Interview with Dave Snowden

Dave Snowden is known for his ideas, research, and insights on knowledge management.

We had the opportunity to interview Dave, and explore his views on role of a leader, Cynefin framework for decision-making, and sense-making for situational awareness.

Q1. What is the role of a leader when undergoing organizational change?

Dave: To set a general sense of direction – but not specific goals. I normally work on creating boundaries using negative stories (ideally with an ironic twist and a degree of self-deprecation) about where we don’t want to be. That allows a degree of freedom in allowing change to emerge. Starting journey is generally better than setting goals. Ideally you should never be leading a change initiative, but be constantly involved in small changes. Our More like these, fewer like those approach to change using SenseMaker® is important here as you are dealing with changes to how things are (more sustainable) rather than setting idealistic goals.

Q2. What Agile has to offer to the smaller companies?

Dave: Too open a question, Agility is a basic need for all companies. If by Agile you mean Scrum then it has application to areas with discrete work units with some ambiguity – which can be resolved in a short timescale. If you mean techniques such as XP then the application is obvious. If you mean Agile hype then its a waste of time.

Q3. Please explain key characteristics of Feedback. Should it be descriptive or evaluative?

Dave: Depends on the context, in general for change programmes feedback is best if descriptive, fragmented and real time.

Q4. How Cynefin Framework aids decision-making?

Dave: By allowing people to use different tools and methods in different contexts – avoiding the one size fits all approach of all management fads (including Agile). It also creates an acceptable language of difference – if it is complex then contradictory but coherent hypotheses can be explored without loss of face.

Q5. How does Sense-making creates situational awareness?

Dave: Sense-making has a lot of value in assessing situations and coming up with ideas – I have a lot of respect for Weick et al. Naturalising sense-making on the other hand focuses in things like mapping and then varying constraints followed by amplification or dampening of emergent patterns. We avoid any situation in which situational assessment takes place in the context of a dispute over action.

Q6. Have you ever experienced failure at work? How did you overcome it?

Dave: Yes, and I either (i) ignore it living with the consequences (ii) muddle through until I can see what to do (iii) fight or (iv) apologise.

Q7. What prevents an organisation to adapt to change? How to address those challenges?

Dave: It’s the sort of question that can’t really be answered without context. But in simple terms you need to optimise the granularity of information and organizational units and focus on how things connect not what they are. That allows for resilience, Too  formal a structure, too much focus on individual change, too many goals and idealistic targets all prevent it.

Q8. Where do you see the community heading?

Dave: If you mean Agile then the trend is to increasing commodification, its coming to the end of its natural life span.  SAFe is to Agile what Six Sigma was to BPR, the end of utility through excess. If you mean Agility; well we are just starting.


David John Snowden, popularly known as Dave Snowden, is a Management Consultant and Researcher in the field knowledge management. He is well-known for the development of the Cynefin Framework. He is Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge, a Management Consulting firm specialising in complexity and sense-making. Dave is a popular and passionate keynote speaker on a range of subjects, and is well known for his pragmatic cynicism and iconoclastic style.



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