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What is the Cynefin Framework?


image credit: Edwin Stoop sketchingmaniacs.com/decision-making-1
image credit: Edwin Stoop sketchingmaniacs.com/decision-making-1

In an earlier post, I wrote about VUCA, which is a mental model to evaluate the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world we live in.


The Cynefin conceptional framework helps make sensible decisions within a VUCA environment.


The HBR provides this definition:

Cynefin, pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.

It is based on Complexity Science and was developed by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone.


The model consists of 5 decision-making areas or "domains"

These domains are: Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, and a centre of Disorder.


Each of these 5 contexts provide a position defined by a cause-and-effect relationship, from which to analyse behaviour and make decisions:


  1. Simple (a.k.a. Obvious, or Clear): These are the "known knowns". First assess (sense) the facts of a situation, then categorise the situation before responding. The best answer is obvious to all; the relationship between cause and effect is clear.

  2. Complicated: These are the "known unknowns". Again, start with sensing the situation, however here the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise, before responding. You work your way towards a rational decision.

  3. Complex: consists of the "unknown unknowns". Here one needs to probe, sense before responding. Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect.

  4. Chaotic: Cause and effect are unclear. You cannot wait for analysis, you need to respond by taking action (to establish order), then sense the impact and where the stability lies, before responding to shift from Chaotic towards Complex.

  5. Disorder (a.k.a. Confusion): In these situations there is no clarity about which of the other domains apply. The way out is to break down the situation into smaller parts, and assign these to the other 4 domains, and process accordingly.


As you work through a Chaotic situation, you shift towards Complex. As your knowledge increased you continue to progress from Complex to Complicated to finally Simple. The reverse flow is also possible.


Why would you use Cynefin?

Making decisions in an increasingly complicated and fast moving world is difficult. Instinct, intellect and charisma will only get you this far. Cynefin helps you to quickly identify the context in which you operate, and by doing so enable better decisions, and avoid potential pitfalls.


Not everyone is a fan of Cynefin

The framework is quite difficult and confusing; others say it doesn't cover enough possible contexts, and furthermore the terms used are ambiguous. But it's a framework to organise your thinking. Use it as you please, at least now you know what it is.


If you want to know more, have a look at these sources: This HBR article by the original authors, and trusty Wikipedia.


The image above was created by fellow Dutchman Edwin Stoop. He also created this updated version.

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