What is the Cynefin Framework?

The Cynefin Framework is a tool that guides professionals when making decisions by analyzing the context in which that decisions are made.

  • Its name, Cynefin, is a Welsh word for “Habitat”.

 

It was created by Dave Snowden in 1999.

He defined 4 Common situations in which decisions are often made:

  • Chaotic situations.
  • Complex situations.
  • Complicated situations.
  • Clear situations.

 

Depending on the situation (called Domains) in which the decision must be made, the Cynefin Framework proposes one approach or another.

The Four Domains of the Cynefin Framework

Cynefin Framework Template

The Four Domains of the Cynefin Framework

 

The 4 Domains (contexts or situations) proposed by the Cynefin Framework are:

  • Chaotic.
  • Complex.
  • Complicated.
  • Clear (also called Simple).

 

Let’s see what this Tool proposes to make the best decision in each of these scenarios:

Chaotic Domain

 

What is a Chaotic situation?

  • A situation where nobody knows what to expect.
  • A situation where anything can happen.
  • A situation where it is impossible to make future predictions.

 

How to act in a Chaotic Situation?

  • First: Act differentiating the Urgent and the Important.
  • Second: Use your Sense and evaluate the Result.
  • Third: Respond to that Result and prepare to Act again.

 

Examples of Chaotic Domains

 

  • New Innovative Products: It is almost impossible to know if people will love them or not.
  • Anything that tries to predict people’s tastes or behaviors. People are unpredictable.
  • Shocking New Events: Crisis, Revolutionary events, etc.
  • Battle situations: Armies must adapt their operations to unexpected events.

Complex Domain

 

What is a complex situation?

  • A situation in which many uncertain factors intervene, but not all.
  • A situation in which many variables intervene.
  • A situation that is not new but where it is very difficult to make predictions for the future.

 

How to act in a Complex situation.

  • First: Probe what has proven to work in similar past situations.
  • Second: Use your Sense and evaluate the Result.
  • Third: Respond to that Result and decide if you need to Probe other things.

 

Examples of Complex Domains

 

  • Weather predictions: There are lots of factors almost impossible to know.
  • Stock exchange: You can have good results, but you also need some luck.
  • Playing Poker: Certain strategies work better than others but luck plays a big Role.
  • Epidemic control: There are certain things that work but there are many unknown factors.

Complicated Domain

 

What is a Complicated situation?

  • A situation in which most of the variables involved are well known.
  • A situation in which you know what you need but don’t know exactly how to achieve it.
  • The best you can do is get a good result, but you cannot guarantee the best.

 

How to act in a Complicated situation?

  • First: Use your Sense to list everything you need.
  • Second: Analyze how you can maximize your Results.
  • Third: Examine the Results and Respond the question: “Is the best result you can get?”.

 

Examples of Complicated Domains

 

  • Improving an existing product: All variables are known but not how to improve them cost-effectively.
  • Coaching a Team: You know how to do it but you have to adapt your method to the team.
  • Adopting new methods: You know what to do but not exactly how to do it in the best way.
  • Hiring Employees: You might know what to ask in the interview but nothing guarantees success.

Clear Domain

 

What is a Clear Situation?

  • A situation in which all the steps to success are perfectly defined.
  • All the variables involved are well known.
  • It is possible and feasible to get the best possible result.

 

How to act in a Clear Situation?

  • First: Use your Sense to list everything you need.
  • Second: Categorize all factors involved and follow the procedure to obtain the optimal result.
  • Third: Examine the Results and Respond the question: “Did I follow the Steps adequately?”.

 

Examples of Clear Domains

 

  • Mass producing the same product: you know all the equipment and steps necessary.
  • Cooking: If you follow the exact procedure you’ll have a guaranteed success.
  • Known Scientific Problems: If you calculate things correctly, you will get your answer.
  • Lots of Legal issues: You only will have to follow the law.

Now, before we share some examples with you, we want to clarify one little thing:

  • The Best Practice according to the Cynefin Framework.

Cynefin Best Practice

 

This Framework highlights that, in a Clear scenario, you can find the “Best practice” by:

  • Sense.
  • Categorize.
  • Respond.

What does it mean?

 

It means that when all the variables are well known and perfectly “controllable”…

  •  That is when the best decisions can be made.

 

If there are no uncertainties, if everything is Clear, there is a “Best Practice” that can be applied.

Now, let’s look at some examples so you better understand When the Cynefin Framework can be applied and How:

Cynefin Framework examples

To better understand this Framework, we think that it is interesting to analyze the history of Aeronautics.

  • How it started and How it is nowadays.

 

Why this industry?

Now, you’ll see why:

Chaotic Domain example - Cynefin Framework

 

At first, nobody knew “what to do to fly”.

  • Everyone suspected that it could be possible by imitating birds, but really, no one had a clue.

 

Many people tried to develop a “flying machine” by building different designs.

  • Sometimes, these designs looked weird but… Who knew…

 

It was a very good example of Chaotic situation.

 

How could people make good decisions?

  • Just trying things out and learning what worked and what didn’t.

Complex Domain example - Cynefin Framework

 

As soon as the Wright brothers developed the first successful prototype airplane, everyone started to know where things were heading.

  • Two wings, a front Propeller, etc.

 

A good stable and safe plane was still a long way off, but people had clues to follow.

 

How could engineers make the best decisions in this Complex scenario?

  • By Testing what was already known and making small improvements.

Complicated Domain example - Cynefin Framework

 

Years passed and aircraft design began to improve.

 

However, there was a problem:

  • Long and transoceanic flights were a real challenge.

 

Engineers knew what they needed, but not exactly how to get it:

  • Isolated cabins.
  • Resistant materials.
  • Light fuselages.
  • Good Turbines that could support freezing temperatures.
  • etc.

And most important: It had to be cost-efficient.

 

How could engineers make the best decisions in this Complicated scenario?

  • By analyzing hundreds of materials, designs and Test them to get what they knew they needed.

Clear Domain - Cynefin Framework

 

Today, there are no mysteries for aircraft designers.

They know exactly how to design a safe, durable and fast airplane that can fly anywhere in the world.

 

There are still challenges in the aircraft industry? Of course.

 

But the development of a normal airplane that covers the basic needs of “flight” is well known in the aeronautical industries.

 

If a group of engineers want to develop a new plane in this Clear situation:

  • They would apply all existing knowledge and follow the Steps necessary to build it.

 

Of course, with hundreds of engineers involved and millions of dollars invested.

  • Clear or Simple doesn’t mean Easy.

Summarizing

The Cynefin Framework is a tool that guides professionals when making decisions by analyzing the context in which that decisions are made.

 

How to make the best decision depending on the context in which it is taken:

  • Chaotic: Act, Sense, Respond.
  • Complex: Probe, Sense, Respond.
  • Complicated: Sense, Analyze, Respond.
  • Clear: Sense, Categorize, Respond.

If there are no uncertainties, if everything is Clear, there is a “Best Practice” that can be applied.

 

Clear and Simple doesn’t necessarily mean Easy.

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