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Framing the challenge

In this post, we discuss why the way we understand and frame the tourism challenge influences the tools we reach for. This is a deep dive into understanding complexity, the importance of flexibility in working across different problem domains, and recognising how others see the problem.

The challenge we currently face is a bit like the old Rubik's Cube. You might address the challenge on one face of the cube, but turn it around and the complexity continues to challenge us! At least that was my experience with a Rubik's cube! I just loved sitting in the mess of it all, my siblings loved to solve it!

Cynefin - a useful tool in understanding complexity

This week we talked about the Cynefin framework (pronounced Kuh-nev-in) in our Regenerative Tourism by Design course. This is always a module I look forward to because things really start to click into place for many participants. The Cynefin framework was developed by Dave Snowden and Mary E. Boon and has been used for decades in a variety of sectors to help leaders understand the kinds of problems they are dealing with. It's a kind of heuristic tool that is used to understand, make sense of, and work in complexity.

The Cynefin framework was based on the work of Rittel and Webber (1976) who argued that there was a continuum between tame (simple) problems and wicked problems. Tame problems have simple solutions while wicked problems are those that are intractable, dynamic, with no definitive solution, and are subject to the interplay of many different actors and moving parts.

The Cynefin framework expands the tame-wicked continuum to identify four problem domains - simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. These domains reflect the way a problem is framed, and how we understand the complexity and dynamic nature of the challenge. (A fifth area on the diagram below is complete disorder and confusion, which represents the unordered problem space).

Where are you working?

The diagram below identifies the problem domains that we work in based on how we perceive the problem space and its challenges.

The simple domain. These are the tame problems, where there are very clear rules that can be applied to diagnose and identify the solution. For example, in order to qualify for funding, a destination may be required to have a destination management plan in place. The problem-solution relationship is simple: No plan, no funding. A manager will adopt the lowest energy pathway, (e.g. an off-the-shelf template) as the solution. Now we can argue that we need a more complex solution, but if the manager has a simple cause and effect mindset (no plan, no funding), then they will always adopt the lowest energy pathways to solving that problem. What we may need to do is (and design thinking helps us do this), is to 'sit in the mess' and build a more complex understanding of the challenge.

In the simple domain, the response is to sense the problem, categorise the problem, then responding with a rule-based action. Because the problem and solution are perceived as clear, simple and uncomplicated, the solutions are often claimed to be 'best practice'. This claim is derived from a very simple, uncomplicated view of cause and effect.

Complicated. In the complicated domain, data and observations are collected, analysed, and a solution is identified. Solutions are derived from rules which are formulated from readings of existing scientific knowledge and shaped by the world views, blinkers and blind spots of those tasked with solving the problem. In this domain, the problem-solution relationship often involves observing patterns in similar situations, comparing and contrasting solutions, patterns and rules are identified, and solutions derived.

In tourism, the tools, frameworks and actions that emerge in this domain include, for example, accreditation frameworks, eco-labels and case studies of 'good practice'. Accredited experts are called in because they alone have the designated knowledge to fix it.These networks of experts, academics, peak groups, their tribes and communities of practice, develop and amplify the rules for analysing, diagnosing and solution-building. They influence the solution space by adopting practices such as selecting their network of experts to verify "best practice". They may also adopt negative practices such as ignoring, marginalizing, gaslighting or alternative solutions, voices, experts and actions. In this way, they are influencing the energy pathway towards their own solutions and actions. The energy to find those alternative pathways become obscured, harder to find and require more resources to uncover.

Complex. In the complex domain, problems are assumed to have many moving parts. They are dynamic, there are multiple stakeholders, and there can be many sub-problems and interdependent actions. There is no definitive solution, but rather a set of emergent and ongoing practices and actions which deliver incremental positive change. Complex problems rely on incremental and generative actions. The response is to probe, sense, and then respond in targeted, ground-up ways. Exploring the problem, deep listening, excavating the influencing factors, and drawing from different kinds of knowledge characterise the way complex problems are addressed in this domain. There are many energy pathways to incremental actions, just as roots conduct energy and life to different parts of a living plant.

