Sometimes we have the authority, resources, mandate, or duty to make a difference to others’ lives, or neighbourhoods, or workplaces, or businesses, or environments. Often people want betterment, but lack the means themselves to make their lives more hopeful, safer, more certain, or autonomous.

Maybe we’re aiming to tackle litter at the local shops, or prepare a town for floods, or help an agricultural system adapt to climate change, or tackle family violence or ice addiction in a community.

In that case we need to design an intervention.

Probably the two most important qualities we need to call upon now are caution and curiosity. Recent history is full of catastrophic interventions that left wreckage in their wake, or achieved some goals but at great cost to the social fabric. Usually they lacked both caution and curiosity. Think: the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, and the 2009 Home Insulation (“Pink Batts”) Program.

Caution and curiosity, however, have costs: they slow us down. They make us spend time engaging with communities. They force us to start small and learn as we go. We may lose those glorious opportunities for bravura, dash, and heroic poses that politicians and CEOs love.

So, when designing an intervention, a critical first question is: how much caution and curiosity is appropriate? What qualities, indeed, should characterise the overall approach?

Dave Snowden is a systems thinker who champions a tool he calls Cynefin. It’s a simple 4-sector matrix that identifies four different classes of intervention design, depending on the complexity and turbulence of the situation. I’ve long needed such a tool for my Changeology training, so I thought I’d adapt it, by combining it with another tool called The Public Participation Matrix.

Here’s the result. I’ll be testing it out in my next round of public workshops in October.

I hope you find it useful. This is just version 1.0, so feedback is very welcome.


How to use it: Do some initial on-the-ground listening, then make a best guess about the scale of “risk” and “unknowns” inherent in the situation you wish to intervene in. This locates you in one of four classes, each with a different style of intervention.

Which class does your problem fall into?

The idea is to be very clear about which class you are in before you start. A mismatch between classes and situations practically guarantees the failure of your efforts (at the very least).

It will be immediately obvious, for example, that the 2003 Iraq invasion, the Northern Territory Intervention, and the Home Insulation (“Pink Batts”) Program mismatched their situations and responses.

The four classes are:

1) Familiar = Off the shelf response

The situation:

Calm. Actors well known, not likely to resist strongly.

You are aware of models that have worked successfully in similar situations.

The response:

Apply best practice or business as usual. Cut and paste successful ideas from comparable situations. Apply basic user engagement (for example, focus groups to pre-test ideas).

Dave Snowden called this class “Obvious”. The relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all and the ideal approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and apply best practice.*

2) Unfamiliar = Bespoke response

The situation:

Unfamiliar, with significant unknowns. The actors are numerous and diverse, and some may resist strongly. Unclear which of several possible solutions is appropriate. “Somewhat wicked”.

The response:

Mobilise a multi-disciplinary “brains trust” that includes users; craft a customised solution by mixing and matching from a wide palette of possibilities. Strategies should be multi-dimensional, working in more than one domain and mobilise more than one kind of expertise (e.g. mixing infrastructure, service design, communication, skill-building, leadership), and able to rapidly adapt (because some reactions will be unpredictable). Proceed by pilots, and gradually scale up. User engagement via social research and “consult/involve” level community engagement (for example, via an advisory workshop).

Dave Snowden called this class “Complicated”. The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge. The ideal approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.*

3) Reactive = Experimental response

The situation:

Unfamiliar and “stormy”. Dominated by unknowns, highly charged, rapidly changing, or politicised. High potential for strong resistance. Actors are numerous, diverse, sensitive, with likelihood of strong, unpredictable responses. Unclear if any existing solution is appropriate. “Very wicked”.

The response:

Probe the problem with a range of modest experimental projects, selecting a sub-set of solutions to prototype and develop further. Again, be prepared to work in more than one domain and mobilise more than one kind of expertise (e.g. mixing infrastructure, service design, communication, skill-building, leadership). User engagement via social research, multi-disciplinary “Brains Trust” including users, and community engagement at the “Collaborate” level (e.g. program developed and delivered in partnership with trusted local organisations, and outsourcing to the affected community).

Australia’s effective response to the HIV epidemic is a good example of this class of intervention.

Dave Snowden called this class “Complex”. The relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance. The ideal approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond so we can sense emergent practice.*

4) Chaotic = Emergency response

The situation:

Natural or human disaster requiring urgent action; highly charged; politicised. Actors are numerous, diverse, reactive, with likelihood of strong, unpredictable responses. There are a range of possible solutions but there’s no way to tell, from a distance, which might make the situation better and which might make it worse.

The response:

Attack the problem with urgency but enable local improvisation with high tolerance for imperfection. Invest heavily in intelligence and communications, with tight feedback loops. Train and support agile, well-equipped, local agents and actors. User engagement at the “empower” level (e.g. outsource local responses to autonomous local actors – Community Fire Guard is an example).

Disaster response, bushfire management, and military action are examples of this class of intervention.

Dave Snowden called this class “Chaotic”. There is no relationship between cause and effect at the systems level. The ideal approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.*

* From the Wikipedia entry: Cynefin.