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Know your Domain — The Cynefin Framework

With problem solving and decision making (different sides of the same coin?) there are different approaches depending on the situation. An approach that works well in one situation can prove ineffective or even counterproductive in another. A framework that can help you think about this is the Cynefin Framework developed by Kurtz and Snowden.

This is a sensemaking framework that provides you a context to think through the details of a situation, classify it and understand the appropriate response to make the most of the situation.

Sue Borchardt cynefin fly-through

As per the diagram below the Cynefin Framework outlines five domains:

Obvious or Simple (the known) — 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 (the knowable) — Although we don’t immediately know what is happening, we can analyze the situation and come to a conclusion of what must be done. We can enlist experts to analyze, set up constraints and a process addressing resolution.

Complex (the unknowable) — We’re not able to determine what will cause a particular result. The best course of action is to conduct experiments and check if any or all take us in the correct direction. A lot of time when human opinion and decision is involved we could be working in this area; simply because humans are complex beings.

Chaotic (the incoherent) — The situation is very unstable. We don’t have time to experiment or probe since the situation is dire and we need to act. An IT issue that must be taken care of immediately with no delay may be categorized as such. If we have no time to figure out a system deadlock issue, we may opt to get ourselves out of this chaotic state by rebooting the server.

Disorder (not determined) — Anything whose domain has not been determined falls into this domain.

Cynefin Framework

An interesting point to make about the placement of the “Simple” and “Chaotic” domains next to each other is to make the point that poorly managed simple systems can quickly become chaotic, requiring rapid triage to bring back under control.

Of particular interest to me is the un-ordered “Complex” domain which Snowden describes in some detail in an excellent HBR article as having the following characteristics:

It involves large numbers of interacting elements.

The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.

The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence

The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.

Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.

Unlike in ordered systems (where the system constrains the agents), or chaotic systems (where there are no constraints), in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.

Leaders who don’t recognise that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.

Decisions in multiple contexts — A leaders guide

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Tom Connor

Tom Connor

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change