In tourism, working in complexity is characterised by deep engagement, collaboration, listening deeply and co-designing actions. In the complex domain, actions are emergent, generative and embedded in place. The ingenuity and creativity of the local community is an important source of energy in the problem-solving process.

Chaotic. The pandemic has given us an experience of working within the chaotic domain. In this domain, actions are reactive, i.e., respond first, sense the impact, then respond again. Under pressure to act, actions may have unintended and unanticipated consequences that need to be corrected later. This is a domain that is characterised by novel practice, disruption and agility. It s almost always a trial and error under pressure where there is demand for energy, resources and effort.

The Cynefin framework has been useful to understand how problems are framed and the response to that framing. It is also a framework that we can ask questions of, for example:

  • What are the resources, skills and knowledge implications for operating in these different domains?"

  • What do these different domains imply for the leadership skills we need to develop?

  • What does this framework tell us about the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the tools, frameworks, actions and approaches that have been developed over decades?

In tourism, since the start of the pandemic, we have been oscillating between all these domains with the chaotic domain being dominant. That is, the immediate response has been to act, then sense the impact of that response, before responding with a correction. Its a high energy, highly volatile approach that is short term and often responds to the loudest voices, the deepest short term pain.

What does it all mean?

Why talk about problems and the problem space?

There are some that argue that we should not be focused on solving problems, and that a focus on problem and resolution takes away from the systems change and mindset shift we need in order to invest a new way of being in the world. They argue that incremental problem solving is a wasted exercise. Problems, they say, keep us anchored in scientific thinking, cause and consequence, and stop us from the big shift we need to make. Incrementalism problem-solving, they argue, keeps us making the same mistakes and does not allow us to move outside our blinkers and blindspots. I disagree. This is both a misguided interpretation of incrementalism and denies the fact that problem-solving is an innate human condition. (Happy to elaborate, but not here!).

Notwithstanding the limitations of our human brain to understand, it's important to think about problems and the problem space. It's important to recognise problem complexes, interrelated tipping points, to get comfortable with uncertainty, and to consider our own limitations. Only then it becomes apparent that we need to work beyond quick fixes and template solutions. No single actor, agency, or even network has the solution. The need for collaboration - and indeed empowering others - is central.

Striving for new approaches and skills in an emergent space

This is why we must try to understand complexity, be comfortable in a world where we have little autonomous control, to 'sit in the mess' and come to terms with uncertainty and volatility. We must strive toward a higher form of knowing, working and acting in complexity if we are to address the enormous challenges we currently face as a planet. But moving back to an emergent approach, listening deeply and leaning into the mess, understanding the complexity of the problem complex is needed. This requires a new approach to leadership, greater trust in leaders to lean in and to harness and empower others, and new skill sets in deep listening, empathy and collaboration. Emotional intelligence and a de-centring of the self and our own individual self-fulfilment is key.

In the diagram above, the emergent domain is, ideally, where we need to shift if we are to have any hope of addressing the enormous structural, cultural and environmental changes ahead. This emergent domain is founded on empowering communities, stakeholders to unlock their genuine creativity and energy to address the challenges that they are experienced in a way that empower and build long term resilience.

In sum, the point of reflection I want to leave you with is to consider what domain do you work in, where your comfort zone is, and where should you develop your skills and empower your team to move to the emergent domain? It depends on how you might see, frame and understand the scope, the scale, the constraints, the system and the energy pathways to action.


About the Author: Dianne Dredge is the Founder/Director of The Tourism CoLab. She has published over 300 articles and 6 books, but now spends her time leading, convening, teaching and guiding conversations about the change we need in tourism and the next visitor economy. She works to catalyse the next economy in tourism and the visitor economy in a variety of ways using educational approaches, design thinking methods and activation strategies.

About The Tourism CoLab

The Tourism CoLab is a capacity-building social enterprise that adopts design thinking and creative collaborative methodologies to help co-design the future of tourism. We deliver workshops, online courses, walking workshops, and unique professional development and learning experiences where even the most seasoned veterans learn something new and come away transformed. We are engaged in advocacy and systems change through the provision of policy advice, white papers, keynote speaking engagement, workshops and working with organisations ranging from the European Commission to the OECD to local government.


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