations tends to limit us to those situations. The fact is, organisations need to adapt to complexity to survive; with a few large exceptions, the world no longer tolerates businesses that can adapt everything else to fit themselves.

On a dive, all divers pay attention to all divers because the success of a dive hinges on all divers. It’s now becoming more obvious that an organisation should pay attention to all its people because the success of the organisation (and subsequently all those people) hinges on all those people. I refer back to my last blog post where I quoted Katherine Kirk, saying “Organisations and people ALL matter, because they drive, innovate and ARE value; we matter because everyone else matters”. I’ll probably keep repeating it, because it’s true.


Plumbing the depths for answers

So, when it comes to understanding Cynefin and running an optimised, lean, agile organisation, you could perhaps do worse than consider the comparison to a scuba dive.

Am I suggesting that a dive plan is the same thing as, say, a Scrum sprint flow? No, of course not. A typical dive could only ever have elements of more complex business practices. The idea is – with slight tongue in cheek – to recognise the similarities, understand the benefits of how a dive operates, spark a new way of viewing things, and realise how complexity affects all areas of our lives and must be assessed accordingly to plot a coherent path.

Prepare, recognise warning signs, relax, and deal with situations appropriately; recognise all the stakeholders and the value stream delivery for people; and take satisfaction from successfully completing the delivery of that value. Every dive is different, ever-changing – that’s part of the fun! That’s how business works, too, but organisations are still mired in hierarchy and rigid constraints, and from within the mire it’s difficult to understand how to regain innovation and change for the better.

It’s hard to navigate when you’re too close to the sun – that’s why a neutral consultant or coach can give new insight. They are not restricted by the inbuilt constraints. A consultant’s very lack of deep level expertise in a subject can be great benefit, although having knowledge can also be very helpful, and ultimately help the organisatin learn to deliver their value with a minimum of issues.  They are jigglers, to coin another phrase from the esteemed Gerald Weinberg. Facilitators who have experience and knowledge, not to expert levels within the issue, but who can help those who have it find stability and a new direction.

(Some of them are divers, too.)




    • chris_bramley

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      You’re welcome to connect on LinkedIn where I have more posts and articles as well.

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