Cynefin: A Framework For Parsing Complexity


Cynefin is a conceptual framework used to aid decision-making by categorizing situations based on their level of complexity. It helps individuals and organizations understand the nature of problems and choose appropriate strategies for addressing them.


Cynefin is widely used in various fields, including management, leadership, organizational development, and problem-solving. It provides a lens through which to view and analyze complex situations. It helps leaders understand the context they are operating in by categorizing problems into five domains: Clear, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, and Disorder. This assists in choosing appropriate responses based on the nature of the situation.


The Cynefin framework was developed by Dave Snowden and colleagues at IBM in the late 1990s. It consists of five domains:
  1. Simple: This domain represents situations where cause-and-effect relationships are obvious and best practices can be applied. Examples include following a recipe or operating a machine according to instructions.
  2. Complicated: In this domain, cause-and-effect relationships are not immediately apparent but can be determined through analysis or expert knowledge. Examples include sending a rocket to the moon or managing a complex project.
  3. Complex: This domain involves situations where cause-and-effect relationships are only visible in hindsight, and emergent patterns arise from interactions between multiple factors. Examples include raising a child, implementing organizational change, or navigating social dynamics.
  4. Chaotic: This domain represents situations of turbulence and high uncertainty, where cause-and-effect relationships are impossible to determine. Examples include natural disasters, crises, or system failures.
  5. Disorder: This domain represents a state of not knowing which of the other four domains a situation belongs to, often due to a lack of information or conflicting perspectives. Break down the situation into distinct parts and assign each to a specific domain.
The framework suggests that different strategies are appropriate for these domains. For example, in the Simple domain, best practices and standardized procedures are effective, while in the Complex domain, experimentation, probing, and allowing emergent patterns to unfold are more suitable approaches.

Sample Activity

To facilitate understanding and application of the Cynefin framework, you can conduct the following activity:
  1. Divide participants into small groups.
  2. Provide each group with a set of scenarios or real-life situations from their work or personal experiences.
  3. Ask the groups to analyze each situation and categorize it into one of the Cynefin domains (Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, or Disorder).
  4. Have the groups discuss the rationale for their categorization and the appropriate strategies or approaches for addressing each situation based on its domain.
  5. Facilitate a group discussion to share insights, compare perspectives, and reinforce the key principles of the Cynefin framework.


Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader's framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.

Target Audience:

  • Leaders
  • Decision-makers
  • Consultants
  • Innovation practitioners

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