Untangling the Cynefin Framework: Part 1/3


We cannot effectively solve problems or lead teams, let alone entire organizations, without understanding the Cynefin Framework.

A bold statement, yes, but I believe it to be true.

For all organisms, life is about solving problems. As physicist and philosopher David Deutsch said, “​​An unproblematic state is a state without creative thought. Its other name is death.” 

Unfortunately, we often rely on problem-solving approaches that are guaranteed to fail. Sure, they might work sometimes, but when they do it will be mostly because we got lucky. When they don’t, we won’t know why.

The Cynefin Framework offers answers.

We have a lot of ground to cover with this powerful mental model, so this will be the first of three parts.

The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework diagram conveys a lot of information. Don't worry; you do not need to digest it all now. We will take it one quadrant at a time.


If you are new to the Cynefin Framework, your first question is likely, “How is that weird word pronounced?”

It’s kuh-NEV-in, rhymes with eleven.

If the Cynefin Framework is not new to you, stay tuned. I have been using it for years, and I still find new applications and gain new insights.

Cynefin is a Welsh word. The Welsh language is a goldmine for the linguistically curious (like me). Despite its proximity to England, its spelling and pronunciation are notoriously impenetrable to English-speakers (or really anyone who doesn’t speak a Celtic language).

Case in point: there is a town in Wales called...


It's name means, "St. Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave." For the ambitious, you can learn how to pronounce it here. Good luck with that.

What Does Cynefin Mean?

Cynefin is usually translated as “habitat,” or “place,” but it’s more nuanced than that. Cynefin means “the place of your multiple belongings.”

It’s a beautiful thought, and it conveys the sense that we are rooted in and emerge from our deep past—our cultural, geographic, religious, familial, genetic, and tribal histories and so on.

All these multiple belongings profoundly influence who we are, but they are factors of which we can never be fully aware. We are complex, and thus cynefin is a fitting name for a complexity model.

A Sense-Making Framework

More precisely, Cynefin is a sense-making framework conceived by David Snowden—of Welsh descent—in his time at IBM. Snowden led the team that developed the Cynefin framework in their work on organizational complexity.

Snowden is careful to distinguish Cynefin from categorization frameworks, like the consultant’s favorite four-box matrix, for example. A categorization framework is something we impose on observations and data.

As a sense-making framework, Cynefin emerges from the data. It helps us understand our world.

How Does It Work?

We begin by recognizing three different types types of systems:

  1. Ordered (machines, chemical reactions, software)
  2. Complex (humans, the internet, companies, ecosystems)
  3. Chaotic (wars, natural disasters, stock market crashes)

If the word “systems,” feels abstract, don’t overcomplicate it. Your company is a system. The market you operate in is a system. Your family is a system. Your laptop and your lawnmower engine are systems. You are a system (a complex one!).

Ordered systems are characterized by clear structure and the ability to understand cause and effect and make predictions. We can divide ordered systems into two subtypes: Simple and Complicated, for reasons that will soon become clear.

The result is the four quadrants of the Cynefin Framework:

  1. Simple
  2. Complicated
  3. Complex
  4. Chaotic

Since its conception, Snowden has renamed the Simple domain “Obvious” (for non-obvious reasons), and that is the nomenclature we will use going forward.

 Ordered and "Unordered"

 The Complex and Chaotic domains are "unordered." The rules are very different in the unordered domains. We humans really like to be able to predict what's going to happen. Unfortunately, the unordered systems in the world—and they are everywhere—just don't work that way.

Let's start where things are simpler.

The Obvious Domain

In the Obvious domain, cause and effect is… obvious. Something feels weird as you are driving to work. You pull over to find a flat tire. That is the obvious cause of “something feels weird.

To solve this problem, you implement a known, well-defined, best practice: change the tire.

In the Obvious domain, the approach to solving problems is to:

  1. Sense - feel / hear / see that there is a problem with your car
  2. Categorize - it’s a flat tire
  3. Respond - apply the best practice: change the tire

Another bold statement: The concept of a single “best practice” is only valid in the obvious domain. This matters a lot, because we tend to assume that finding a single best practice is always a good idea. It isn't.

The Complicated Domain

You’re having a week of rotten car luck. Driving to work the next day, your car begins making a strange sound. The source of the sound is not obvious to you. It could be the transmission, the AC, the exhaust, or the engine itself, who knows?

Figuring it out requires special expertise, e.g., a mechanic. It is possible to understand cause and effect, but it requires deeper knowledge and/or analysis—sometimes lots of analysis.

R.I.P. Dodge Caravan

The transmission on our 2015 Dodge Caravan recently went out. Several mechanics evaluated the problem and offered multiple different valid approaches.

One mechanic recommended tearing down the existing transmission, finding the worn or broken part or parts, replacing them, and rebuilding it. Another recommended replacing the entire transmission with a “remanufactured” one that had been restored to factory specs. A third recommended sending the van to the scrap yard, selling it for parts. 

Who was right? It depends. Once we stray outside the Obvious domain, there is no “best” practice, only “good” practice.

In the Complicated domain, we tweak our approach relative to problems in the Obvious domain. We do not simply categorize; we must analyze:

  1. Sense - Hear see a funny noise.
  2. Analyze - Use diagnostics, investigations, analysis, and experiments to understand cause and effect.
  3. Respond - Choose one of several good solutions. In our case, one of these good solutions was to sell the van to Martha’s brother, who wanted the challenge of learning how to install a remanufactured transmission!

Complicated systems are ordered, but they are not simple. Understanding cause and effect in a Complicated system requires analysis and expertise, and different experts will often find multiple good solutions. Forcing them to use a single “best practice” is NOT best practice. It is bad practice because there is no best practice.

To the Unordered World We Go!

We have covered the two varieties of ordered systems in the Cynefin Framework, the Obvious and the Complicated, where we can categorize, analyze, calculate, and predict with confidence.

Next week we will explore the very different "unordered" world of Complex and Chaotic systems. We waste a lot of time and effort (and money) by failing to understand the Complex and Chaotic systems all around us.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Until then,


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