The Cynefin Framework

Using the Most Appropriate Problem-Solving Process

Cynefin Framework

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Make the best move with the Cynefin framework.

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.

About the Tool

Cynefin, pronounced "ku-nev-in," is a Welsh word that translates as "place" or "habitat." However, it can also be used to describe the elements of our situation and personal history that influence our thoughts and decisions in ways we don't understand.

Scholar David J. Snowden used the word to describe a framework he developed in 1999, based on concepts from knowledge management and organizational strategy. Along with his colleague Mary Boone, he published the framework in the November 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The Cynefin framework (Figure 1 below) is a problem-solving tool that helps you put situations into five "domains" defined by cause-and-effect relationships. This helps you assess your situation more accurately and respond appropriately.

Figure 1: The Cynefin Framework

Cynefin Framework

Based on the Cynefin framework diagram by David Snowden, see http://cognitive-edge.com. Reproduced with permission.

Note:

The "obvious" domain was originally called "simple," but this was updated in 2014.

You can use the Cynefin framework in a variety of situations to categorize a problem or decision and respond accordingly. For example, it is useful in product development, marketing and organizational strategy. It can also help you make better decisions in a crisis or emergency.

It helps you avoid using the same management style or decision-making approach in all situations – a mistake that can be costly to your team or organization– by encouraging you to be flexible and adaptable when making decisions, and to adjust your management style to fit your circumstances.

The Five Domains

Let's look at each of the five domains in greater detail.

Obvious Contexts – "The Domain of Best Practice"

In "obvious" contexts, your options are clear and cause-and-effect relationships are apparent to everyone involved.

Here, there are often explicit steps in place that dictate the next stage of the process. For example, problems encountered at help desks or call centers are often predictable, and there are processes in place to handle most of them.

Snowden argues that you need to "Sense – Categorize – Respond" to obvious decisions. Put simply, you should assess the situation, categorize its type, and then base your response on best practice. There is often one established "correct" answer, based on an existing process or procedure.

However, there is a danger that obvious contexts may be oversimplified. This often happens when leaders, or an entire organization, experience success and then become complacent. To avoid this, make sure that there are clear communication channels in place, so that team members can report any situations that don't fit with any established category.

Another challenge is that leaders may not be receptive to new ideas because of past experiences and success. For example, some people might automatically assume that previous solutions will work again. To overcome this, stay open to new ideas and be willing to pursue innovative suggestions.

Complicated Contexts – "The Domain of Experts"

"Complicated" problems might have several "correct" solutions. Here, there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, but it may not be visible to everyone, because the problem is... complicated. For example, you might see several symptoms of a problem but not know how to fix it.

The decision-making approach here is to "Sense – Analyze – Respond." In other words, you need to assess the situation, analyze what is known (often with the help of experts), and decide on the best response, using good practice.

Leaders may rely too heavily on experts in complicated situations, while dismissing or overlooking creative solutions from other people. To overcome this, assemble a team of people from a wide variety of backgrounds (including rebels and dissenters), and use tools such as Crawford's Slip Writing Method to ensure that everyone's views are heard.

Complex Contexts – "The Domain of Emergence"

It might be impossible to identify one "correct" solution, or spot cause-and-effect relationships, in "complex" situations. According to Snowden and Boone, many business situations fall into this category.

Complex contexts are often unpredictable, and the best approach here is to "Probe – Sense – Respond." Rather than trying to control the situation or insisting on a plan of action, it's often best to be patient, look for patterns, and encourage a solution to emerge.

It can be helpful to conduct business experiments in these situations, and accept failure as part of the learning process. Make sure that you have processes in place to guide your team's thinking – even a simple set of rules can lead to better solutions than no guidance at all.

Communication is essential here, too. Gather a diverse group of people to come up with innovative, creative solutions to complex problems. Use brainstorming tools such as Random Input or Provocation to generate new ideas, and encourage your team to debate the possibilities.

Tip:

Complicated and complex situations are similar in some ways, and it can be challenging to tell which of them you're experiencing. However, if you need to make a decision based on incomplete data, for example, you're likely to be in a complex situation.

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Chaotic Contexts – "The Domain of Rapid Response"

In "chaotic" situations, no relationship between cause and effect exists, so your primary goal is to establish order and stability. Crisis and emergency scenarios often fall into this domain.

The decision-making approach here is to "Act – Sense – Respond." You need to act decisively to address the most pressing issues, sense where there is stability and where there isn't, and then respond to move the situation from chaos to complexity.

To navigate chaotic situations successfully, conduct a Risk Analysis to identify possible risks, prioritize them with a Risk Impact/Probability Chart , and make sure that you have a comprehensive crisis plan in place. It's impossible to prepare for every situation, but planning for identifiable risks is often helpful.

Reliable information is critical in uncertain and chaotic situations, so make sure you know how to communicate in a crisis .

Disorder

It can be extremely difficult to identify when you're in a "disorder" situation. Here, it isn't clear which of the other four domains is dominant, and people generally rely on decision-making techniques that are known and comfortable. Your primary goal in this situation is to gather more information , so that you can move into a known domain and then take the appropriate action.

Example

José and his team recently rolled out an innovative new e-reader. However, it has developed an issue, and no one can agree on what's causing it. Dissatisfied customers are returning the product and the company's reputation has taken a hit. José is managing a number of issues. He has to help his team uncover the cause of the problem so it can be fixed, he's working with marketing to compensate customers, and he's answering questions from the media about the e-reader's issue.

He uses the Cynefin framework to gain a better understanding of the situation, and he categorizes it as "complicated," which means he needs to take a Sense – Analyze – Respond approach.

So, he brings in experts from research and development, IT and manufacturing to help him diagnose the problem. Working closely with his team, these experts list the quality concerns and then focus on each one individually to find the root cause of the problem.

After several days of analysis, everyone agrees that the problem is caused by dry solder joints. Working together, the consultants and José's team come up with a clear plan to address this and ensure that no more faulty e-readers are shipped.

Key Points

The Cynefin framework was developed by David J. Snowden in 1999. It aims to help leaders understand that every situation is different and requires a unique approach to decision making.

The framework outlines five situational domains that are defined by cause-and-effect relationships. They are:

  • Obvious.
  • Complicated.
  • Complex.
  • Chaotic.
  • Disorder.

Each of these domains has a specific decision-making approach that helps you make better sense of the situation, and choose the most appropriate way forward.

Apply This to Your Life

Practice using the Cynefin framework the next time you have an important decision to make at work. Aim to identify the domain you're in correctly, and use the appropriate decision-making approach to process information and move forward.

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Comments (8)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi JTrouw,
    Thanks for adding that additional question to consider when making decisions.

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago JTrouw wrote
    The article gives you the "Why" and the "What" of using Cynefin Problem Solving. Unfortunately it does not give you the "How". How do you "Sense", "Probe" or "Analyze"? Do you go into your "normal" incident or problem management processes? What are the actual steps to be taken when sensing, probing or analyzing?
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Chris - your comment is helpful.

    Yolandé
    Mind Tools Team
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