The Cynefin Framework: Achieving Success With a Great Problem-Solving Process

“This decision making framework empowers us with the best way to approach & tackle problems. The Welsh word Cynefin, describes our experience & the many factors in our environment which influence us” [1]. “We can use this framework to categorise a problem or decision, & respond accordingly. It’s useful in areas such as product development, marketing & organisational strategy & can help us make better decisions in a crisis. It enables us to avoid using the same management style or decision-making approach in all situations (which can be costly to teams or organizations), as it encourages us to employ flexible decision making & adjust our management style to fit our circumstances” [2]

In this blog we examine the Cynefin (pronounced cunevin) framework, a first-class, issue-solving tool which enables us to put different scenarios into 5 “domains” which are characterised by cause-and-effect relationships.

This helps us evaluate our situation more closely, and thus react as appropriately as possible. Indeed, the Cynefin framework is designed to empower leaders and managers so they have the ability to determine how they perceive situations, and make sense of which actions are suited to a given context. In essence it is: “a sense-making device that asks what context are you in, and builds on the premise that different situations require different ways of navigating” [1].

Check out this easy to understand explanation, “The Cynefin Framework” on YouTube

Forget the One Size Fits All Approach

“Good leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition” [1]. “Using the Cynefin framework can help executives sense which context they are in so that they can not only make better decisions, but also avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes” [3]

All things are not created equal, and generally speaking, it is all too common for leaders to fall back on common approaches to leadership, just because they work well in certain scenarios. — To that end, we have to be mindful of the fact that in other circumstances, these standard approaches really don’t cut it. So, you are now probably asking yourself why this is the case, when logic indicates that a common approach should prevail. Well, the reason behind it relates to a cardinal assumption of organisational practice and theory: that a definite level of order and predictability is in existence across the globe. Indeed, such a Newtonian premise, which comprises scientific management, advances valuable simplifications which can be used in ordered circumstances. However, as circumstances are constantly in flux, when the simplifications become more intricate, it is clear that they could fail [1].

“In 2007 Snowden & Mary E. Boone described the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review, under ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.’ They were awarded the ‘Outstanding Practitioner-Oriented Publication’ in OB” [1]

Background Info

Back in 2004, The Cynefin Centre — a network of partners and members from academia, government and industry, started operating independently of IBM. Back in 1999, the Cynefin framework was devised by scholar, David Snowden, when he was employed by IBM Global Services. Fast-forward 14 years, and Snowden and a fellow IBM employee/researcher, Cynthia Kurtz, published a fascinating paper entitled: “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” [1]. This gave people an insight into the enormous benefits of using the innovative Cynefin framework [1]. After all: “you can have great solutions, but if they are applied in the incorrect context, they will be worthless, or worse, harmful” [3].

The 5 Domains of the Cynefin Framework

“The boundaries of these domains are not hard. Based on activity, situations can bounce between domains, or live on the borderlands between two domains” [4]

These 5 domains comprise: disorder, obvious, complicated, complex, and chaotic. All of them incorporate a form of constraint, practice and guidance, on how to respond to a situation. As soon as you know which domain your circumstances pertain to, you can utilise the guidance from that domain to act accordingly (and make your decisions) [4].

DISORDER: This sphere generally comes about whenever 1: different agents or stakeholders are unable to agree on one domain to categorize the scenario into; or 2: when we try to make sense of a certain situation [1]. This domain describes an environment in which we feel lost, and are not sure as to where we are [1]. It applies whenever we’re not sure which one of the other four domains our scenario slots into. As this particular domain is clearly not somewhere we would chose to be, it is ideal for pushing our situation to one of the remaining domains. The guidance here is to split up our situation into different elements (sub-situations), so that we can slot them into the other domains. Once we have achieved this, we can start to act on each element [5].

OBVIOUS (formerly known as Simple): This represents the first of the ‘ordered’ concepts, and it’s here that we will see best practice and inflexible constraints. The Obvious domain is for circumstances in which we know the outcome. We can initiate best practices, and comply with rules. There is no confusion or grey area. The Cynefin framework states that within this domain, the best course of action is to ‘sense-categorize-respond,’ that is to say: “know the facts of the situation, categorize it accordingly, and respond with best practice, or apply rules” [5]. In this instance, as we are aware of the cause and effect relationship, very little exertion is required. — It’s super simple, we carry out A, do B, and the result will always be C. It’s Obvious! [5].

COMPLICATED: This sphere involves controlling constraints, utilising good practice, and applying ‘sense-analyse-respond.’ To that end, you need to assemble incoming data, examine it all, and react using good practice. However, as this domain is more intricate than the Obvious field, best practice might not be applicable. Indeed, in many cases, such scenarios may necessitate different reactions, and the results can be less than good if you choose to force them down the route of best practice. Of note, whilst the Complicated domain is ordered, it can nonetheless, be difficult, therefore, you may need to get more help by calling upon experts who can help you uncover exactly what the relationship between cause and effect is [5].

