Cynefin framework in brief

How can Cynefin enhance management in the face of chaos and complexity?

Cynefin intro
Cynefin proposes certain principles that decision makers can apply to understand and take action (practice) in different types of situations, viz. involving simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic systems. For starters, you may like to watch David Snowden, the inventor of Cynefin and co-founder of Cognitive Edge, to explain the meaning of the iconic Cynefin diagram to the right (see his video on YouTube). Cynefin, by the way, is Welsh for “place of belonging”, which for the more down-to-earth among us may well translate as native land. Snowden uses the Welsh connotations of the word to evoke a sense of the importance of narrative in complexity management.

Organizations deal with systems
Cynefin looks at systems as networks of agents. Organizations or enterprises are systems that deal with systems all the time. Systems intermesh and Cynefin is all about boundaries, both between systems and between system types. Three major types of systems are distinguished: ordered systems, complex systems, and chaotic systems. The ordered systems are further subdivided into simple systems and complicated systems. The various systems have aspects that could be regarded as subsystems. The first useful point to take home from Cynefin is that systems or subsystems may be nudged into one or the other more manageable category.

Click on image for full concept map

Causality and agent roles vary
The main difference between the various systems is in the level and type of causality. In simple ordered systems, causality – i.e. the relation between cause and effect – is direct and linear. Agents – say staff – are “constrained” by rationality or discipline to behave accordingly, following instructions as laid down in field manuals or operational procedures. In complicated ordered systems agents are also constrained, but causality is not as self-evident as in the simple systems: data must be collected and analysed to formulate a correct course of action. In complex systems, causality is only visible in hindsight and the level of constraint is much less stringent than in the ordered systems. In contrast, agents are unconstrained in chaotic systems and no causality can be discerned.

The domain of disorder
The simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic systems make up the four quadrants of the Cynefin diagram (see video), but in the middle they do not touch. Instead, there is a “gray” area known as the domain of disorder. It is the area of indecision what system type one is dealing with. When the boundaries between system types are hazy, decision-makers tend to (unconsciously) choose a system type to suit the type of decision-making they know best. As a result, one decision-maker may consider he is dealing with a complicated system, whereas the other thinks it is complex. To avoid such fundamental confusions, Cynefin insists that situations or their parts are assigned to one or more of the four system types.

System types and management types
Each system type has its own management approach. Simple systems follow best practice, to be identified by categorization. It is the domain of bureaucrats, where the risk is complacency and futility followed by a sudden descent into chaos (see diagram in video). Complicated systems require experts for recommending good practice. These are highly manageable systems. In complex systems the need is for the required action to emerge: small management groups collaborate closely to design probes to help find emergent practice. In chaotic systems there is little time or room for discussion. A leader (or small team) with the right gut feeling is needed to come up with something (“novel practice”) to hopefully push the situation into one of the other more manageable domains.

The domain of complexity
Complex systems are where strategizing and planning take place and can have the most impact. They are the subject matter of management gurus and a good number of my posts (VSM, SODA, SSM …). Systems thinking studies the complexity of relationships within and between dynamic systems, including the “unpredictable” system properties that emerge from them. Cynefin, too, focuses on emergence as key to “handling” complexity (Snowden and Boone, 2007, p.7, ) and recommends to: (1) open up discussion; (2) enable self-organization by setting barriers; (3) probe, e.g. by stimulating attractors; (4) encourage dissent and diversity; (5) create an environment from which things can emerge.

A leader’s decision guide
Snowden and Boone (2007, p.8, ) provide a decision guide for the four main system types. For each system they point out: (1) the system’s characteristics; (2) the management role; (3) danger signals that may require special attention; and (4) the response to these danger signals. I like their advice to “recognize both the value and the limitations of best practice” in simple systems. Another nice one is the warning not to fall for the “temptation to look for facts rather than allowing patterns to emerge” in complex systems. Finally, there is the epitaph of mismanaged simplicity or chaos: “Missed opportunity for innovation.”

An evaluator’s decision guide
Williams and Hummelbrunner (2010) point out that although the Cynefin approach can be described in terms of project design and management, it is also useful in evaluation. Michael Q. Patton in Developmental evaluation (2010, p. 109, ) explores the implications of the Cynefin approach for evaluation practice. For each system type he points out the evaluator’s task and evaluation challenges. I like his “understanding the system(s) and context(s) within which action unfolds” for complicated systems. And also “avoiding defaulting to the simple in an effort to exercise control and create the illusion of certainty where none exists” in the case of chaos.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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