I was recently introduced to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, pronounced “kuh-neh-vin”, as a way to understand the complexity of an issue so that you know your options to respond accordingly. With Cynefin, Dave Snowden, reminds us that not all issues are created equal and that different issues warrant different solutions.


This framework helps you to categorise an issue into one of the five domains defined by cause-and-effect relationships, as depicted in the image. The domains on the left side are considered unordered, as in you have to test the waters before you know how to proceed, whereas the domains on the right are considered ordered, as in there is at least one known practice you can follow to solve it. The fifth domain, disorder, can be found at the intersection of the four.


The reason disorder is at the intersection of all four domains is because it isn’t clear which of the four domains is dominant for the problem at hand. The best way forward at this situation is to gather more information until you can move the issue into one of the four domains.

Chaos – The domain of Rapid Response

When I think of chaos, production issues, deployment server down and bad master merges comes to mind. In these situations, things have gone a bit crazy and people are bit agitated and panicky. The best way forward is to establish order and stability. To do that, you need to prioritise and address the most pressing issues. Identify what is working and what is broken and then respond to move it into the complex domain.

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 complex. – Mind Tools

Complex – The domain of Emergent Solutions (Realm of Unknown Unknowns)

Complex situations are often unpredictable. You do not really know what you are dealing with. You need to experiment before you can begin to understand the problem.

It is very similar to playing poker. When you start, you have no idea what kind of cards are going to be on the table. All you are sure of are the two cards in your hand. Only way forward is to assess the situation as new cards are revealed to you in each round and decide whether or not you will be stilling playing.

The best approach for a complex situation is to gather more knowledge by experimentation. If the experiment works, stick to it. If it doesn’t, try something else. Keep repeating until you can move the issue into the Complicated domain.

Complicated –  The domain of Good Practices (Realm of Known Unknowns)

It is complicated, when you need expert advice and/or thorough analysis to correctly understand the problem and your problem might have multiple “correct” solutions.

Chess is a complicated problem. The rules are simple but there many possibilities as you move the pawn. A chess expert will be able to see several good options to move forward with whereas a novice might only see a few.

The best way forward is to thoroughly analyse the issue (with expert help, if needed) and decide on the best response using good practice. This is where experience, deep understanding of the problem domain, pays off.

Obvious – The domain of Best Practices (Realm of Known Knowns)

Issues in this domain are quite straight forward and the solutions are self-evident and undisputed. The solutions are well known as best practices, that have been tried and tested.

Heavily process-oriented situations, such as loan payment processing, are often simple contexts. If something goes awry, an employee can usually identify the problem (when, say, a borrower pays less than is required), categorize it (review the loan documents to see how partial payments must be processed), and respond appropriately (either not accept the payment or apply the funds according to the terms of the note). – A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making HBR


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