Many executives are surprised when previously successful leadership approaches fail in new situations, but different contexts call for different kinds of responses. Before addressing a situation, leaders need to recognize which context governs it—and tailor their actions accordingly. The result is the Cynefin framework, which helps executives sort issues into five contexts:. Simple contexts are characterized by stability and cause-and-effect relationships that are clear to everyone. Often, the right answer is self-evident. Complicated contexts may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it.
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Cynefin offers five decision-making contexts or "domains"— obvious known until as simple , more recently renamed to clear by Snowden ,  complicated , complex , chaotic , and disorder —that help managers to identify how they perceive situations and make sense of their own and other people's behaviour.
The idea of the Cynefin framework is that it offers decision-makers a "sense of place" from which to view their perceptions. Snowden uses the term to refer to the idea that we all have connections, such as tribal, religious and geographical, of which we may not be aware. Snowden, then of IBM Global Services, began work on a Cynefin model in to help manage intellectual capital within the company. The Cynefin Centre—a network of members and partners from industry, government and academia—began operating independently of IBM in Boone described the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review.
Cynefin offers four decision-making contexts or "domains": simple, complicated, complex, chaotic , and a centre of disorder.
Kurtz and Snowden called them known, knowable, complex, and chaotic. The domains offer a "sense of place" from which to analyse behaviour and make decisions. The domains on the left, complex and chaotic , are "unordered": cause and effect can be deduced only with hindsight or not at all.
This means that there are rules in place or best practice , the situation is stable, and the relationship between cause and effect is clear: if you do X, expect Y. The advice in such a situation is to "sense—categorize—respond": establish the facts "sense" , categorize, then respond by following the rule or applying best practice. Snowden and Boone offer the example of loan-payment processing. An employee identifies the problem for example, a borrower has paid less than required , categorizes it reviews the loan documents , and responds follows the terms of the loan.
Stewart ,. This is the domain of legal structures, standard operating procedures, practices that are proven to work. Never draw to an inside straight. Never lend to a client whose monthly payments exceed 35 percent of gross income. Never end the meeting without asking for the sale.
Here, decision-making lies squarely in the realm of reason: Find the proper rule and apply it. Snowden and Boone write that managers should beware of forcing situations into this domain by over-simplifying, by "entrained thinking" being blind to new ways of thinking , or by becoming complacent. When success breeds complacency "best practice is, by definition, past practice" , there can be a catastrophic clockwise shift into the chaotic domain. They recommend that leaders provide a communication channel, if necessary an anonymous one, so that dissenters for example, within a workforce can warn about complacency.
The complicated domain consists of the "known unknowns". The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise; there are a range of right answers. The framework recommends "sense—analyze—respond": assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice.
This is the province of engineers, surgeons, intelligence analysts, lawyers, and other experts. Artificial intelligence copes well here: Deep Blue plays chess as if it were a complicated problem, looking at every possible sequence of moves. The complex domain represents the "unknown unknowns". Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers. In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are unclear.
A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.
The September 11 attacks were an example of the chaotic category. Decision-making was paralyzed. You've got to be quick and decisive—make little steps you know will succeed, so you can begin to tell a story that makes sense. Snowden and Boone give the example of the Brown's Chicken massacre in Palatine , Illinois—when robbers murdered seven employees in Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant—as a situation in which local police faced all the domains.
Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior had to act immediately to stem the early panic chaotic , while keeping the department running simple , calling in experts complicated , and maintaining community confidence in the following weeks complex.
The dark disorder domain in the centre represents situations where there is no clarity about which of the other domains apply.
By definition it is hard to see when this domain applies. Leaders can then make decisions and intervene in contextually appropriate ways. As knowledge increases, there is a "clockwise drift" from chaotic through complex and complicated to simple.
Similarly, a "buildup of biases", complacency or lack of maintenance can cause a "catastrophic failure": a clockwise movement from simple to chaotic , represented by the "fold" between those domains. There can be counter-clockwise movement as people die and knowledge is forgotten, or as new generations question the rules; and a counter-clockwise push from chaotic to simple can occur when a lack of order causes rules to be imposed suddenly.
Cynefin was used by its IBM developers in policy-making, product development, market creation, supply chain management , branding and customer relations. Bush administration,  emergency management ,  network science and the military,  the management of food-chain risks,  homeland security in the United States,  agile software development ,  and policing the Occupy Movement in the United States.
Criticism of Cynefin includes that the framework is difficult and confusing, needs a more rigorous foundation, and covers too limited a selection of possible contexts.
Prof Simon French recognises "the value of the Cynefin framework in categorising decision contexts and identifying how to address many uncertainties in an analysis" and as such believes it builds on seminal works such as Russell L.
Ackoff 's Scientific Method: optimizing applied research decisions , C. University of Wales. Retrieved 24 November From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I-Space conceptual framework Inquiry Karl E. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.
The framework is particularly effective in helping decision-makers to make sense of complex problems, providing new ways of approaching intractable problems and allowing the emergence of shared understandings from collective groups. Cynefin identifies four behaviors a situation can display: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.
This terminology is not new; the systems literature has used it for decades. However, in Cynefin the behaviors and the properties that underpin these four states are not entirely drawn from systems theories or even theories of chaos and complexity.
Cynefin draws heavily on network theory, learning theories, and third-generation knowledgement management. Harvard Business Review. CBI Business Guide. London: Caspian Publishing.
A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making
The most effective leaders understand that problem solving is not a "one-size-fits-all" process. They know that their actions depend on the situation, and they make better decisions by adapting their approach to changing circumstances. But how do you know which approach you should use in a particular situation? And how can you avoid making the wrong decision? In this article we'll look at the Cynefin framework, a tool that helps you make better decisions by assessing the situation you find yourself in. Cynefin, pronounced "ku-nev-in," is a Welsh word that translates as "place" or "habitat.
The Cynefin Framework
Apr 23, 11 min read. Ben Linders. InfoQ interviewed him about applying leadership models, the Cynefin model and how it can be used for capturing requirements, scaling agile, and sustainable change. Snowden: I think because you have multiple situations. So under conditions of certainty where you can apply constraint, you can control by constraints. You can have a very directive style of leadership.
Q&A with Dave Snowden on Leadership and Using Cynefin for Capturing Requirements
Complexity thinking can help people better understand how to intervene with systems in a structured, yet non-linear way. David Snowden, a former director in the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management, developed the framework to help managers and leaders better understand the implications of complexity for strategy. The framework can help identify the types of leadership patterns, learning processes and intervention strategies that are appropriate for different levels of complexity. In full use, the Cynefin framework has sub-domains, and the boundary between obvious and chaotic is seen as a catastrophic one: complacency leads to failure. This differentiation recognises that not everything we want to achieve in development is complex.