The Cynefin Framework

A few weeks ago, I made brief reference to the Cynefin Sense-Making Framework in a post that focused on the RSA’s report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change. Cynefin crossed my path again more recently when I was reading about ‘chaordic leadership’, which is about finding equilibrium between chaos and order: too much chaos and a team descends into ‘chamos’ (destructive chaos and apathy); too much order and a team is over-controlled and their creativity is straitjacketed. The sweet spot lies somewhere between the two extremes. Through my blog, I have poked and prodded at creativity from various perspectives, looking at individuals, groups, and organisations, but I haven’t really discussed it from a management angle; Cynefin offers some useful ideas for navigating this territory.

Besides being a nice bit of alliteration, cultivating a culture of creativity within a team is not easy. Creating headspace for those flights of fancy that could lead to rich new seams of programming needs to be weighed up against KPIs and relentless deliverables and deadlines. Challenging situations and problems arise – sometimes on a daily basis – and a course of action has to be found in response to each one. Apparently Barack Obama kept a basic wardrobe during his time as US President so that getting dressed in the morning was straight-forward and one less decision to make. Annoying, there is no ‘one size fits all’ response to decision-making; the ideal solution in one setting could be disastrous in another, and just because a solution worked well previously, doesn’t mean it will be the right one going ahead. This is where Cynefin comes in.

An article in Harvard Business Review, titled A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making (Nov 2007), outlines the core principles. One of its authors, David J Snowden, coined the phrase Cynefin in 1999. It’s a Welsh word (ku-nev-in) “that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influences us in ways we can never understand”.  Snowden and co-author, Mary J Boone, provide the following summary:

The Cynefin framework helps leaders determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices. Each domain requires different actions. Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on facts. Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered – there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns. The ordered world is the world of fact-management; the unordered world represents pattern-based management.

These four contexts are often presented in a 2×2 grid format, but instead of having four tidy boxes, the interior lines of the grid are curved and droopy, creating space in the centre for the fifth context – disorder – when you don’t even know what situation you’re dealing with. There are a few different versions of this grid and the four categories changed titles as the framework developed. In a 2003 article, simple was ‘known’ and complicated was ‘knowable’. Since the 2007 HBR article was published, simple has become ‘obvious’.

Cynefin table
From ‘Art of Social Innovation’

A little bit more about each one:

  • SIMPLE: there is unanimous agreement about the best course of action, and the response tends to be process-oriented (such as ordering materials, or paying artists). If something does go wrong, it rarely has to be escalated and can be handled by the relevant staff member. The risk here is that habitual processes lead to ‘entrained thinking’ and better alternatives go unnoticed. Snowden and Boone also note that problems can arise when an issue is misclassified as simple (for example, when “leaders… constantly ask for condensed information”). In this instance, management complacency creates blind spots and these can be serious enough to tip the organisation into ‘chaos’ if left unchecked.
  • COMPLICATED: these issues require close analysis because multiple factors will be involved, and there may be multiple potential solutions (think about working with audiences with specific needs, or developing cross-disciplinary projects). In this case, the recommended course of action is to call on experts who can offer informed insights. Entrained thinking can also be a problem here, when the experts are heavily invested in a particular approach or way of working. The solution to this is to balance expert opinion alongside other, possibly dissenting voices. The other risk is ‘analysis paralysis’, where thinking reaches a gridlock, conversations go in circles, and little action is being taken.
  • CHAOTIC: this is the realm of the pear-shaped. Events happen suddenly and are hugely disruptive, and immediate action is required to stablise the situation. The unexpected loss or mismanagement of funding would be an example; more extreme possibilities could include natural disasters or terrorist attacks. These situations are rare, and are best dealt with in the first instance by direct, top-down management. However, once the crisis has passed, an ongoing authoritarian approach isn’t helpful, and there is a risk of managers becoming legends in their own minds. There is a bit of good news though: “the chaotic domain is nearly always the best place for leaders to impel innovation… One excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: the minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue. At the same time, pick out a separate team and focus its members on the opportunities for doing things differently. If you wait until the crisis is over, the chance will be gone”.
  • COMPLEX: this is my favourite one because it’s basically design thinking by another name. Without a clear relationship between cause and effect, pattern-recognition and experimentation are required to find solutions. And these won’t be pre-packaged solutions, but brand new thinking. As the authors explain, “When the right answer is elusive, and you must base your decision on incomplete data, your situation is probably complex rather than complicated… In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out”. This would apply to untested approaches to museum learning programming, when “leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself”. One of the best ways to find novel solutions is to draw on the collective experience and creativity of the team – no single brain is going to hold the answer. The risk here is when leaders lose their nerve and choose to play it safe, retreating to tried-and-tested formulas that are already known to work well.

My summary is really just the tip of the iceberg, I’d highly recommend the whole HBR article if you would like more information and – if that still leaves you wanting – get into Snowden’s article, The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world (IBM Systems Journal, Vol 42, No.3, 2003) co-authored with C.F. Kurtz. As I mentioned above, some of the category names were different, and the thinking was still being developed, but there is a worthwhile overview of Cynefin’s relationship with complexity theory. The authors also refute assumptions of rationality and intentionality as applied to people – the messy, unpredictable beasts that we are. Both articles include tips for leading team workshops that assess the issues and identify relevant contexts. The trick seems to be figuring out what you’re dealing with – it can be as detrimental to over-simplify a situation as it is to over-complicate it.

IMAGE: Tom Jones,


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