Finding Clarity in Uncertainty: The Cynefin Framework for Problem-Solving in a Changing World

I will be discussing the Cynefin model, which is a framework for understanding and managing complex systems and situations. Developed by Dave Snowden, the Cynefin model has been widely used in fields such as crisis management, leadership, and organizational development to help decision-makers navigate complex and rapidly-evolving situations. 

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Sketch from Edwin Stoop (Wikipedia)

”The Cynefin framework helps us understand that complexity is not the same as complicated, and that our responses to complex situations need to be different from our responses to simple or complicated situations.”

The Cynefin model divides situations into five categories: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Each category represents a different level of uncertainty and requires a different approach to problem-solving.

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Simple Domain like baking using a recipe

🍳 Simple Domain

In the simple domain, problems are like a recipe book 📖. The steps are clear, and following them will produce a consistent result. It’s like making a sandwich 🥪. You have the ingredients, you follow the recipe, and you get a sandwich every time 🙌.

🚗 Complicated Domain

In the complicated domain, problems are like a car engine 🚙. There are many parts and components, and each one needs to work together to make the engine run smoothly. It’s like diagnosing and fixing a car problem 🔧. You need expertise, analysis, and a systematic approach to identify and solve the issue 🤔.

🌿 Complex Domain

In the complex domain, problems are like a rainforest ecosystem 🌳. There are many interconnected factors, and changes in one area can have ripple effects throughout the system. It’s like managing a rainforest 🌧️. You need to understand the complexity of the system, adapt to changing conditions, and take a holistic approach to maintain the balance 🌟.

🔥 Chaotic Domain

In the chaotic domain, problems are like a burning building. The situation is urgent, and immediate action is necessary to control the damage. It’s like responding to a crisis 🆘. You need to act quickly, make rapid decisions, and prioritize stabilization over analysis 🚒.

🧩 Disorder Domain

In the disorder domain, problems are like a puzzle with missing pieces. The situation is unclear, and it’s not clear which domain the problem belongs to. It’s like navigating a new and unfamiliar landscape 🌄. You need to gather information, analyze the situation, and use judgment and intuition to determine the appropriate response 🤔.

In a crisis, the Cynefin framework can help teams identify the nature of the situation they are facing, categorize it according to its level of complexity, and develop a response strategy that is tailored to the unique characteristics of the crisis.

In the simple domain, cause and effect are clearly linked, and the best course of action is to follow best practices. In the complicated domain, there may be multiple causes and multiple possible solutions, and expert analysis is required to determine the best course of action.

In the complex domain, cause and effect are not immediately apparent, and the best approach is to probe and sense the situation before taking action. In the chaotic domain, it is difficult to make sense of the situation at all, and the best approach is to act quickly to stabilize the situation. Finally, in the disorder domain, it is unclear which of the other four domains a situation belongs to, and the first step is to establish a sense of order.

”The Cynefin framework is a sense-making tool that helps people understand the world in which they operate and the appropriate response to it.”

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One example of how the Cynefin model can be applied in crisis management is the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, the situation was chaotic, with little understanding of the virus and how it was spreading. Governments and organizations had to act quickly to stabilize the situation, implementing measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions.

As more information became available, the situation moved into the complex domain, and governments and organizations had to probe and sense the situation in order to determine the best course of action. This might involve implementing targeted restrictions and interventions based on the specific characteristics of the virus and the local population.

Overall, the Cynefin model provides a useful framework for understanding and approaching complex crisis situations. By understanding which domain a situation belongs to, organizations can choose the most appropriate response.

I hope you found this week’s discussion of the Cynefin model to be useful and informative. The Cynefin model provides a helpful framework for understanding and managing complex systems and situations, and can be a valuable tool for crisis management professionals.