Cynefin Framework

While he was working at IBM in 1999, David Snowden began developing a model for helping managers think critically about their decisions. The result is a framework called Cynefin.

Cynefin is Welsh for habitat — but it denotes the idea that belonging usually involves more than one place. “It is more properly understood as the place of our multiple affiliations, the sense that we all, individually and collectively, have many roots, cultural, religious, geographic, tribal, and so forth.”1 True to its name, framework intends to provide a ‘home base’ perspective from which to make decisions in a multiplicity of situations.

The Cynefin framework looks like this:

The Simple / Obvious domain is the realm of ‘known knowns’ — there is a direct cause and effect for every scenario. This is where you find standard operating policies and procedures. This quadrant represents the idea of ‘decision making’ in the loosest parameters: nobody really ‘makes’ decisions here, they obey protocol: they sense the input, categorize it, and respond appropriately.

You know you are dealing with something that is simple or obvious when the relationship between cause and effect is evident, predictable, and repeatable. There are steps that must be followed, which guarantee a specific outcome.

The applicant possesses an insufficient credit score? They will be declined the loan.

Did the employ flagrantly disregard the company’s code of conduct or break the law? Their contract will be terminated.

If you want your muffins to turn out like your grandmother’s baking, mimic her recipe as precisely as possible.

The temptation for any leader or organization is to try to plan for as many contingencies as possible and prepare with rote procedures. To be sure, best practices are very important tools, but they are also recipes for complacency. Working in the domain of the simple and obvious is great when you are replicating a family muffin recipe, but it is a dangerously blind way to react to unforeseen or unanticipated changes to your environment. Commitment to the doctrine of “We’ve Always Done It This Way Before” is a recipe for disaster. As David Snowden and Mary Boone write, “The most frequent collapses into chaos occur because success has bred complacency.”2

The Complicated quadrant is where you build rockets and combustion engines. Sure, there is a lot information you don’t know, but since these questions present as ‘known unknowns,’ you can develop strategies for figuring things out. When something is complicated, you know there is a relationship between cause and effect, but the relationship itself is not immediately self evident. Lots of experts, lawyers, and specialists make a living by dealing with complicated problems. You can’t respond unless you analyze it.

Let’s figure out how this rocket fuel will respond to atmospheric pressure changes.

What does this data tell us about the purchasing habits of our customers?

‘Analysis paralysis’

In a Complex system it is impossible to determine causality of actions in advance. What is the secret to raising kind, intelligent, well-rounded children? There’s competing arguments and a myriad of theories and parenting models. A direct line between our actions and their future effects on our children is indecipherable. It is only in hindsight that you can describe how any specific action resulted in any specific outcome for any specific child. This the land perpetually ‘unknown knowns’ — you know your actions have consequences, but you can’t know the consequences before undertaking the actions.

In a situation of complexity, David Snowden argues only sensible action is to probe the potential and viability of actions. This means experimenting: taking an idea — the best guess you have at the moment — and creating a ‘fail safe’ design lab that allows to you see how the works out while simultaneously guarding against as many unintended consequences as possible. Working with complexity means deliberately (and carefully) experimenting with innovation.3 (Unfortunately children do not come as invulnerable crash test dummies for parenting experimentation, but every mother and father will tell you that parenting is truly a process of trials and errors.)

Being in a Chaotic situation is like being in a burning building: just about any action is better than taking no action at all. Acting is the first thing you need to do. You must to save the analyzing for later, or you won’t have a later. In chaos, no cause and effect can be understood — and every second you spend wondering about the cause of the fire is another second lost for the immediate priority of escaping.

The Cynefin framework is designed as tool for sense-making and decision-making. When faced with a situation as a manager or leader that demands a decision, the Cynefin matrix asks you to first identify causal nature of the issue at hand. All too often, institutions and business default to addressing new situations with old solutions: say, by trying to resolve a new complex dilemmas with ‘obvious’ but ineffectual policies that seemed to work fine last time.

Disorder, the small spot in the middle of the Cynefin framework, represents not knowing which quadrant you are presently working in. When disordered, we will interpret our course of action based on personal preference, bias, and heuristics. On the other hand, if we distinguish the problem at hand as complex, we realize that the situation demands an entirely different response than if it were a complicated issue that could be solved by an expert.

The distinct boundary line between the Simple and Chaotic quadrants represents a typical pattern in organizational behaviour. Given enough time prioritizing procedure and protocol above all else, organizations and their leaders begin to act on the belief that all problems are solved by procedures and protocols. Soon, any and every problem is seen as a process problem. This bias results in eventual collapse: falling off the cliff from the simple into a state of chaos. The point is that trying to resolve everything with a simple policy change leaves an organization highly vulnerable to breakdown from within.


  1. Kurtz, Cynthia F.; Snowden, David J. (2003). The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world . IBM Systems Journal. 42 (3): 462–483. http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/kurtz.pdf 

  2. Snowden, David J. & Boone, Mary E. (2007). A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review. November 2007. https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making 

  3. Snowden, David. (2010). The Cynefin Framework. CognitiveEdge. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8 


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Cynefin Framework' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17184
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This page is currently a subsection of 'Leadership in Complex Systems' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript. Structure and document location subject to change. Use https://jamesshelley.com?p=17184 as permanent identifier for this document if linking externally.

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