The Cynefin Framework
Developed by Lasse Werner Madsen
This article will introduce the Cynefin framework and its underlying practices. A framework that is used for sense- and decision making in a complex and complicated world.  The framework is developed by David J. Snowden (born 1 April 1954), and is used by leaders to determine the context of a situation, so they can make appropriate choices. The framework has been applied in multiple contexts, among them are strategy management, project management, scientific research, policy making, leadership training, healthcare etc. 
The Cynefin framework splits the issues that faces leaders into five domains; simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disorder. Each of which requires different approaches to leadership style. 
As a quick overview, The Cynefin Framework consists of:
- A core graphic [Fig 1], which content that varies from source to source
- A set of methods on how to make sense of- and decisions within ordered and un-ordered systems.
The Cynefin model
The Cynefin framework distinguieshes between order, unorder and disorder. It describes five domains that leaders can use for categorizing operating contexts for making appropriate choices. Each domain requires different action. The simple and complicated domains assume an ordered universe[Fig 3 & 2], where decisions can be based on facts, right answers can be determined and there is a direct link between cause-and-effect. Whereas the complex and chaotic domains are unordered[Fig 4 & 2] and deals with uncertainty, there are no direct link between cause-and-effect, and decisions and right answers are searched for in emerging patterns. In the the final domain, disorder it is hard to determine when one is in it. Different leaders have different opinions, and the way out, is to break the situation down to smaller parts, and assign each sub-situation to one of the four domains. The domains of order:
2. The complicated domain (known unknowns)
The domain where we do not know what is going on, but we know that we can analyse what has happened and figure it out. We Sense, Analyse and Respond (S-A-R)
3. The complex domain (unknown unknowns)
In the complex domain we can not determine what will be the outcome, but we can run some experiments and see if they will move us in the right direction. We Probe, Sense and Respond (P-S-R). In this domain we can only understand what is happening in hindsight .
4. The chaotic domain (unknowable unknowns)
In this domain, the domain of unknowables, it does not make sense to search for answers, no patterns exist - only turbulence. We Act (do something), we Sense where stability emerges and then we Respond by working towards complexity (A-S-R).
The Cliff (the cliff between simple and chaotic domain)[Fig 1]
The cliff is represented as a fold in the Cynefin Framework. The cliff represents complacency (extreme simplicity), the state where the situation feels secure, but one is unaware of the potential dangers in the existing situation. When the situation moves from simple to chaos in a sudden change, e.g. the business goes from a steady place and is suddenly thrown into chaos, the framework implies that one is fallen of the cliff. 
Guide on leadership
Framework for decision making in multiple contexts
Snowden states that; "if you want to become effective as a leader, you must learn to shift your leadership style to match the changing business environments." The four different domains call for different leadership styles and managerial responses. The table below is a guide on how one can identify which domain fits to situation facing him/her in the characteristics of context, a guide on appropriate actions in the leaders job, and finally potential danger signals and corresponding responses for each domain.
|Characteristics of context||The leaders job||Danger signals||Response to danger signals|
-S-C-R: Sense, Categorise, Respond,
-Don't assume that things are simple,
-S-A-R: Sense, Analyse, Respond,
-Experts overconfident in their solutions or in past solutions,
-Encourage internal and external stakeholders to challenge expert opinions and thinking,
-P-B-R: Probe, Sense, Respond,
-Temptation to look for facts rather than allowing patterns to emerge,
-Be patient and allow time for reflection,
-A-S-R: Act, Sense, Respond,
-Applying a command-and-control approach longer than needed,
-Try to move the situation towards the complex domain,
The driving example
A very simple example that is used in literature to explain the domains and contexts is the example of driving a car. 
Lets consider that you are driving a car, a system that is stable one day and we believe we know how it works. When the car runs low on gasoline (simple), we fill it up. A repeating pattern where the solution is commonly known, there is a clear relationship between cause-and-effect. Let's say the car makes an unintended noise, we might have to take it to an expert that will analyse the problem and fix it (complicated), the cause-and-effect relationships are discoverable, but not by everyone. Previous examples both belong in the ordered domain. We can consider situations where we are thrown out in complex or chaotic situations where there are no right answers and underlying causality.
