Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is a decision-making tool that helps individuals and organizations better understand the complexity of a given situation.
Cynefin Framework Mutomorro
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What is the Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is a decision-making model that helps leaders and organisations navigate complex and uncertain situations and systems. It provides a structured approach to understanding the context in which decisions are made and helps identify the most appropriate response to different situations. The framework has gained widespread recognition for its ability to simplify complex concepts and provide practical guidance for leaders and managers in various industries.

Background to the Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework was developed by Dave Snowden, a Welsh management consultant, in the early 2000s. It has its roots in the fields of knowledge management, organisational strategy, and complexity science. The name “Cynefin” (pronounced “kuh-nev-in”) is a Welsh word that translates to “habitat” or “place,” reflecting the idea that our actions and decisions are influenced by the particular context in which we find ourselves.

Over the years, the framework has evolved, and its applications have expanded beyond its original scope. Today, it is used by leaders and organisations across various sectors, including government, healthcare, and technology, to make better decisions, solve problems, and manage change.

Summary of the article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”

In their 2007 article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Dave Snowden and co-author Mary E. Boone introduced the Cynefin Framework to a broader audience. The article provided an overview of the framework and explained how it could help leaders make sense of complex situations and adapt their decision-making strategies accordingly.

The authors argued that traditional decision-making models, which often rely on linear thinking and simplistic cause-and-effect relationships, are ill-suited for navigating the complexity and uncertainty that characterises modern organisations and environments. The Cynefin Framework, in contrast, acknowledges the inherent complexity of most situations and provides a more nuanced approach to decision making.

The 5 Decision Making Contexts

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework categorises situations into five distinct decision-making contexts, each with its own set of characteristics and recommended approaches. These contexts are Clear (Simple), Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, and Disorder.

1. Clear (Simple) – the known knowns

Cynefin Framework - 1. Clear

Situation: Known Knowns

In the Clear (Simple) context, the situation is characterized by known knowns, meaning that both the problem and the solution are easily understood. Cause-and-effect relationships are clear, and there is little uncertainty or ambiguity.

Solution: Best Practice

In this context, the most appropriate solution is to apply best practices – proven methods that have been tested and validated in similar situations. There is little need for innovation or experimentation, as the optimal course of action is already known.

Methodology: Sense – Categorise – Respond

To navigate the Clear (Simple) context, leaders should use the Sense-Categorise-Respond methodology. This involves recognising and understanding the situation (sensing), categorising it based on familiar patterns, and applying the appropriate best practice (responding).

2. Complicated – the known unknowns

Cynefin Framework - 2. Complicated

Situation: Known Unknowns

In the Complicated context, the situation involves known unknowns, meaning that while the problem may not be immediately apparent, it can be understood through analysis and the application of expert knowledge. Cause-and-effect relationships still exist but may require investigation to uncover.

Methodology: Sense – Analyse – Respond

To navigate the Complicated context, leaders should use the Sense-Analyse-Respond methodology. This involves gathering relevant information (sensing), analyzing the data to identify patterns and relationships (analyzing), and devising a suitable solution based on expert knowledge (responding).

Solution: Good Practice

In this context, the most appropriate solution is to apply good practices – methods that have been proven to work in similar situations but may require some customisation or adaptation to fit the specific circumstances.

3. Complex – the unknown knowns

Cynefin Framework - 3. Complex

Situation: Unknown Unknowns

In the Complex context, the situation is characterised by unknown unknowns, meaning that both the problem and the solution are not easily understood. Cause-and-effect relationships are not immediately apparent and may only become clear in retrospect.

Methodology: Probe – Sense – Respond

To navigate the Complex context, leaders should use the Probe-Sense-Respond methodology. This involves conducting experiments or tests to gather information and learn about the situation (probing), interpreting the results to gain insights (sensing), and iterating on the approach based on what has been learned (responding).

Solution: Emergent

In this context, the most appropriate solution is an emergent one – a novel approach that arises from the interactions and dynamics within the situation itself. Rather than trying to impose a predetermined solution, leaders should focus on creating the conditions for a successful outcome to emerge organically.

In this context, the most appropriate solution is an emergent one – a novel approach that arises from the interactions and dynamics within the situation itself. Rather than trying to impose a predetermined solution, leaders should focus on creating the conditions for a successful outcome to emerge organically.

4. Chaotic

Cynefin Framework - 4. Chaotic

Situation: Cause and effect unclear

In the Chaotic context, the situation is characterised by a lack of clear cause-and-effect relationships, high levels of uncertainty, and rapidly changing conditions. It often requires immediate action to stabilise the situation and prevent further harm or damage.

Methodology: Act – Sense – Respond

To navigate the Chaotic context, leaders should use the Act-Sense-Respond methodology. This involves taking decisive action to address the most pressing issues (acting), monitoring the impact of those actions (sensing), and adjusting the approach as needed based on the evolving situation (responding).

Solution: Novel

In this context, the most appropriate solution is a novel one – an innovative and untested approach that is specifically designed to address the unique challenges of the chaotic situation.

5. Confusion / Disorder

Cynefin Framework - 5. Confusion

The Confusion/Disorder area of the Cynefin framework is where there is a lack of clarity and understanding about a situation. It is characterised by uncertainty, unpredictability, and a high degree of complexity. In this area, it is difficult to identify cause-and-effect relationships and traditional approaches to problem-solving may not be effective. The key to navigating this area is to first acknowledge the confusion and then take a more experimental and iterative approach to finding a solution.

Examples of how to use the Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, from strategic planning and crisis management to product development and team collaboration. Here are a few examples of how the framework might be used in practice:

  • In strategic planning, an organisation might use the Cynefin Framework to assess the level of complexity and uncertainty in their external environment and adapt their planning processes accordingly.
  • In crisis management, a leader might use the framework to quickly assess the nature of the crisis and determine the most appropriate response, whether it be following established protocols, seeking expert advice, or devising innovative solutions on the fly.
  • In product development, a team might use the framework to guide their approach to solving a particular design problem, depending on whether the problem is simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic.
  • In team collaboration, the framework can help members understand the dynamics of their relationships and interactions, enabling them to work together more effectively and adapt to changing circumstances.

The Cynefin Framework provides a valuable tool for leaders and organisations seeking to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of today’s world. By understanding the different decision-making contexts and adapting their approaches accordingly, leaders can make better decisions, solve problems more effectively, and ultimately, achieve greater success in their endeavours.

Cynefin Framework Template

Use this template as a starting point for exploring the Cynefin Framework.

Cynefin Framework

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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