COMPLEX: This category applies to situations which belong to the Complex domain. There is no clarity on the cause and effect relationship; and it can only be understood by looking back on the situation. Getting on top of the Complex, necessitates tearing things apart and experimenting with different things. This means gaining success through trial and error, as there is no right answer. — You have to approach things in a different light, and work out what action you need to take as you go along. In such situations, Cynefin recommends the ‘probe-sense-respond.’ In this instance, in order to confidently explore the intricacy of the situation, it is crucial to be in an atmosphere where failing is an option [5].

CHAOTIC: Complete chaos demands taking rapid action so that we can help force the Chaotic situation into a Complex one. Once this is done, we can then experiment at will. In the aforementioned Harvard Business Review article, Snowden and Boone note that: “Managers should ‘act-sense-respond’ here — act to establish order, sense where stability lies, and respond to turn the chaotic into the complex” [5]. The Chaotic domain is devoid of patterns, and there are no constraints. To that end, we need to take action to generate constraints, so that order can be found. Once this is achieved, further determinations can be made on what should be done next [5].

“Today we’re seeing ‘waves of disruption’ that can be depicted as the (reverse) sequence of Chaos-Complex-Complicated–Obvious, as the necessary stages to go through to meet these occurring changes. We’re constantly moving from an orderly world into a more complex or chaotic one. We need an organizing framework to be able to recognize what we are facing when we are evaluating something, be that a problem, issue or possible solution” [6]

Using the Cynefin Framework for Competitive Advantage

Now let’s put a spotlight on the various competitive environments that can arise within an organisation, and slot them into the Cynefin model.

The OBVIOUS Environment

In this state, the link between cause and effect is quite apparent, and people operate in predictable and repetitious ways. It is fairly easy to make an evaluation or envisage a comparatively clear future. This is generally the environment for incremental innovation, so for example, increasing software features involving any strategic design, is more likely. The Obvious state involves ‘classic’ processes and structures, and conducting regular reviews and placing a defined set of measurements to the latter, means progression in the right direction [6].

“We often become ‘chained’ to the application of best practice & totally forget to put this ‘practice’ into its appropriate contextual setting. We get used to copying others & lose our own creativity or evaluation. The value of the Cynefin Framework is to challenge this ‘obvious’ state & see if it is actually emerging, or moving towards a different state” [6]

In this case, we apply Sense-Categorize & Respond in chronological order. — In other words, we analyse the facts of a concept, idea or situation, primarily on deep-rooted or former past procedures, systems or practices. However, when doing so, there are a number of red flags that need to be acknowledged. Crucial points should be considered in depth, and problems which are frequently presented as too simplistic, must be examined. Furthermore, excess micro-managing should be avoided [5].

A number of issues arise due to the way in which data has been abridged for those in top management positions, so that they can easily skim through it. — This can lead to warning signs and potential growing issues being totally missed, leading to serious problems later down the line. Moreover, the way we think can become ingrained due to our self-complacency. Indeed, whenever an array of crucial factors are neglected, then all of a sudden, the Obvious environment becomes totally disorganised. — All because of simplification, or a poor appraisal [6].

The COMPLICATED Environment

In this environment, we can visualise projected outcomes or distinct potential futures. There are two pathways to chose from here, and whilst they are limited, they are nonetheless, mutually exclusive and clear to utilise [5].

“We can break down a construct, a proposal into short-term, frequent reviewed project landmarks. We have options, but the key is to bring everyone onto the same page. We’re searching for good practice. The ‘knowns’ need to be clarified & those felt as ‘unknowns’ must be investigated & turned into ‘knowns’ [5]

Any required adjustments must be acknowledged during reviews. To that end, looking to specialists and experts to impart their knowledge, and help set up some type of beneficial investigation, is essential. In this environment we conduct a sequence of Sense-Analyze & Respond, with the accent being on Analyze. Moreover, ‘informed’ choices need to be made by experts. In this sphere, there are a huge number of pitfalls which must be sought out and averted. One of these is engrained thinking, which in many cases can derive from the specialists, rather than the people around them. Indeed, we have to be extremely mindful of the fact that these experts can have a massive influence on conversations, and can seriously dominate their listeners. Moreover, specialists do not always offer explicit opinions, and to that end, other innovative opportunities need to be examined [5].

The paralysis of over-analysing should also be avoided, Moreover, brainstorming sessions are highly recommended. Of note, the end result of the session could well result in trade-offs; and if we have not been able to reach a consensus, then the scenario could be because it is more in the Complex environment, and not solely in the Complicated [5].

