Flexuous curves

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Flexuous Curves is a framework that brings together ideas such Apex Predator and Keystone theory etc ....

Core theory

The cycles of development overlap. The peak of the red curve is equivalent to point 4 on the green curve, but for a different technology.


There are 6 main points outlined in the framework. These are

Back-of-the-napkin sketch of the F-Curve / Flexuosity / Apex
  1. Something novel emerges and gains some form of traction with those frustrated by the dominant paradigm of the day, or who are seeking some form of functionality that is not a part of the current affordance landscape.
  2. The initial enthusiasm for the idea is difficult to maintain, there are few risk-takers around than innovators would like and scale is never easy. For products, this is Moore’s chasm where the next level of purchaser wants more proof before they will commit.
  3. The novel left-field idea becomes orthodoxy, it suddenly sees mass adoption although by this stage it may be compromised. It is on everyone’s lips, popular articles are written, its language (and all novel ideas generally have some specialist language and seeing its third party use is a buying signal).
  4. The novelty is now wearing off and the idea is starting to reach the end of its life cycle, limitations of scale and context adaptability are starting to show and frustration is building in progressive circles, but it is now the orthodoxy, the thing that everyone else is doing so there is little risk in its adoption.
  5. is oblivion, a fond memory at best
  6. is sustainable and you live to fight another day, but it will take the significant distraction of the overall eco-system for you to gain a new opportunity

And 5 different states:

  • α The alpha point. The actor seeks to actively trigger the shift into liminal by legitimising novelty. One way to do this is by Exaptive Innovation (link) or radical repurposing, finding something you are already pretty good at, and using it for something novel.
  • β The beta point. You would have to be astute to see that things have changed, but the energy cost of experimenting with novelty is not too high.
  • γ The gamma phase. "Last chance saloon" for Red, who has topped its curve and is heading down. It's increasingly obvious that it's no longer sustainable. New entrants or ‘dangerous’ ideas are starting to get previously unheard of attention. While the apex or dominant play is not threatened, there are now enough weak signals that they can legitimately be accused of complacency. It's still possible to do something, but the cost will be high.
  • Ω The omega point. This is the goal for Red, with resources transferring from the old to the new, the upwards curve. But if you don’t take action until after the gamma stage it may be too late and you end up in free fall.
  • δ The delta moment. A last point of recovery for organisations who missed the omega point. Some arrest failure and recover, but never with the same level of dominance. From it we get two new phases in the cycle.

What the Flexuous curves show

One of the reasons for Moore’s Chasm [ref: crossing the chasm] is that a novel idea or product, seeking to scale, hits inertia surrounding the dominant approach.

The exit point marked as on the framework is the point of what Clayton called "competence induced failure". The dominant player does not fail because they were incompetent, but because they were too competent in the old paradigm and that very competence means the inattentional blindness is writ large into the very fabric of the organisation.

Case study: IBM

In the early days of computing, IBM radically repurposed their existing capability in the use of punch cards to give them a first-mover advantage in a new field whose full potential was yet to be disclosed. Their dominance of hardware meant they didn’t see the shift to software. This shift was made worse by the commodification of the hardware market, but IBM's market dominance meant they escaped the price pressure of competition. When failure hit it was massive: a sudden catastrophic failure. IBM recovered, and made a delta pivot by becoming a services company. They have not recovered the same position of dominance.

They had a gamma phase in which they realised that people actually wanted to buy PCs, not mainframes. Famously, they gave a team more or less total autonomy and lots of funds to create the IBM PC which, despite being functionally poor compared to its competition, dominated the space. The great irony here is that to achieve this, they sub-contracted key software development. They didn’t realise the value of the IP and thus gave birth to their successor as Apex Predator in the technology space: Microsoft. In their turn, Microsoft failed to realise that software was a commodity, Apple repurposed NeXT and the rest is history.


Symbiotic strategy

A general strategy to get from Alpha to Omega with an upwards trajectory is what I call a symbiotic strategy in which the novel capability is made an apparently insignificant addition aspect of convention and it is thus carried over the chasm. The strategy is positively engaged in by the host, which will benefit from the novel idea.

Infection strategy

Same as the symbiotic strategy, where the host has little understanding or intentionality about the novel idea and how it may change their business. The novel idea takes advantage of the host to cross the chasm and gain scale of its own. The host may benefit unwittingly or could equally face a downward curve, after serving the novel idea to cross its chasm and reach critical mass.

Retro-virus strategy

A variation of that approach is to introduce a retro-virus, something that changes the DNA of its host.

Role metaphors

There are lots of ways to manage the cycle. One is to take different roles by way of metaphor:

  • The Apex Predator position. Available to you if you move and succeed during the alpha to gamma phases. If that is lost, you have to look at other options
  • The Keystone role. Something that is available during the ecological shift, but may provide more sustainability during subsequent periods of change
  • The Hyena strategy. Feeding off the leftovers of the Apex Predator (think certification schemes)
  • Connective agency can result in becoming an Apex Predator in your own right – think of the social media giants and other forms of disintermediation such as Amazon
  • Waste Processors. Dave is working on this ...
  • Other roles are also available.

Areas to explore

  • Available roles within the ecosystem, their characteristics and availability
  • overlaps with Cynefin:
    • does a crisis trigger this or shorten the cycle?
    • Does the framework (or its shape) look different depending on where you are in Cynefin?
    • Does our understanding of aporia allow shortening and de-risking of the cycle? Watch this space …

Blog posts


Link with commentary

  • The Second Curve, Thoughts on Reinventing Society. Charles Handy 2016. Handy wrote this book for your children and it was intended to highlight that old give way to the new and that we should not necessarily hold onto the old.
  • Crossing the Chasm. Geoffrey Moore 1991. Moore described the chasm as "a pit of despair that a lot of companies find themselves in. The chasm is caused because innovators and early adopters are a different breed from the early majority. The early adopters buy things differently, they have different motivations, they have different budgets. The early majority is much more conservative.
  • Clayton Christensen's work on Disruptive Innovation.