Transitions Coaching Blog

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The Dangers of Default Mode and How Leaders Can Break Out of It

By Jennifer Tucker, Writer and Content Creator  |  April 14, 2022
The Dangers of Default Mode and How Leaders Can Break Out of It
“The leaders who try and impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit and allow patterns to emerge and then determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.”
– David Snowden

We’ve said before that the capabilities leaders need today are different than the capabilities they needed in the past. And it’s true, because the world we presently live and work in looks so much different than it did ten or even two years ago.

But what if we said that the capabilities leaders need today are different than the capabilities they needed yesterday? That the situation you’re faced with in the present moment requires something different than the situation you may be faced with tomorrow?

Suddenly, it’s not about acquiring a skillset or adopting a mindset that applies universally to the broad and ambiguous “new world of work.” Instead, it’s about filling your toolbox with the skills and outlook you need to navigate change, complexity, and disruption over time and day-to-day.

That’s where frameworks that help you make sense of and respond appropriately to different scenarios become helpful. And one such tool is the Cynefin framework.

The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework is a problem-solving tool developed by David Snowden, a management consultant and researcher specializing in complexity and sensemaking.

The framework helps leaders categorize situations into five “domains” defined by cause-and-effect relationships. The idea is that by identifying a situation’s domain, you’re able to assess things more accurately and respond more appropriately.

Here’s a quick overview of the domains:

  1. Obvious (Simple). The Obvious or Simple domain is sometimes referred to as “known knowns.” There is usually a very clear cause-and-effect relationship, and therefore you can often rely on responding with a formula or best practice. A simple example here is baking a cake. There’s a recipe, you follow it, and your cake turns out perfectly every time—no need to reinvent the wheel.
  2. Complicated. The Complicated domain is sometimes referred to as “known unknowns.” There is a cause-and-effect relationship, but it may be hazy. There’s likely a range of right answers, and with the right assessment and analysis, you’ll be able to identify and apply “good” practices. This is where consultants can be helpful. They can offer ideas and suggestions based on the numerous client situations they’ve seen in the past to help us arrive at something that can work in our particular situation.
  3. Complex. The Complex domain is sometimes referred to as “unknown unknowns.” It’s defined by unpredictability, and it’s often difficult to identify the cause-and-effect relationship. In these situations, your job is to probe to find a suitable response. Most change efforts are actually complex, although we treat them like they’re complicated. It’s very rare that we know exactly how a change will go, so testing for cause-and-effect in controlled ways (think pilot) helps us learn as we go and can adjust for the unknowns.
  4. Chaotic. The Chaotic domain is flat-out unclear. You can’t discern a cause-and-effect relationship, and there is no sure solution. The only way to respond in these situations is to take immediate action—even if that response may not be the right one. Navigating the pandemic comes to mind here. The external world was changing so fast that there was no way for leaders to know if the solution they put into place would be sustainable—but they needed to do something.
  5. Disorder. Disorder is the space in the middle of it all. In the Disorder domain, it’s difficult to figure out which of the other domains apply. The best way to respond in disorder is to gather more information, and as you break the situation down, assign aspects to the appropriate domains to begin to formulate a response.

As it relates to leadership, the Cynefin framework encourages flexibility and adaptability when making decisions, so you can adjust your response to fit the circumstances. In essence, it helps you break the pattern and combat the dangers of reverting to your “default” mode.

The Dangers of Default Mode

We all have a default mode, where we habitually fall into the same style, behaviors, or ways of thinking. And in some circumstances, like in the Obvious domain, our default response is reliable.

But especially in times of complexity, crisis, or intense change, our default mode can be dangerous. We often revert to command and control, trying to impose order or force a response that’s not the right one. It’s a mistake that can be costly.

When we fail to take a step back, assess, and thoughtfully determine what a situation calls for, we put our teams and our organizations at risk. We may rob ourselves and our teams of opportunities to reflect, probe, learn, and grow. We may miss out on innovation or the chance to adopt new ways of doing things. And in the worst-case scenario, we may make a bad decision and fail to achieve the right results.

For leaders, the biggest takeaway is this:
Your default mode may not be built for the situation at hand.

And as Snowden said, stepping back, allowing patterns to emerge, and determining the most desirable response can be the key to uncovering new and impactful opportunities.

The Transitions Coaching Emerging Leader Group Coaching Program helps leaders gain a deeper understanding of their reactive patterns, habits, or tendencies so they can break free from unhelpful patterns and engage more effectively. Learn more today.