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Cynefin 101

Cynefin is a sensemaking framework that helps teams conceptualize different types of problems and agree on how best to move forward. Cynefin posits five different problem domains, as visualized in the graphic. Since the latest revision of the framework, all five domains start with the letter “C.” Ordered Domains The two on the right (Clear […]

By Jaap Dekkinga Trent Hone

April 29, 2021

Cynefin is a sensemaking framework that helps teams conceptualize different types of problems and agree on how best to move forward. Cynefin posits five different problem domains, as visualized in the graphic. Since the latest revision of the framework, all five domains start with the letter “C.”

Ordered Domains

The two on the right (Clear and Complicated) are “ordered,” which means that the relationship between cause and effect is knowable and that outcomes are predictable.

Clear

Clear is the realm of best practice. Here, we can apply well-defined and “clear” solution approaches. We “sense, categorize, and respond.” Solving a jigsaw puzzle is a good example of this kind of challenge. For Clear problems, we follow standardized protocols and can use them to produce predictable results every time.

Complicated

Complicated is the domain of expertise. We can solve complicated problems by applying the right knowledge. A good example is a mechanic diagnosing and then fixing a “check engine” light in your car. For problems like these, seek out the right type of expert and allow them to use their training to “sense, analyze, and respond.”

Unordered Domains

The two domains on the left are “unordered.” That makes it much more difficult to understand the relationship between cause and effect. Sometimes, the level of interaction is too great for us to determine cause and effect accurately and we have to shift the problem to a new domain through our actions in order to make progress.

Complex

The Complex domain is where emergent self-organization occurs. No two situations are quite the same, experts will disagree, and parallel experimentation is necessary to learn more, so we “probe, sense, and respond.” Understanding the interaction of organisms in a rain forest ecosystem is a complex problem, which is why their study never ends.

Chaotic

Chaotic problems are emergency situations, like a fire or a disease pandemic. In those circumstances, it is important to act quickly and stabilize the system. Once the system is more stable, we can take stock and determine what to do next. We “act, sense, and respond.” Our action will usually create a more coherent situation with greater stability. We can then go through the act of sensemaking once more to determine how best to engage. It is likely the problem will have shifted to a new domain (often Complex).

Confusion

The fifth domain is in the middle of the diagram. It is called Confusion and divided into two sections, “aporetic” and “confused.” Aporetic is an unresolved tension, uncertainty about which problem domain best applies. Sometimes, it is necessary to pass through this state to stimulate creative tension. Confused is more like a cognitive trap; when teams cannot get past their biases and past histories, they can find themselves in Confused.

Dynamics

Cynefin is a dynamic model. Problems move through the domains as our understanding changes. Development teams regularly cycle back and forth between Complex and Complicated as they probe design patterns and solution approaches, learn which ones best fit, and then execute on what they’ve learned. Sometimes a shallow dive into Chaos is useful for breaking old habits and looking at problems in new ways. Overly rigid constraints that make a problem seem Clear can fail catastrophically, pushing a system into chaos. Cynefin represents this danger with the tail at the bottom of the line separating Clear from Chaotic. It is a cliff, and overly complacent systems will fall over it and collapse into chaos.

Cynefin acknowledges these dynamics with liminal zones, represented in green on the diagram. The one between Chaotic and Complex is closed because it is temporary and requires energy to maintain. Systems naturally move from Chaotic to Complex unless constraints are held off. The liminal zone between Complex and Complicated is open because it is easier to move back and forth through it. Note that the liminal areas extend into Confused and encompass the aporetic section, identifying it as a transitional state.

Keep in mind that, with Cynefin, no domain is right or wrong. Each is a different model for how to view and approach problems. Some problems will fit into several different domains, depending on how we look at them. What matters is using the model to agree on how to move forward together.

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