What Is The Cynefin Framework And Why It Matters In Business

The Cynefin Framework gives context to decision making and problem-solving by providing context and guiding an appropriate response. The five domains of the Cynefin Framework comprise obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic domains and disorder if a domain has not been determined at all.

Understanding the Cynefin Framework

In decision making and problem-solving, a different approach is required depending on the situation. Indeed, solutions that were found to be effective in solving one problem may be ineffective or even counterproductive in solving another.

A framework that helps decision-makers consider context is the Cynefin Framework. The framework is derived from the Welsh word cynefin meaning “habitat” and was developed at IBM by David Snowden.

Snowden defined the framework as attempting to make sense of “the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.” Snowden also notes that the framework makes sense of complex problems where the correct action is less obvious.

The five domains of the Cynefin framework

The framework asserts that problems can be placed into one of five domains (contexts) that guide decision making and problem-solving.

They are:

  1. Obvious (in the domain of best practices) – the most simple of contexts where the relationship between cause and effect is obvious and undisputed. A single, fact-based answer exists. Solutions are simple and universally understood, as are the methods in formulating the solutions. 
  2. Complicated (good practices) – in a complicated context, there are often multiple solutions for a single problem. There is also an understanding of the questions that need to be asked without knowing how to obtain the answers. Cause and effect are less obvious and may require time or expert consultation to unearth. In this case, a quantitative approach such as Value Stream Mapping is useful.
  3. Complex (emergent solutions) – solutions in the complex domain are discovered through safe experimentation that lead to new (emergent) solutions. Emergent solutions can then be evaluated and used to guide future experiments until a complete solution is found. Problems and solutions may be unknown or less obvious in this domain and will require high levels of collaboration and innovative thinking.
  4. Chaotic (rapid response) – in chaotic contexts, there is no relationship between cause and effect. Thus, the primary goal is to respond rapidly. This establishes stability through acting to reduce damage, sensing where stability resides, and then responding to the problem. For example, a bank whose customer account information has been hacked must first find the source of the intrusion before making compensation payments.
  5. Disorder – if a domain has not been determined, then disorder is the result. To move into a domain with more certainty, the problem should be broken down into constituent parts with each assigned to a domain individually.

Applications of the Cynefin Framework in business

The framework is useful in any situation where a problem or decision must be categorized and an appropriate response formulated.

The most obvious application for businesses is in emergency response or crisis management. But the Cynefin framework can also be used in agile product development, marketing, and customer relations. It has further applications in refreshing outdated management styles, encouraging organizations to become more adaptable to a wide variety of situations and contexts.

Key takeaways

  • The Cynefin Framework provides guidance for problem-solving in contexts where individuals tend to respond unconsciously.
  • The Cynefin Framework categorizes problems into five domains with an increasing level of complexity: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. 
  • The Cynefin Framework is particularly useful in crisis or emergency scenarios and agile product development. It can also be used to reinvigorate businesses that have a rigid and outdated management structure.

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Published by

Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro is the creator of FourWeekMBA which reached over a million business students, executives, and aspiring entrepreneurs in 2020 alone | He is also Head of Business Development for a high-tech startup, which he helped grow at double-digit rate | Gennaro earned an International MBA with emphasis on Corporate Finance and Business Strategy | Visit The FourWeekMBA BizSchool | Or Get The FourWeekMBA Flagship Book "100+ Business Models"