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October 14, 2017 BY PATRICK ALBINA

How understanding Mayonnaise & B747s can redefine approaches to Productivity


What would you think if I told you that understanding the difference between mayonnaise and a B747 is able to improve your approach to productivity? Your first response might be on the lines of “…what do mayonnaise and a B747 have to do with productivity?” Or perhaps you might think of something a little less sophisticated? Well, the answer to this question is contained in a concept that is well researched and has actually been recognised for over 10 years. Increasingly, it is being adopted in organisations worldwide.

Productivity can be logically expressed as a ratio of outputs to inputs used in some form of process, whether measures as units, effort, materials etc. However this view only examines part of the picture, as the methodology by which the inputs are converted to outputs must also be considered, specifically, the effectiveness of productive effort.

Today we are more connected than ever. Technology and humanity have intersected through commonly available communications technology and social media enabling us to engage in new, innovative and sometimes not-so-useful ways. We are a global community and our projects are often multinational undertakings. They consist of numerous moving parts, and it is not possible to move one piece without affecting many other pieces, and the result is often not what we intended or expected. Accordingly, the principles that underpin productivity must also evolve if we are to enable ourselves and our teams to be effective in this modern environment.

These principles are further explored in the following framework.

A Framework for Decision Makers

The Cynefin framework (pronounced ku-nev-in) developed by John Snowden and Mary Boone[1] helps decision makers to tailor their approach to the circumstances and context they are in. It highlights that frequently decision makers have favoured habitual approaches that work well in one set of circumstances but that fall short in another. Being aware of these different contexts helps managers to be more effective and avoid mistakes.

The framework defines 4 quadrants that represent the types of situations decisions makers find themselves in, each with unique characteristics: Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaos.

The simple and chaos quadrants are intuitive, however it is not uncommon for people to confuse complicated and complex.

Complicated ≠ Complicated

Complex does not mean complicated…so what is the difference?

  • A B747 is complicated. It has many moving parts with predictable and deterministic behaviours. The sum of the parts is the same as the whole. It takes experts to design, build and maintain a B747, and this is accomplished in a logical and repeatable manner through analysis, compliance and investigation. Cause and effect relationships are discoverable but not immediately apparent to everyone. There is more than one right answer that experts can discern.
  • Mayonnaise is complex. It has rich interconnectivity where the sum of the parts (ingredients) is greater than the whole. It does not take experts to make mayonnaise, but once put together, mayonnaise cannot be disassembled or undone. Additionally, complex systems like mayonnaise adopt characteristics of their own when brought together, sometimes unintended, through a process of emergence.

The approach to situations in the complex quadrant is fundamentally different to that in the complicated quadrant, and it is independent of size, cost, risk and schedule.   Adopting inappropriate methodology or approaches to the particular context will, at best, result in partial success and, at worst, result in epic failure.

The following provides some guidance on what methodology to use and when:

  1. Simple – The domain of best practice – Coordination

Simple (or known), is where cause and effect is obvious to all and the best solution is clearly evident. This approach suits centralised highly structured and hierarchical projects with little to no cross functional interaction. Situations in the simple quadrant are characterised by stable, ordered and predictable cause and effect occurrences.

Examples of practices and methodologies suited to the simple domain include (but are not limited to):

  • Lean six sigma
  • Process optimisation
  • Hierarchical Leadership – Command & Control
  1. Complicated – The realm of experts – Cooperation 

Complicated (knowable), is where the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis, investigation and the application of expert knowledge. It suits the machine paradigm (e.g., B747) of thinking as there are intricate yet predictable patterns that can be determined, i.e., think of a control input and the reliably predicted output.   It requires a high level of competence to understand and identify the options on offer and select the most suitable solution given a particular context. This domain is the realm of most scientific research and of matrix organisational structures.

Examples of practices and methodologies suited to the complicated domain include (but are not limited to):

  • Process Improvement
  • Wave Planning
  • Vee Model
  • Systems Engineering
  1. Complex – Embracing diversity – Enabling Emergence

Complex is where the relationship between cause and effect can
 only be perceived in retrospect, and not in advance. Whilst the right answers can be determined for the
 simple and complicated quadrants using investigation and analysis, the complex realm cannot be approached in the same manner. This is a common mistake that most people make when attempting to bring a complex situation under control by imposing a predetermined ‘complicated’ course of action, such as the implementation of new tools or process improvement, only to result in frustratingly repetitive failure. By definition, productivity decreases as the level of effort required to implement these inappropriate strategies are far greater than the resulting benefits and outcomes.

So, mayonnaise…what’s it got to do with productivity again?

It is about the fact that human behavior is complex, culture is complex, societies of living beings are complex, and therefore the project environments in which often contain a diverse range of stakeholders are complex. There are numerous interactions in highly interconnected project environments and many of the eventualities in a project are emergent and only understandable in hindsight.

With a complex approach, beneficial patterns can emerge that enable a way forward to naturally reveal itself to project leaders and managers.

Examples of methodologies suited to the complex domain include (but are not limited to):

  • Systems Thinking
  • Systems Dynamics / Causal Loop Diagrams
  • Design Thinking
  • Rapid Prototype Development
  • Agile 
(to some degree)

The following practices are very effective in the complex domain:

  • Simple rules
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • After Action Reviews
 (with a genuine learning agenda)
  • Double & Triple Loop Learning (
Organisational Learning)
  • Iteration & Experimentation (
working from a premise of Safe to Fail design of actions and experimentations)
  1. Chaotic – The domain of a rapid response in an unknowable 

The Chaotic domain is where there is no relationship
 between cause and effect, and searching for the
 right answer is pointless. The focus for the leader and manager is to first act to sense some form of order, identify where stability is present, then work to transform the situation from chaos to complex by identifying emerging patterns. The heroic style of leader who is action orientated is most effective here.

Examples of scenarios is the chaotic domain include (but are not limited to):

  • Critical incidents
 (e.g., Lindt Café, 9/11 etc)
  • Crises (e.g., Brisbane 2011 Floods)
  • Market crashes


Many people in organisations are frustrated that no matter how hard they try and control the workforce, that no matter how many rules, processes, procedures, tools and structures we impose, and no matter how many plans we draw up, things still do not happen as we intend. We act as if the organisation could be ordered like a machine. Instead if we are able to view our organisations as complex evolving systems we can see them for what they really are – vibrant communities and we can set about releasing a powerful force – the imagination and ingenuity of people being the true competitive advantage.

The concept of complex evolving systems is not some new management fad, which requires a big change program and expensive consultants. It is a way of enabling you to take a fresh look at your organisation. When you see things differently you can start to act differently and you will be able to consider how you might be able to enhance productivity in ways not currently available to you:

  • Reducing time to market by turning the organisation inside out
  • The value of emergence & pattern spotting and identification
  • Communicating through story telling
  • Improving your judgement and discernment
  • Incremental change agents

Adopting this mindset is a shift for many and it takes some courage for leaders to act in ways that are different to the currently accepted norms. Perhaps surprisingly, these new ways of working involve simple practices and subtle variations in language and conversation that enables profound change when brought together over a period of time. This subtlety is, in fact, quite a lot like humble mayonnaise…bon appetite!

[1] Snowden, D.F. and Boone, M.E. (2007) A Leader’s Framework for decision-making. Harvard Business Review November, pp 69-76.