National resilience and the Cynefin framework


As a systems thinker, I have been intrigued to observe the Australian response to the current Coronavirus Pandemic and the need for us, as a nation, to be more resilient.

The way in which the Australian Governments (State and Federal) and other authorities and organisations have managed the emerging and volatile, or even chaotic, Coronavirus Pandemic environment reminds me of David Snowdon’s sense-making framework, the Cynefin framework. As Snowden and his co-author Kurtz highlight, it is a framework that “…gives decision makers powerful new constructs that they can use to make sense of a wide range of unspecified problems.” It helps decision makers avoid using the same approach in all circumstances by refocusing and adjusting the approach to the context at hand. For Australia, the Coronavirus Pandemic is certainly an “unspecified problem” that exists in a challenging and dynamic context. From the Cynefin framework, and the more recent publications on the framework, it is clear that Australia was in a chaotic decision-making context, where cause and effect was unclear, and the Governments needed to quickly act to stabilise the situation (‘flatten the curve’).

On the 22nd March 2020, the Australian Prime Minister announced a number of extraordinary actions that set the rules on how we, as a society, needed to respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic. It was clear, from his announcements, that there is no guidebook or previous experience that could be harnessed to deal with the significant health and economic impacts of the pandemic. As the Cynefin framework proposes, there was no ‘rational choice’. The Government just had to act.

This action has now appeared to stabilise the situation here in Australia with, hopefully, the worst behind us. Governments are, and must continue to, sense the situation, and respond accordingly. As Snowdon indicates, the goal, which I believe Australia has achieved, is to move from the Chaotic to the Complex decision-making context of the Cynefin framework. That is, we have moved to a context where patterns emerge and “…cause and effect relationships … defy categorisation or analytic techniques.” We now have more time to probe, experimenting with response options to expose the patterns in a considered way and using guidance from available expertise, including that beyond the pandemic response. We can do so safe with the knowledge that we can revert to previous measures, if required, that can control the situation.

Our national response now ‘writes the guidebook’, and this emergent practice, as Snowdon hypothesises, is what can be used in the future to make Australia more resilient to future pandemics. However, we must be cautious not to become complacent with what is demonstrating to be a successful response to the shock of the Coronavirus Pandemic, because the definition of resilience needs to be explored across our community, as first responders, as essential workers, in food security, in infrastructure, national security, sovereignty and beyond. For future shocks, this new emergent practice for managing the response may only be part of the solution for enhancing our national resilience for next time. Resilience is a hard-won concept to achieve and we must continually evolve and make our best efforts to improve.

Australia needs to challenge itself to be more resilient across all aspects of society and prepare ourselves for the next shock. In parallel to our current response to the pandemic, we need to learn from it and start shifting our thinking towards preparedness for the next national shock. We need to develop a framework that can enable impartial and consistent decisions, that are contestable, to shape the nation’s balance of investment and give the greatest level of resilience for our finite investment. Whether that framework is established within the context of the Cynefin framework, or others, we will continue to explore this in future articles. What is abundantly clear though, is that we need a National Resilience Framework.

Kevin Robinson

Kevin Robinson is Chief Engineer at Shoal. His background is in systems thinking and developing frameworks to model and analyse complex systems. He also leads research into resilient and adaptive complex systems.