Cynefin - A decision-making/sense-making framework

If you’ve never heard of Cynefin (Kuh-Nev-In), Cynefin is a Welsh word for “Habitat”, and as we might know, habitats and eco-systems are constantly changing with a multitude of variable from the weather, to that predator staring you down just 10 feet away. This naturally requires us to think fast, act quick, and be able to understand the situation swiftly.

Thankfully, we have a pretty robust decision-making framework in Cynefin. Created in 1999 by Dave Snowden when he was still working in IBM Global Services, this framework was something I was exposed to during a training on High Performance Strategies as one of the leading frameworks used, especially during this day and age - with the existing Covid-19 Pandemic leading the charge in Case Studies.

In essence, Cynefin offers five decision-making domains, and I’ll briefly describe it in the following paragraphs.


Obvious/Clear/Simple - Starting from this quadrant, it is really the known-knowns. It’s having to make a decision that already has a slew of best practices (google-ing an answer would lead you to making a great decision.)

Complicated - This lies in the realm of the Known-Unknowns. Which is also within the domain of ”consultants” or “Specialists” with the decisions having a range and would requires refined judgement.

Complex - This lies in the realm of unknown-unknowns. A lot of responses to this situation is retrospective with potentially no right answers in that moment-in-time, although cause and effect can be determined as the situation unfolds. These lie in the space of predictive outcomes, and with very little or no certainty. The approach to this is experimentation and keeping to agile principles.

Chaotic - This is the situation where cause and effect are decoupled. It is in the best interest to act first - to do what we term as “Gut” decisions. This is an area where high level of risk and decision making must happen.

Disorder/Confusion - Finally, this space is where there is no clarity of which domain applies, and possibly due to multiple things happening at the same time. It is in this space where a breakdown of the parts is critical, and then assigning them to the Cynefin buckets.

It’s indeed been a critical framework where even Singapore had used this in its Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Program.

To find out more, do have a read of the Harvard Business Review Article here.

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