The Cynefin framework – A sense-making device

The Cynefin framework


The Cynefin framework helps leaders and managers to identify how they perceive situations and make sense of what actions are appropriate for their given context. Essentially it is a sense-making device that asks what context are you in and builds on the premise that different situations require different ways of navigating.


“All too often, managers rely on common leadership approaches that work well in one set of circumstances but fall short in others. Why do these approaches fail even when logic indicates they should prevail? The answer lies in a fundamental assumption of organizational theory and practice: that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world. This assumption, grounded in the Newtonian science that underlies scientific management, encourages simplifications that are useful in ordered circumstances. Circumstances change, however, and as they become more complex, the simplifications can fail. Good leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.”


Cynefin framework

Order, Unorder and Disorder

The Cynefin framework identifies three domains: Order, Unorder and Disorder.

The domain of Order is characterized by cause and relationships that can be understood and perceived over time.

The Domain Unorder is more complex and here only patterns can be perceived, mostly in retroperspective, while keeping in mind that once those patterns emerged and can be described, they are probably already outdated. Moreover, our observation and intervention also affected and changed the pattern. The Unorder domain is a constant flux, constantly changing.

The domain of Disorder is mainly arising when different stakeholders or agents that need to make sense of a given situation cannot agree on one domain to categorize the situation in. This is the space where you do not know where you are and feel lost. The action to take, also called the decision model, is to gather information, identify one of the other four domains, and move on.


Let’s have a closer look at the four domains in the Order and Unorder category and what are the appropriate decision models for each context.



2. Simple / Obvious

The first domain is the simple or obvious domain. “Simple contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone.” The right answer is ‘known’ by everyone involved and “decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an understanding”. It is the realm of “known knowns”.

Typical examples of the obvious domain are order processing and fulfillment. For example, an invoice is not paid after delivery. The person handling the invoices realizes the unpaid invoice, looks up the conditions in the contract and takes actions according to a standard handbook, manual or laws. Usually there is one best practice present and known to everyone involved, e.g. written down in a contract. Single-point forecasting, field manuals, and operational procedures are legitimate and effective practices in this domain.

The action mode for the obvious domain is to sense the situation, categorize the situation into a known bucket and respond with a well-known solution. This seems straightforward, which is why this domain was also named simple in the past versions of the Cynefin framework.

“Nevertheless, problems can arise in simple contexts. First, issues may be incorrectly classified within this domain because they have been oversimplified. Leaders who constantly ask for condensed information, regardless of the complexity of the situation, particularly run this risk.”

Another risk is path dependency, or named entrained thinking by Dave Snowden. This refers to a conditioned response, where people are not open to new ways of thinking. Leaders and managers become blinded by the perspectives they acquired through their past experience, training and success. The personal bias limits their ability to see new possibilities, new paths.

Another risk is complacency, which can occur when things appear to be going smoothly. A sudden change in the context is likely to be missed, and any reaction that follows is too late.

It is no surprise that within the Cynefin framework the simple domain lies next to the chaotic one. A catastrophic failure, meaning a shift into chaos, occurs most frequently because success has bred complacency. Just think of the many dynamic technology inventions that ‘suddenly’ disrupted whole industries.

Dave Snowden has a word of warning for leaders and urges them to introduce communication channels that allow signals from the front-line employees to reach the whole organization in order to avoid complacency and stay agile:


“Leaders need to avoid micromanaging and stay connected to what is happening in order to spot a change in context. By and large, line workers in a simple situation are more than capable of independently handling any issues that may arise. Indeed, those with years of experience also have deep insight into how the work should be done.”


Another aspect to consider is that every best practice is, by definition, past practice. In simple contexts using best practices is common, and often appropriate. However, difficulties arise when the rules and handbooks become to rigid and do not allow staff members to explore alternatives, even when the given process is clearly not working anymore. “Since hindsight no longer leads to foresight after a shift in context, a corresponding change in management style may be called for.”


2. Complicated / knowable

The complicated or knowable domain contains multiple good practices that can achieve you the desirable outcome. This is based on that there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, but not everyone can see it. It is basically separated over time and space. It is the realm of “known unkowns”. Even if I do not know the solution or the path leading me to solving a challenge, I probably have a sense of who would know the answer. It is the call for expert opinions, which could differ, because they have their own unique interpretation and solution for the cause and effect relationship they observe. Often a “complicated analysis and understanding of consequences at multiple levels” is required.

The action mode is to analyze the problem and roadmaps, sense the problem and respond with a plan (often provided by an expert who has a good practice available).

As in the obvious contexts, entrained thinking is a danger in the complicated domain as well. However, here it is the experts (rather than the leaders) who are prone to it. Experts that have invested in building their knowledge are unlikely to tolerate controversial ideas, thereby dismissing or overlooking innovative suggestions by nonexperts. Additionally, there is a key dependency on trust between expert advisor and decision maker.

“Another potential obstacle is “analysis paralysis,” where a group of experts hits a stalemate, unable to agree on any answers because of each individual’s entrained thinking—or ego.”

Reaching decisions in the complicated domain is always a trade-off between finding the right answer and simply making a decision, which often results in taking a lot of time in form of lengthy discussions. Snowden provides an additional perspective: “When the right answer is elusive, however, and you must base your decision on incomplete data, your situation is probably complex rather than complicated.”

“This is the domain of systems thinking, the learning organization, and the adaptive enterprise, all of which are too often confused with complexity theory. In the knowable domain, experiment, expert opinion, fact-finding, and scenario-planning are appropriate.“



3. Complex

Whereas in the complicated context at least one right answer exists, in a complex context right answers can’t be figured out, because the context is a constant flux and it is always changing. The object of interest, for example an organization, cannot be taken apart into its parts and resembled again, with simply upgrading the individual parts and hoping to improve the whole. This Newtonian reductionism does not work since “the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.”