Consider that you are the driver, and in the middle of a huge car accident on the highway, all cars go in each their direction with no emerging patterns, there is high turbulence, and you have no time to think. You will need to act (do something), then sense if the situation is moving to the better and then respond accordingly (chaotic). All of these situations could happen one after another, and one should therefore imagine that the situation moves around in the framework, see [Fig 5].
Cynefin used in projects
The Cynefin framework can be used in projects as a sense-making tool and as a common language for dealing with complexity. When using the framework in project management, Snowden emphasizes using the framework as a collective sense-making method that allows specific patterns to emerge over time in the understanding of the project .
Snowden's idea with sense-making in projects is to provide a common understanding by introducing a language used for understanding the environment. Snowden claims that experts' language is too restricted and abstract for managing complexity in project work, and remains about the problem but still far above it. Snowden therefore emphasizes the role of language in sense-making about complexity in projects and especially as a communicator to create meaningfull messages that are informative, comprehensive and not oversimplified .
Example of the Cynefin Framework used to understand stages of an emergent project to increase active transport
As a health promotion campaign in Australia, a governmental transport working group, used the Cynefin Framework to make sense of a project to increase active transport.
In a workshop, the group started to write down description of processes, events, tasks, programmes and concerns on post-it notes.
They then decided where to place each of the notes in one of the four corners (simple, complicated, complex and chaotic) on a white board. One of the post it notes "Increase Regional Transport Options" could not be allocated into one of the domains, and remained in the disorder domain.
The note from the disorder domain was split into sub ideas such as "Survey Needs", "Lobby for policy change" and "Integrate bus routes". The group could now make sense of the tasks and place them accordingly. The figure [Fig 6] shows an example on how the group used the Cynefin Framework, to understand how planning, project management and decision making changes in the transitions between domains. .
The figure [Fig 6] also shows how a complex issue can change into the ordered domain for analysis or implementing best practice. Or into the simple domain, since the work group on a routine basis creates computer mapping reports. When it becomes complex when facilitating a workshop for solving transport problems.
LEGO game for management training
The Cynefin Framework is also used for management training on how to make decisions in agile organisations .
Follow this link: The cynefin LEGO game,
Criticism of the Cynefin Framework
The Cynefin Framework has, since it's origin in 1999 , received various forms of critique. The points of critique, have mainly been around the structure of the framework and the definitions or categorizations of the domains.
Critique of the structure of the framework:
Rick Davies criticize the framework on it's structure, given that it is build up as a 2x2 matrix, but without axes so the one using the framework can't identify, or see, where he or she is in the framework. 
In response, Snowden states that the Cynefin Framework is not a 2x2 matrix, but an emergent sense-making framework. He continues, that he does not like 2x2 matrices, since they create a categorization approach where people makes things fit. 
In addition to this, Tom Graves, another criticizer of the Cynefin Framework, explicitly states that the framework is not a 2x2 matrix, and adds that the disorder domain is fundamental for the model. He states that: "The four domains – Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic – represent distinct ‘ways of knowing’, or ways of making sense of ‘the unknown’, the central domain of Disorder. The central domain always exists; the other domains are, in effect, overlays on top of Disorder."
There seem to be an ongoing discussion on the use of- and the structure of the Cynefin framework, especially in relation to other sense-making frameworks such as The Business Model Canvas, VPEC-T and Causal Layered Analysis
Perspective on organisational theory and paradigms
In most current management practices, the ideology that seem to exist assumes that there is an underlying relationship between cause and effect, and predicts that the future can be planned by discovering these underlying relationships. Examples are case studies and consultancy frameworks, that rely on transferring best practices across companies and industries. It is assumed that there is a right answer to problems/situations, and that failure hereof is a failure in analysis on the underlying causal relationships.
This ideology belongs to the modernist paradigm of organisational theory, where managers base their decisions mainly on descriptive measures and statistics. This ideology of decision making is represented in the right hand side of The Cynefin Framework (the domain of order: simple and complicated).
When introduced to complex situations, former practitioners have relied on reductionistic scientific methods, which assumes that complex systems are nothing but a sum of its parts. Managers have therefore made decisions by breaking down the situations into sub-parts and analysed each part individually, implying that the answer to the complex problem could be found in the sum of cause-and-effect relationships.
The method of reductionism is, however, contradicting with the ideology of decision making in complexity. Reductionist thinking asserts that we proceed when certain, where complexity thinking enables us to proceed by probing that which always will be uncertain.
