What’s cooking?

In a recent post I introduced you to the Cynefin framework, a sense-making model that can help you in difficult situations of decision-making and problem-solving. This framework comprises five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Looking for a coherent set of illustrative examples, I thought about cooking with friends as a common story line. Just imagine you agreed that your friend would do the grocery shopping, while you would do the cooking. Sure enough, you have your own ideas and preferences, and she clearly has hers. This baseline scenario sets the stage for the five domains to play out.


Your friend brings back lots of well-known ingredients. You just need to sift through your collection of recipes to know what you will prepare for dinner tonight. No surprises, just have a good time.


This time, your friend found two or three interesting vegetables and spices that she had always wanted to taste. Oh, and she accidentally met a couple of friends and invited them to join you for dinner (Hope you don’t mind). So you’ll adjust your plans, adapt one of your recipes to the new ingredients and lay out the dinner table for six. No big drama, and the evening will be fine.


Today, your friend got carried away a little, bringing home lots of new ingredients that you haven’t worked with before. So your initial plans and ideas are immediately out of the window, it’s time for some creative cross-over cuisine. First, you have to get used to the new smells and textures, to try the new tastes, to find out which work together and – at least for some of the produce – how to prepare it. If you planned for dinner at eight, probably ten is now more realistic. You’ll need the extra time to experiment and improvise. None of your available recipes will help you, but your understanding of essential kitchen chemistry might come in handy. It’s not at all certain that everything will work out; actually, you should expect some flaws and even serious failures. But eventually you are in for many new insights and inspirations, for lots of new experience. And there should be something for dinner by, say, eleven at night.


In this case, your friend went wild, bringing back really alien food-stuff. You barely know the names of most of it, or which parts are eatable. To make things worse, you agreed upfront to cook in your friend’s kitchen today, and her tools and equipment are quite different from what you are used to. To top it all off, and all of a sudden, the lights go out, not just in her kitchen or her house, but in the entire neighbourhood. By now, you’ll feel a distinct sense of panic as you don’t even know where to start. Obviously, cooking is not your principal challenge anymore. Instead, you’ll probably call the utility company (if you get a free line) just to learn that they have a major issue that’ll take them a couple of hours to solve. There goes your cooking. And all the fresh food as well, because the fridge doesn’t work either. If you are still hungry, I guess you’ll drive some ten to twenty kilometers to leave the blackout zone. And then it’s burgers and fries at a not-so-near-by drive-in. That doesn’t meet anybody’s expectations of tonight’s dinner, but it’s still better than going hungry.


In case you do not (cannot or do not want to) adjust to your friend’s ideas, you’ll end up in utter disarray. Of course you could always insist on the simple solution (to cook something that is already in your book of recipes). But that is not only simplistic, it will not create anything eatable in most cases. And on the other hand, it would be a tremendous waste to effort if you were to treat a simple case as if it was complex: for no good reasons, dinner wouldn’t be ready on time. Instead, figure out your friend’s intentions and work with her. There’s no point in fighting against her, you’ll lose out anyway. To give you an appropriately eerie feeling, think of that situation as if your friend would turn into Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, who is waiting to have a friend for dinner. No doubt, you must get out of that domain, right now.


Of course it is. But what’s the alternative? Some might say: If you cannot stand the heat, then stay out of the kitchen. But that simply means nothing to eat. The same applies to decision-making and problem-solving: it’s challenging, it’s often uncomfortable, it’s even nerve-wracking at times. But if you really wanted to evade the situation, then you’d make no decisions, you’d solve none of the problems. Instead, it pays off to make conscious decisions, to tackle your problems, even if that means leaving your comfort-zone far behind. The Cynefin framework can serve as a map to give you essential orientation where you are and what you could do next. Go for it.


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