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Tip #512: Use the Cynefin Framework to Improve Decision Making

Tip #512: Use the Cynefin Framework to Improve Decision Making

On April 7, 2014, Posted by , In management and leadership, By ,, , With Comments Off on Tip #512: Use the Cynefin Framework to Improve Decision Making

“It’s easy to make good decisions when there are no bad options.”  Robert Half

[Note: The following information is drawn from these sources:  Wikipedia: Cynefin; Everyday Kanban: Understanding the Cynefin Framework; GoDaddy: On Sense-Making, and Cynefin; Harvard Business Review: A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making; and YouTube: The Cynefin Framework- as explained by Dave Snowden at]

The Cynefin framework is a guide for making decisions. It helps decision-makers realize that all situations are not created equal and that different situations require different responses to successfully navigate them. Using the Cynefin framework can help leaders sense which context they are in so that they can make better decisions and avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes

The Cynefin framework has five domains:

Simple:  In a simple situation, the optimal decision-making approach is: Sense-Categorize-Respond (using best practices)

Problems are well understood and solutions are evident. Therefore, solving problems requires minimal expertise. The correct approach is to sense the situation, categorize it into a known bucket, and apply a well-known, and potentially scripted, solution. Many issues addressed by help desks fall into this category and are handled via pre-written scripts.

According to Dave Snowden, who created the model, many leaders fall into the trap of seeing most, if not all,  situations as simple cause and effect, for which there is either one or only a few good answers. They sense the issue without analyzing it to determine if there are any root causes, categorize it immediately and respond. However, it is a problem-solving truism that the obvious problem is rarely the problem, so the obvious solution is rarely the solution.

Complicated:    In a complicated situation, the optimal decision-making approach is: Sense-Analyze-Respond (using good practices)

You have a general idea of the known unknowns — you likely know the questions you need to answer and how to obtain the answers. However, assessing the situation requires expert knowledge to assess the risks and determine the appropriate course of action from a range of possible solutions.

Complex:   In a complex situation, the optimal decision-making approach is: Probe-Sense-Respond (using emergent solutions)

There are unknown unknowns — you don’t even know the right questions to ask. Even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation. The final solution is only apparent once it has been discovered. In hindsight it may seem obvious, but it is not apparent at the outset. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it is not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem.

You need to develop and experiment to gather more knowledge, then act and evaluate. As you gather more knowledge, you are able to determine your next steps. You repeat this process as necessary, with the goal of moving your problem into the “Complicated” domain.

Chaotic:  In a chaotic situation, the optimal decision-making approach is: Act (to stabilize the situation)-Sense-Respond (using novel solutions)

There is no relationship between cause and effect at the systems level. Your initial focus is to correct the problem and contain the issue. Your initial solution may not be the best, but as long as it works, it’s good enough.  Once you have a measure of control, you can assess the situation and determine your next steps: either taking action to remediate the problem or moving your problem to another domain.

Disorder:    Disorder is the space in the middle of the other four domains.

This is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists. We are here most of the time. You need to gather more information on what you know or identify what you don’t know so that you can move to a more defined domain. In this state, people revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision.

The boundaries of these domains are not hard. Depending on the activity involved, situations can bounce between domains or live on the borderlands between two domains.

If you have used the Cynefin framework, please tell us about it.

May your learning be sweet.


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