“In this [complex] domain, we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Instructive patterns, however, can emerge if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail. That is why, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.”


The complex domain is where we face wicked problems. The truth is out there somewhere and through trusting the process and cultivating our ability to play the emerging practice will present itself to us. The path appears while we are walking on it. Most platform technology designs are emerging in this way, starting with a safe enough to try idea and building the necessary features on the way, perhaps through input from its users.

To be very clear, what we are observing in a complex context is not a direct cause and effect relationship, rather a pattern that emerges. However, we need to keep in mind that “once a pattern has stabilized, its path appears logical, but it is only one of many that could have stabilized, each of which also would have appeared logical in retrospect.” Moreover, it could be that a pattern stabilizes and repeats itself, but it is not sure if that pattern continues to repeat, “because the underlying sources of the patterns are not open to inspection.” In addition observing of the objective of interest may in itself influence the pattern and change what we observe.

“The decision model in this space is to create probes to make the patterns or potential patterns more visible before we take any action. We can then sense those patterns and respond by stabilizing those patterns that we find desirable, by destabilizing those we do not want, and by seeding the space so that patterns we want are more likely to emerge. Understanding this space requires us to gain multiple perspectives on the nature of the system. This is the time to “stand still” (but pay attention) and gain new perspective on the situation.” Narrative techniques are particularly powerful in this space.

The primary challenge that leaders face in the complex domain “is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles—to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize 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 leaders try to overcontrol the organization, they shut down 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. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.”


4. Chaos

In a chaotic context, searching for right answers is pointless, because the relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine. They are shifting constantly, thus no manageable patterns exist—only turbulence. This is the realm of unknowables.

In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to act. Often it requires to do something that has not been done before, it is essentially crisis management. A novel practice is required, where knowledge which is gathered throughout lifetime is only partial useful. That is why leaders need to trust their intuition to get out of the immediate danger zone. Stop the bleeding first, and then take the time to assess the situation and determine next steps. The response needs to be to take action that move your problem to another domain, transforming “from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities. Communication of the most direct top-down or broadcast kind is imperative; there’s simply no time to ask for input.”


“Unfortunately, most leadership “recipes” arise from examples of good crisis management. This is a mistake, and not only because chaotic situations are mercifully rare. A specific danger for leaders following a crisis is that some of them become less successful when the context shifts because they are not able to switch styles to match it. Moreover, leaders who are highly successful in chaotic contexts can develop an overinflated self-image, becoming legends in their own minds. When they generate cult like adoration, leading actually becomes harder for them because a circle of admiring supporters cuts them off from accurate information.”


Changing domains

It is possible to change domains in the Cynefin framework. As knowledge increases there is a clockwise drift from chaotic through complex and complicated to obvious.

There can also 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 obvious can occur when a lack of order causes rules to be imposed suddenly.


What are the implications for business leaders?

It is essential for decision-makers to know the domain their current challenge is in, so that you can apply the appropriate action modes.


It becomes obvious that the transformation towards agile, human-centric, self-managed, socially sustainable work environments or teal, which is at this point in time an unordered path, creates and brings forward novel practices like for example Holacracy, etc. At the same time there are emerging practices and observable patterns that are pointing to principles that can be beneficial for organizational transformation, like focusing on the human aspect instead of only procedural changes or engagement and involvement over top-down directives. In complex contexts the solutions need to emerge from the community instead of being imposed from the leader in a top-down way.


As we are moving to an increasingly complex future, or even chaotic one,  where we cannot predict the future outcomes by past behaviors, forecasting or planning, it also emerges and becomes obvious that there is a novel quality and practice required for decision-makers and leaders, not only in organizational contexts. That is to lead, oneself and others, from a space of intuitive insight. We need to pause and reflect to make sense of our context, act from a place of increased consciousness and often go against what our rationality or instinct tells us would be the right thing to do.


We also need to question our own way of thinking and beliefs that we hold, question everything we know. Are we stuck with what we have done in the past or are we open to novel practices and thoughts and ideas from non-experts, or places we normally would not look for inspiration? Are we flexible enough to look at each situation and context separately and make a new, individual assessment? Are we willing to respond to each context differently?


“Business schools and organizations equip leaders to operate in ordered domains (simple and complicated), but most leaders usually must rely on their natural capabilities when operating in unordered contexts (complex and chaotic). In the face of greater complexity today, however, intuition, intellect, and charisma are no longer enough. Leaders need tools and approaches to guide their firms through less familiar waters.

In the complex environment of the current business world, leaders often will be called upon to act against their instincts. They will need to know when to share power and when to wield it alone, when to look to the wisdom of the group and when to take their own counsel. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style will be required for leaders who want to make things happen in a time of increasing uncertainty.”



David Snowden created the Cynefin framework in 1999 then working for IBM Global services. Cynefin is Welsh for habitat, a word “that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand”.

In 2013 he and Cynthia Kurtz, an IBM researcher, described the framework in detail in a paper, “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world“.

In 2007 Snowden and Mary E. Boone described the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review, under the headline “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” and were awarded “Outstanding Practitioner-Oriented Publication in OB” from the Academy of Management‘s Organizational Behavior division.

The Cynefin Centre – a network of members and partners from industry, government and academia – began operating independently of IBM in 2004.


What context are you, your organization or your current task in?


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About Businesshumanizer

My name is Jens and I write about organizational evolution to inspire a way of organizing work that is human-centric. Find me at

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