Cynefin Framework: Managing Complex Decisions
It can be difficult to make decisions in complex situations. Throw that on top of the fact that many situations are constantly changing, and it becomes even harder. What if we could get a sense of the situation before making a decision? Could that inform the next move we make?
The Cynefin framework (pronounced "ku-nev-in", like the popular Turkish sweet "knafeh") is a decision-making tool that helps us decide how to respond. Created by complexity researcher and consultant David Snowden in 1999 (not Edward Snowden), the key premise is that different situations require different responses. So once we identify the type of problem or situation we're in, we can decide what to do. The framework looks like this:
Or in the words of the Snowden in his book:
The framework guides us to make sense of the world, so that we can skilfully act in it.
Now that's probably a lot of information to take in, so let's break it down!
In the framework, we categorise situations into five domains:
Clear (Simple): When solutions are very clear
Complicated: When there are multiple solutions so we enlist the help of experts
Complex: When the situation is unclear
Chaotic: When the situation is out of our control
Disorder: When things are unassigned to a domain
Before we move further, note that these definitions are greatly simplified for the sake of understanding. In order to really grasp the framework, we need to dive deep into what each domain looks like.
These are the key characteristics of each domain. When using the framework, we first want to identify which domain things live in:
Clear: The known
These situations are obvious, and the options are clear. In other words, the cause and effect is easy to understand for everyone. Generally, there's a process that we would follow. e.g. If you car breaks down on the highway, you veer to the side, turn your emergency lights on and call Roadside Assistance.
Complicated: The knowable
These situations tend to have multiple options that might work well. Here the cause and effect is clear but not everyone can easily understand it. So we might need expert knowledge to help us decide what to do next. e.g. You might notice that your engine sounds strange, but you'd need to take it to the mechanic to be assessed.
Complex: The unknowable
These situations tend to be really unclear, where we might not know where to begin or what questions to ask. Here cause and effect can only be understood in hindsight. Generally, most organisational decisions sit within this domain as dynamics are constantly in flux. On a personal scale, many of the life decisions we make fall into this domain too. e.g. You're contemplating quitting your job because you feel like it's not for you. But you're unsure of what you want to do next.
Chaotic: The incoherent
These situations are unpredictable and full of turbulence. They are constantly changing, impossible to understand in the moment and sometimes cause distress. We don't have time to experiment, or analyse - we need to act immediately to stop any further damage. e.g. Global pandemics, blackouts in hospitals, accidents
Disorder: Unassigned domain
This is before we assign situations to domains. It's the middle of the framework!
How we respond
We respond to each domain with a different set of actions:
Clear → Use best practices
We would sense–categorise–respond. So we would try to understand the situation (sense), categorise it, then respond by applying a best-practice solution.
Complicated → Ask the experts
We would sense-analyse-respond. So we would assess the situation with the help of experts (sense), explore possible options (analyse) and then choose a course of action (respond).
Complex → Allow patterns to emerge
We would probe-sense-respond. To make decisions in this domain, we need to experiment, evaluate and gather more knowledge (probe). Then try to understand the situation (sense) and respond. So the best options will emerge after taking some action!
Chaotic → Establish order
We would act-sense-respond. The immediate priority here is to establish some stability and contain the situation (act). Then we can look for long-term solutions (sense + respond) before moving it into another domain.
Disorder → Gather information
We would learn more. So here we would gather enough information to move it into a more defined domain. This might involve identifying what we do know, and what we don't.
You might have noticed that there's a directional relationship between some of the domains. Generally speaking, situations are dynamic. This means situations and systems that are really clear and stable could quite easily move into chaotic if poorly managed or if something out of the blue happens. So knowing how to respond can really help!
Determining the domain
At first glance, the Cynefin framework can seem quite complicated. But when we break each domain down and understand its core characteristics, it becomes easier to determine where a situation should be placed. Here's are two ways to help you find the right domain:
Ask yourself some questions. Do I know what causes the situation? Is the situation under control? How much do I really know about it? Do I need expert input?
(Advanced) Practice categorising. If you want to test your understanding of the domains, you can practice categorising past situations in it! The more you use the framework, the easier it is to get a sense of the differences between situations.
Using the Cynefin framework can help us sense which situation we're in, so we can make better decisions. The core idea is that different situations require us to respond in different ways. By identifying the type of situation—or problem we're trying to solve—it allows us sidestep action paralysis, choose a response and move forward.