The Cynefin Framework Sense-Making Guide

Article 5 min
Explore how to identify, make sense of and act on various types of problems encountered as a leader.

As the information environment gets larger with more players becoming involved, problems are becoming increasingly more complex. It is important for leaders to think through problems and situations to discover new solutions and make innovative plans.

The Cynefin framework is a sense-making tool used to help leaders think through a problem or situation to find a solution. It encourages decisions to be made based on circumstances and addresses the uncertainty of complex projects and systems. It breaks down problems to fit into four domains: Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. In between these domains, you have "disorder," or "confusion." Disorder is used when you don't know where you are or when you are between two domains. The first step out of disorder is to gather more information to move into a defined domain. This framework improves sense-making and the likelihood of operation planning success by providing direction for a leader to find the best solution.

This framework complements the traditional communication strategy and research approaches such as the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) and the Joint Planning Process (JPP), as a tool for problem framing before problem-solving. In addition, Cynefin recognizes the causal differences that exist between different types of systems in complex social environments. Communication professionals must think differently about different problems. There is no one size fits all approach and the actions taken depend on which domain a problem is in.

Explore to learn more about the four domains, the leadership role and the potential dangers while problem-solving in each domain.

Cynefin Framework

Use labels along the top to progress through scenarios. Click the learn more button for more in-depth information.

If the
problem...
  • is easily predictable
  • is a repeating pattern
  • has clear cause and effect
  • has a single, obvious answer
  • has known-knowns (awareness and understanding of all parts of the problem)
Then it is
obvious

When the problem is
obvious

  • Sense
  • Categorize
  • Respond

Like the solution to walking in the rain is using an umbrella, an obvious problem's solution requires you to:

  • Use "best practice" solutions
  • Communicate in clear and direct ways
  • Don't over-complicate the problem
  • Ensure that proper processes are in place
  • Delegate roles and duties
  • Use fact-based management (acting in a straight-forward manner based on knowledge of the ordered world)

Danger Signals

  • Complacency and comfort
  • Desire to over or underestimate complexity of the problem
  • Inflexible or outdated thinking
  • No challenge of received wisdom
  • Over-reliance on best practice if context shifts

Response to Danger Signals

  • Create communication channels to spark ideas and challenge orthodoxy
  • Stay connected without micromanaging
  • Don't assume things are simple or chaotic, analyze the problem and evaluate appropriately
  • Recognize both the value and limitations of best practice
Obvious
If the
problem...
  • needs expert knowledge to assess the problem
  • has a cause-and-effect relationship that is discoverable but not apparent
  • has more than one possible "correct" answer
  • has known unknowns (you know the questions but don't know the answers yet)
Then it is
Complicated

When the problem is
complicated

  • Sense
  • Analyze
  • Respond

Like a hurricane requires you to watch the news to know how and when to evacuate, a complicated problem requires you to:

  • Coordinate a panel of experts
  • Use "good practice" solutions
  • Listen to conflicting advice
  • Determine a course of action
  • Execute the plan
  • Use fact-based management (acting in a straight-forward manner based on knowledge of the ordered world)

Danger signals

  • Experts overconfident in their own solutions or in the efficacy of past solutions
  • Over-analyzation a.k.a. "Analysis Paralysis"
  • Viewpoints of non-experts excluded

Response to Danger Signals

  • Encourage external and internal stakeholders to challenge expert opinions to combat outdated or inflexible thinking
  • Use experiments and games to force people to think outside of the familiar
Complicated
If the
problem...
  • is in flux and unpredictable
  • has multiple, competing ideas for cause and effect
  • requires creative and innovative approaches
  • has solutions that are emergent and instructive
  • needs deep analysis of the context to ideate solutions
  • has unknown-unknowns (unaware of what questions to even ask)
Then it is
Complex

When the problem is
complex

  • Probe
  • Sense
  • Respond

Like the best way to avoid a tornado's path is uncertain and unpredictable, a complex problem's solution requires you to:

  • Develop and experiment to gather more knowledge and understanding of how the problem operates in the environment
  • Use "emergent practice" solutions
  • Use methods that can help generate ideas: open up discussion, set barriers, stimulate attractors, encourage dissent and diversity, manage starting conditions and monitor emergency
  • Execute and evaluate the results of each experiment to begin determining next steps
  • Use pattern-based leadership (responsive and reactive leadership in a disordered world)

Danger Signals

  • Temptation to fall back into habitual command-and-control mode
  • Temptation to look for facts rather than allowing patterns to emerge
  • Desire for accelerated resolution of problems or exploitation of opportunities

Response to Danger Signals

  • Be patient and allow time for reflection
  • Use approaches that encourage interaction and communication so patterns can emerge and ideas can flow
Complex
If the
problem...
  • has HIGH turbulence (no control over the situation, high tension)
  • has no clear cause-and-effect relationships so there is no point in looking for right answers
  • is unknowable (nothing about the problem or answer is known)
  • requires many decisions to make and no time to think through logically
Then it is
Chaotic

When the problem is
chaotic

  • Act
  • Sense
  • Respond

Like the appropriate response to snow in the desert would be inconceivable and unknown to all, a chaotic problem requires you to:

  • Prioritize containment until the long-term solution can be determined
  • Take immediate action to reestablish order (command-and-control)
  • Use "novel practice" solution
  • Provide clear and direct communication
  • Take action to move or remediate your problem to be "Complex"

Danger Signals

  • Applying a command-and-control approach longer than needed
  • "Cult of the leader"
  • Missed opportunity for innovation

Response to Danger Signals

  • Set up mechanisms, such as parallel teams, to take advantage of opportunities afforded by a chaotic environment
  • Encourage advisers to challenge your point of view once the crisis has abated
Chaotic

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