The Cynefin Framework

May 30, 2018

By: Gary Cohen

If you consider that when I was in college in the early 1980s, the world population was 3 Billion people. Today the world population is 7 Billion. While death by disease, war, and famine are down significantly the complexity has more than doubled. Take a look at just one institution like the Department of Education. When forming there were only 4 million students in the system today there are 52 million. The organizational models that were established back at its inception have no bearing on what is needed today. And yet what hampers the change is that adults that were served by the system in the context they lived believe that returning to such a system can still work. That is a bit like showing up to a gunfight with a knife.


The Cynefin Framework is very helpful for helping leaders adapt to this new environment.

As leaders, the form of leading in today’s complex world demands a great deal more complex thought from you in which simple trade-offs will no longer suffice. The idea that a shareholder, manager, a leader can have simple, predictable results based on yesterday’s results is almost absurd and yet there is a significant number of the population that is still holding on to this conception. When the baby boomers grew up getting a college education was almost a shoe into a productive and prosperous life. Today this may not be true especially given the changing knowledge of particular industries becoming obsolete so quickly that what one learns in their first year in school may be obsolete by the time of receiving a diploma. The job that you may be interested in pursuing in high school may not be available or around by the time you graduate from college.

You wonder how do you deal with this frontier that by the time you step into it is no longer what you imagined. This environment is known as VUCA. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.  This means that leaders are no longer working in the domain of order and using the skills of the scientific method of reductionism and are now working often in the realms of the unordered in which there is irreducibility. This requires a means of evaluation with holism or a systems view. A leader who does not first evaluate in which context they are operating will likely find that they are using one form of functioning that does not effectively migrate to another type of context. David Snowden while at IBM developed a useful mental model, Cynefin, for sense-making in a complex world. The name is Cynefin which in Welsh means habitat. The thought is this gives leaders a “sense of place” to view the perspective that is being evaluated. Consider this form of place as you move through the models below.

This means that VUCA is present in the place you will likely be in in the complex or chaos which will require you to adapt and become versatile, flexible, and facile. It also suggests that you will find emergent and novel practices more effective than good or best practices.

It sustains a sense of resilience in such times you may consider the place you are and the place you are arriving in not being predictable and will resemble more about living in the unknown. Think about it like waking up every day arriving at a new place in the world you have never been to. Consider what tools you will want with you on this journey and which ones will not serve you. Having one language will be fine as long as you have access to a translator. Having learned one or two additional languages likely does not help. Knowing the territory is probably not very valuable working with others that do or having access to tools like a GPS and knowing how to drive them invaluable. The skills of asking questions, to learn how to understand that which you don’t know, and the ability to see the entire system of how things work and interact rather than focusing only on the one part or one perspective.

The following is a video explanation of the Cynefin Framework by David Snowden:

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