The COMPLEX Environment

When we are in this dynamic situation, we dedicate more time to breaking down ‘unknown unknowns,’ simply because a large number of the elements are not known. We try to comprehend change as well as we can, and are in a determined hunt for patterns, even though we are devoid of the retrospect that would help us. Indeed, we can only look back on cause and effect, as it is impossible to determine mutually and/or distinct selective scenarios. In this instance, we concentrate less on less on utilising the fixed processes which are not suitable for this environment, and instead, place a greater concentrate on building guidelines, thus initiating standards or rules. There is no doubt that many of the decisions that organisations come to, are very complex, and to that end, serious issues can arise if leadership is enforced too early, or if there is insufficient thought put into the process. This Complex environment is the time for creativity, innovation and new business models to be implemented [5].

“When you are in the ‘unknown’ environment, outcomes become increasingly hard to determine” [5]

By using the Probe-Sense & Respond process, in the future, spectrums of possibilities will appear. Indeed, in order to achieve new solutions, it is essential to build the competencies for probing, investigating, prototyping, and doing more and more tests within this sphere. It is crucial to be mindful that we do not revert back to past occurrences by employing past practice to this scenario. Similarly, we must not turn a blind eye to major differences, if the issue is not within the scope of our existing experiences [5].

The CHAOTIC Environment

“When you manage chaos, you manage innovation in parallel. One team focuses on the crisis, another on the innovating opportunities to do things differently. It’s time to make real change by moving through Chaos, to Complex, to Complicated, and then to Obvious” [5]

A chaotic environment is never congenial to success, thus transforming the scenario from Chaos to Complex must be the priority. As the scenario is in constant turbulence, it is impossible to determine the link between cause and effect, thus it is vital to bring about a positive change by stabilising the ‘sense of chaos’ as soon as possible, even though the time to deliberate can be very short. In this scenario, we have to build or design our own success. We need to chose who will influence what will happen, and why; and ensure that different levels of decisions are initiated. The best way forward is to clarify principles, and align reactions. Well thought about actions should come to the fore, and excellent engagement and communication should be a top priority. A chaotic environment should drive us to Act–Sense, & Respond [5].

The DISORDER Environment

This environment comes about whenever we are too complacent and lose our focus. It is a highly undesirable, true state of random, in which we do not know which domain we are actually in. Therefore, we should be alerted into a sense of urgency, and must take hold of this disorder, so that we can place it into proper surroundings as quickly as possible. Of note, the Obvious domain is adjacent to Chaos, as the uttermost of Obvious (complacency), is frequently the reason behind

cataclysmic failure. — Indeed, a catastrophic fold (cliff edge) aptly describes this boundary. This means that it is easy to find ourselves transported from a sturdy, orderly, steady state, and brutally thrown into chaos. — We find ourselves on a sharp cliff edge due to an unforeseen change (e.g. unexpected competition, or a sudden disruption to the market), which can pose an extreme threat to our organization [5].

At this time, things no longer seem to have significance, and our sense of order is lost. Moreover, our remedy could backfire if we attempt to establish a ‘known’ order. However, if we are mindful of this pitfall, then such a scenario offers us a great chance to experiment to find a way out to get back to order. Indeed, we can broaden our outlook, and assess innovative models to tackle our business and gain success [5].

For a more in-depth dive, watch YouTube’s “Agile By Example 2017: Prof. Dave Snowden — Cynefin in practice”

In a Nutshell

The Cynefin framework not only empowers us by showing how we should approach a set of different scenarios; the characteristics also give us sufficient guidance so that we can recognise any situation we find ourselves in. This ingenious framework is beneficial to everyone, not just leaders, management, and software developers. Indeed, it: “can be applied to many different vectors of life experiences. The net takeaway is that you need to pair the right approach with the corresponding situation to achieve optimal outcomes” [3]. Snowdon’s model evolves through constant engagement and practice, and “can be applicable to many situations” [5].


[1]. Human Business (2018). The Cynefin framework — A sense-making device.

[2]. Mindtools (N.d.). “The Cynefin Framework

Using the Most Appropriate Problem-Solving Process.”

[3]. Snowden and Boone (2007). “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.” Harvard Business Review.

[4]. Wester, J. (2013). “Understanding the Cynefin framework — a basic intro.” Everyday Kanban.

[5]. Joe the IT Guy (2019). “An A-Z of Cynefin.”

[6]. Paul4Innovating (2018). “Cynefin: A framework that grows for me all the time, in its value and worth.”

Partner / Tech Guru in Experior Venture Fund. Helps entrepreneurs build companies. Microsoft Regional Director.

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