Cynefin Framework: A Quick and Different Look

Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Nov 17, 2018 · 4 min read

The Cynefin framework is a sense-making device created by Dave Snowden to assist with decision-making. It is a framework providing leaders a way to identify the location of problems and the correct tools and/or methods likely to work in a specific domain.

For a deeper understanding of the framework itself, I recommend watching the following video:

for more on the Cynefin framework, visit

For more information on how the Cynefin framework can be applied to the U.S. military, I recommend reading Uncovering Hidden Patterns of Thought in War: Wei-Chi versus Chess.

My intent here is to provide a quick, yet different look at the Cynefin framework using an innovative 3D mind mapping software called Thortspace. This is a completely different software program and diverges from conventional options. For example, maps are structured around the surfaces of spheres, map-nodes (called “thorts”) can be connected via paths, and a sphere can be linked to another, which looks similar to wormholes connecting planetary bodies.

My mind immediately thought of two things when I first started using Thortspace:

  1. A sphere looks like a head or a brain and each thort or group of thorts look like thought bubbles in our mind.
  2. Spheres look like planetary bodies connected via wormholes in space.

Let’s now take a quick look at the Cynefin framework applied to the U.S. military.

The Cynefin Framework

Created by Dr. Jamie Schwandt via Thortspace

The Cynefin framework is a way for leaders to scan the horizon. The framework possesses five domains.

  1. Simple or Obvious
  2. Complicated
  3. Complex
  4. Chaotic
  5. Disordered

Let’s examine the domains metaphorically along with simple rules for each. We will also examine each domain in four ways:

  1. Recognition (How do we know our problem resides in this domain based on what we know or the information we have?)
  2. Method (What method should we use to attack this type of problem?)
  3. Military Theorist (What theorist do we think about in this domain?)
  4. Metaphor (What does this domain seem like?)

Simple or Obvious (Sense-Categorize-Respond)

Created by Dr. Jamie Schwandt via Thortspace

Simple or Obvious Domain: Clear cause-and-effect. We know the problem and the answer.

  1. Recognition (Known knowns)
  2. Method (Troop Leading Procedure (TLP))
  3. Military Theorist (Antoine-Henri Jomini)
  4. Metaphor (Checkers)

Complicated (Sense-Analyze-Respond)

Created by Dr. Jamie Schwandt via Thortspace

Complicated Domain: This is the domain of experts. Here, we know what the problem is, but not the answer.

  1. Recognition (Known unknowns)
  2. Method (Lean Six Sigma (LSS) or the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP))
  3. Military Theorist (Carl von Clausewitz)
  4. Metaphor (Chess)

Complex (Probe-Sense-Respond)

Created by Dr. Jamie Schwandt via Thortspace

Complex Domain: This is where the Complex Adaptive System (CAS) lives. Here, we don’t know what the problem is, but we know there is an answer out there somewhere.

  1. Recognition (Unknown unknowns)
  2. Method (Systems Thinking v2.0 (DSRP) or the Army Design Methodology (ADM))
  3. Military Theorist (Sun Tzu)
  4. Metaphor (Wei-chi (aka Go))

Chaotic (Act-Sense-Respond)

Created by Dr. Jamie Schwandt via Thortspace


These are the hilarious words uttered by Ben Schulz, the creator of the Leeroy Jenkins World of Warcraft character. For those of you unfamiliar with Leeroy Jenkins, I encourage you to watch the following video:

A Rough Go — Leeroy Jenkins

Leeroy Jenkins offers us a metaphorical example of why we should embrace the role of what I call a “Chaotic Leader”. I am not using the word “Chaotic” in a negative way, instead a “Chaotic Leader” understands how to operate in a chaotic environment.

Chaotic Domain: This is the domain of Leeroy Jenkins and is one where an understanding of cause-and-effect is typically useless. Here, we don’t know the information, neither do we know what to ask.

  1. Recognition (Unknownable unknowns)
  2. Method (OODA Loop)
  3. Military Theorist (John Boyd)
  4. Metaphor (First responders in a crisis situation)


“We’ll do it live!” — Bill O’Reilly

This is the domain to avoid. Organizations can easily slip into this domain from any other and it is hard to identify when you are in this domain. It’s like playing a game of Twister.

A Leeroy Jenkins approach here might be the only way to identify if you are in this domain. It’s like sticking your finger into an ant hill and is similar to the Complex domain, where you have to probe to see what comes out.

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