The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework helps leaders to make decisions in context, distinguishing different domains to match reality before applying the right management tool.

The Cynefin framework is a decision-making tool that helps individuals and organizations understand and navigate complex problems. 

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the Cynefin framework and how it can be used to make better decisions in complex situations. 

Whether you are a leader in a large corporation or an individual trying to make sense of a complex issue, this post will provide valuable insights into how the Cynefin framework can help you make more effective decisions.

Cynefin (pronounced kuh-nev-in) is a Welsh word for habitat that signifies the multiple, intertwined factors in our environment and our experience that influence us (how we think, interpret and act) in ways we can never fully understand. 

To be simple, it is a conceptual framework used for decision-making. 

The Cynefin framework was created by Dave Snowden, a Welsh researcher, and consultant, who began developing the framework in the late 1990s while working as the director of the Institute for Knowledge Management at IBM. 

Snowden was working with a team of consultants, helping organizations make sense of complex problems and improve their decision-making processes.

One of the major challenges they faced was that traditional approaches to problem-solving, such as root cause analysis and linear thinking, were not effective in dealing with complex and uncertain situations. Snowden realized that different types of problems required different approaches, and this led him to develop the Cynefin framework.

Snowden and his team started using the framework with their clients and found that it helped them make sense of complex problems and improve their decision-making processes. 

Over time, the framework has evolved and has been adopted by organizations and individuals around the world as a powerful tool for understanding and navigating complex problems.

The tools and the approach we use to quickly solve a fire cannot be the same as what would be used to build a bridge. Just as the methods we use to make French fries cannot be the same as the methods we use to build software.

Why Cynefin?

Cynefin offers five decision-making contexts or domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and a center of confusion or disorder.

Simple: this is “the known” environment, where we’ve seen this a million times and as such can categorize and respond according to established best practices. The relationship between cause and effect is well known.

Complicated: This is “the knowable” environment in Cynefin, where we don’t immediately know what is needed with all details, we can analyze the situation and come to a conclusion of what must be done, and (normally) a specialist in the area can find a way to solve it following a structured plan. We can enlist experts to analyze and set up constraints and a process addressing resolution.

Complex: this is “the unknowable” environment in Cynefin, where we’re not able to determine what will cause a particular result or even don’t know what is going to be the solution/product in the end exactly. The best course of action is to conduct experiments and check if any or all take us in the correct direction, pivoting solutions and using feedback to know what is going to be the next steps.

Chaotic: this is “the incoherent” environment in Cynefin, where the situation is very unstable. We don’t have time to experiment or probe since the situation is dire, and we need to act right now and fast.

Disorder: this is the confusion or “not determined” environment in Cynefin, anything whose domain has not been determined falls into this domain. The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist, only turbulence and chaos.

“… In the complex environment of the current business world, leaders often will be called upon to act against their instincts. They will need to know when to share power and when to wield it alone, when to look to the wisdom of the group and when to take their own counsel. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style will be required for leaders who want to make things happen in a time of increasing uncertainty…” – David J. Snowden

Different environments and problems to be solved, need different approaches, different tools, and different methods. That’s why in management we have different methodologies and frameworks because we can’t just try to use a silver bullet to solve all types of problems.

Using this approach, leaders learn to define the framework with examples from their own organization’s history and scenarios of its possible future. This enhances communication and helps executives rapidly understand the context in which they are operating.

“… Business schools and organizations equip leaders to operate in ordered domains (simple and complicated), but most leaders usually must rely on their natural capabilities when operating in unordered contexts (complex and chaotic). In the face of greater complexity today, however, intuition, intellect, and charisma are no longer enough. Leaders need tools and approaches to guide their firms through less familiar waters…” – David J. Snowden

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.

Good leadership requires openness to change on an individual level. Truly adept leaders will know not only how to identify the context they’re working in at any given time, but also how to change their behaviour and their decisions to match that context.

This Framework should be always considered! 

So, bring it to the table next time you go through these crazy conversations discussing if agile or waterfall methodologies are better or worst. 

There’s no comparison needed, just the right or wrong environment using the right or wrong solution from the toolbox.

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