Diagram: The Cynefin Framework with Complex and Chaotic Domains Highlighted

Untangling the Cynefin Framework: Part 2/3


Last week we introduced the Cynefin Framework, a powerful tool for making sense of the very different domains in which we all must solve problems.

If you missed it, you can catch up here.

We covered the Obvious and Complicated systems that make up the "ordered" world.

This week we will explore the very different "unordered" world of Complex and Chaotic systems.

Although we humans create many Complex and Chaotic systems—the complexity of the internet, or the chaotic behavior of a stock-market crash, to name two—nature was at it long before we were. Ecosystems and organisms, including (especially?) Homo sapiens are complex, not complicated.

Unpredictability and emergent phenomena abound in the unordered world, and it requires a completely different approach to problem-solving.

Let's get started!

The Complex Domain

The plot thickens.

This is where things get interesting, and where we can really make a mess if we remain unaware of the critical differences between the Complicated and Complex domains.

In crossing from the right side of the Cynefin Framework to the left, we move from the “ordered” world to the “unordered” world. Everything changes.

Installing a remanufactured transmission in a 2015 Dodge Caravan is Complicated, but the second time you do it is going to go pretty much the same as the first, and if it doesn't, you'll be able to figure out why. Not so in a Complex system.

There Are No SOPs for Parenting

For those with more than one child, did everything that worked raising the first also work with the second? Did anything that worked with the first work with the second?

Raising a child is Complex, not Complicated, and in a Complex system, cause and effect cannot be determined in advance.

Let me repeat that, because it is vitally important:


In a Complex system, cause and effect cannot be determined in advance.


Some of you might have observed that those complex children have a habit of growing up, becoming big people, and getting jobs.

They do not get less complex.

Thus, there is no guarantee that the approach you used to manage one person, get the best of one team, or launch one major change initiative will work with the next person, team, or change. In fact, it likely will not, at least not without some significant adjustments that you cannot predict.

In Complex systems, we must apply a very different strategy. We no longer begin with observation. We begin with action:

  1. Probe - Try something! Run safe-to-fail experiments (because you can’t be sure what’s going to happen).
  2. Sense - Observe what happens.
  3. Respond - Adjust based on what you learned. Be ready to amplify the action if it works, or dampen the response if it doesn't.

Solving problems in a Complex environment is a continuous process of trying things, observing their effect, and responding.

This emphasis on experimentation absolutely does not, however, imply that knowledge and expertise are useless because it’s all just a crap shoot.

Quite the contrary, in a Complex system, a high level of expertise might be required even to comprehend what is happening, let alone propose an experiment that has any chance of working.

The Chaotic Domain

We can move into the chaotic domain in one of two ways: deliberately, or accidentally.

Deliberately inducing some chaos can be useful for innovation, but, more often, we find ourselves in the chaotic domain accidentally.

Do NOT Click That Link!

One day at work, the IT Director came to my office and said, “We have a problem.” Just minutes earlier, an employee had clicked a very convincing, but very malicious link in a phishing email.

She immediately recognized her innocent mistake, but it was too late. By the time she informed IT, the payload had been delivered. Malware had already infected our network and was spreading fast.

We didn’t know what the malware was or what it did. We didn’t know if it would just splash annoying messages on our screens, permanently encrypt all company data, or drain our bank accounts (or all three).

We didn’t know if it was contained to one site, or already in the process of taking down the entire multi-billion dollar global organization. All we knew was that things were happening fast.

This is what David Snowden means by chaos.

Coping With Chaos

Chaotic situations require immediate, decisive action to stabilize the system.

This is why companies do fire drills and have crisis response playbooks. You do not analyze. You do not experiment. You open the playbook, find step one, and do it. Immediately.

If the building is on fire, get everyone out to a predefined safe location. If malware is spreading at an unknown rate through your network, you shut it down. Pull the plug. Now.

Yes, people will second-guess you. Yes, you might get it wrong and be called alarmist. Apologize later.

In a Chaotic environment, a successful intervention necessarily starts with decisive action:

  1. Act - There is little to no time to analyze; take decisive action in attempt to stabilize things before they get worse. 
  2. Sense - Did things get better or worse?
  3. Respond - Take the next stabilizing action until you are no longer in chaos.

A Complete Sense-Making Framework

Now that we have seen the entire landscape: the Obvious, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic Domains, this completes our tour of these very diverse problem-solving habitats.

Next week we will learn how to avoid getting lost.

Until then,



P.S. Curious how the malware incident turned out? In a word... expensive.

We acted fairly quickly, but in the real world, making the pull-the-plug / shut-down-the-plant / evacuate-the-building calls is rarely obvious, and that was the case in this situation.

Decision-making in the Chaotic domain often means choosing between bad and worse. It was not immediately clear if the initial containment efforts had been enough, and sending several hundred people home when it's not obviously necessary is a painful call to make. In retrospect, it would have been the right one.

We avoided disaster, but things got significantly worse before they got better. More drastic action faster would have been better, but sometimes (often) it is not clear which domain you're in.

More on that next week!

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