The left hand side of the Cynefin Framework (complexity and chaos), therefore breaks with traditional modernistic decision making, by introducing sense- and decision making approaches in situations that does not have underlying causality. It is therefore belonging in the post-modern paradigm, where there are no definite answers to situations and problems.
For more information on the Cynefin Framework, you might find the following sources useful
In the right hand side
- Article: Harvard business review: Snowden, David J., and Mary E. Boone. "A leader's framework for decision making." 
- Article: Snowden, Dave. "Strategy in the context of uncertainty." Handbook of Business strategy 6.1 (2005): 47-54. 
- Article: Hasan, Helen, and Alanah Kazlauskas. "The Cynefin framework: putting complexity into perspective." (2014): 55. 
- Article: Jarrar, Yasar F., and Mohamed Zairi. "Best practice transfer for future competitiveness: a study of best practices." Total Quality Management 11.4-6 (2000): 734-740. 
- Article: Browning, Larry, and Thierry Boudès. "The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: A comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models." E: CO 7.3-4 (2005): 32-39. 
- Article: Van Beurden, Eric K., et al. "Making sense in a complex landscape: how the Cynefin Framework from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory can inform health promotion practice." Health promotion international (2011): dar089. 
- Article: 'Cynefin Centre: Life after IBM' 2005, KM World, 14, 7, pp. 1-26, Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 14 November 2014.
- Article: Elford, W. (2012). A multi-ontology view of ergonomics: applying the Cynefin Framework to improve theory and practice. Work, 41, 812.
- Article: Snowden, D. (2000). Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities" conference proceedings of KMAC at the University of Aston, July 2000 
- Article: The new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/kurtz.pdf
- Book: Hatch, Mary Jo. Organization theory: modern, symbolic and postmodern perspectives. Oxford university press, 2012. 
- Book: Cavallo, Antonella. "Risk Management in Complex Projects. An exploratory study to managing unknown unknowns in uncertain environments." (2010).
- About Dave J. Snowden: http://web.up.ac.za/default.asp?ipkCategoryID=5667
- Cynefin 101, an article by Greg Brougham http://www.infoq.com/articles/cynefin-introduction
- Definition of reductionism: Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science ISSN: 2037-2329 
- The Cynefin LEGO game by Andrea Tomasini http://www.agile42.com/en/blog/2011/12/25/cynefin-lego-game/
- Criticism of the Cynefin Framework 2 http://weblog.tetradian.com/2011/10/29/using-cynefin-in-ea/#comment-69939 
- ↑ 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Snowden, David J., and Mary E. Boone. "A leader's framework for decision making." harvard business review 85.11 (2007): 68.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 University of Van Pretoria, 2014
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Van Beurden, Eric K., et al. "Making sense in a complex landscape: how the Cynefin Framework from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory can inform health promotion practice." Health promotion international (2011): dar089.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Snowden, Dave. "Strategy in the context of uncertainty." Handbook of Business strategy 6.1 (2005): 47-54.
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 5.2 Hasan, Helen, and Alanah Kazlauskas. "The Cynefin framework: putting complexity into perspective." (2014): 55.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Elford, W. (2012). A multi-ontology view of ergonomics: applying the Cynefin Framework to improve theory and practice. Work, 41, 812.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Browning, Larry, and Thierry Boudès. "The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: A comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models." E: CO 7.3-4 (2005): 32-39.
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 http://www.agile42.com/en/blog/2011/12/25/cynefin-lego-game/
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 Snowden, D. (2000). Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities" conference proceedings of KMAC at the University of Aston, July 2000
- ↑ 10.0 10.1 10.2 Criticism of the Cynefin Framework http://mandenews.blogspot.dk/2010/08/test3.html
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 11.2 http://weblog.tetradian.com/2011/10/29/using-cynefin-in-ea/#comment-69939
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 Jarrar, Yasar F., and Mohamed Zairi. "Best practice transfer for future competitiveness: a study of best practices." Total Quality Management 11.4-6 (2000): 734-740.
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 13.2 Hatch, Mary Jo. Organization theory: modern, symbolic and postmodern perspectives. Oxford university press, 2012.
- ↑ 14.0 14.1 14.2 Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science ISSN: 2037-2329