The Cynefin Framework…through the eyes of a Novice Street Performer

img_6039This is a curious story. At the beginning of August I responded to a request from the National Theatre of Wales, for ‘bald men’ to take part in a performance.

Five weeks later I was on the streets of Cardiff. A member of the Abolish Children Party dressed as, ‘a witch trying to look like an ordinary woman’. Along with 14 other bald men, we were acting out a scene from Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. If you’ve read The Witches, it’s the bit from the Conference where the Grand High Witch turns a child into a mouse (scary).

The need for bald men was because, ‘The Witches’ wear wigs to disguise their baldness. Us revealing the fact we were actually bald men; not just oddly dressed bald blokes trying to look like witches being ‘ordinary women’, was something unexpected.  It was all part of City of the Unexpected, that took place 17th /18th September, to celebrate the centenary of Dahl’s birth in Cardiff. Phew! Glad that’s clear and obvious to everyone.

So what’s this got to do with the Cynefin Framework? The Cynefin Framework is something that helps people make decisions that are better suited to the situation they are experiencing. If you can make sense of, and better understand your situation (for example is it complicated or complex) you can use the most appropriate decision making method. This should get you a better result. There is a link to a video with Dave Snowdon, who created the Cynefin Framework, at the end of the post.

You can scroll down to the sensible stuff if you want, but in the interim I really want to share my experiences of street performance (darling). I must also absolutely thank the brilliant Cler Stephens and Glyn Morgan from La La La Productions, who expertly directed 14 bald men on a journey through; the obvious, complicated, complex and a shallow dive into chaos.

The Cynefin Framework via Dave Snowden
The Cynefin Framework via Dave Snowden

The Obvious Domain – Groundrules  When the world is obvious, things are well understood and we know what to expect. There is a clear link between doing X and always getting result Y.

This is a world of clearly stated rules and best practice. The rules are there because they are necessary and they work. In our street performing there were some clear rules that allowed the performance to happen, kept us and the public safe (unlike a stage show there are no barriers between you and the crowd).

So, the Groundrules: 

  1.  Stay together. A minimum of 2 people or more if you have to travel distances. It’s far easier to move through a crowd as a group (you have ‘presence’ – a new experience for me). Also, it would be pretty terrifying to find yourself alone on St Mart Street, dressed as a woman, when Cardiff City are playing at home.
  2. Avoid physical contact with the public. Excellent advice with so many kids in the audience, for obvious reasons. Greatly helped by the fact we wore heavy-duty purple washing up gloves (exceedingly hot and sweaty).
  3. Hydrate. It’s hot for a bald bloke wearing a nylon wig. ‘Drink plenty of water’ is an excellent sound advice on a hot September afternoon.

The Complicated Domain – Rehearsals and Character Development. In a complicated world it is possible to work things out, but there might be more than one way of getting to the answer or end point. Doing X might get you Y, Z and Q, but all of them are right.

Rehearsals really embraced this idea. It’s fair to say that every one of the Witch characters went though a process of testing (sense-analyse-respond) before they fixed upon what worked for that individual. Other aspects of the production also went through the same process;

  • How do you make a child actor disappear in front of 3,000 people with no special effects?
  • How does the 84-year-old mother of the Grand High Witch (Norman/Brenda) travel for several miles around Cardiff?
  • How do we draw attention to ourselves and our next political rally in a very crowded street? Solution, the ‘Down with Children’ chant which had a big impact on bystanders:
    • Down with Children,
    • Do them in,
    • Boil their bones and,
    • Fry their skin!

The Complex Domain – Live at City Hall! In a complex world it is not possible to predict outcomes. You have to probe the situation, sense what is going on and respond in way that you think might work. A classic bit of improvisation if you like, ‘we have never been in this situation before, we have to try something different’.

This happened at City Hall. The crowd was waiting expectantly and there was a technical delay. “Get out there and improvise” was the instruction, and that’s what we did. There were some brilliant things that came out of that like:

  • identifying bald men in the audience and asking if they were at last years conference in Bournemouth (a surprising number said yes…),
  • developing new soundbites to promote the Abolish Children Party like: “down with children and down with the causes of children”, and
  • seeking out people you knew, saying “hello X how are you” and completely confusing them, ha ha, brilliant.

img_6042The Chaotic Domain – Lost in Queens Arcade. I do hope the irony of a bunch of men dressed as women, lost in Queens Arcade hasn’t been lost on you…

I find Queens Arcade a nightmare to navigate even in the best conditions. On this occasion it was jam-packed, noisy, kids grabbing at the balloons, and we were stuck in the middle. The Grand High Witches’ Mother, her wheelchair and the Stage Manager had disappeared to find an elevator, and we had to be at the next venue in 10 minutes.

Things were looking tense. In a chaotic situation where ‘what to do next’ is completely unknown, you just act, because its better than where you are now. In this case Glyn pointed us up the stairs, people at the front raised their balloons so that others could follow, and the ‘Down With Children’ chat started. It worked and by some miracle we appeared on Queen Street moments later. Trallah! Out of the chaos and back into a complicated world.

The Chaos / Obvious Boundary. This is really important in the Cynefin Framework, but I’m not going to talk about it here. If you are interested I suggest you have a look at Dave Snowden explaining it in the video below.

So, Whats the PONT?

  1. The Cynefin Framework helps you make better decisions by understanding the situation/context you are in and using a decision making method that is appropriate.
  2. There’s a lot more to street performance than meets the eye. It’s more complicated and complex than you might think and experts like Cler and Glyn know their business.
  3. I learnt a lot about decision making, team working and building a high performing team from taking part in The Witches. More than almost every training course I’ve ever been on. Maybe we should do more Street Performance on leadership and management development courses?
My new friends, The Bald Men Witches
My new friends, The Bald Men Witches




About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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