Complexity Theory, Cynefin Framework, Decision Making

“Using the Cynefin framework can help executives sense which context they are in so that they can not only make better decisions but also avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes.”

-David Snowden in HBR

Dave Snowden is an expert in area of knowledge management. One of his biggest contributions has been application of complexity theory to management. Snowden explained this with help of model called as Cynefin.

Rapid changes in business environment makes it difficult to predict future i.e. future is no longer linear- you cannot foresee future steps. To explain this non-linear change, experts have come up with Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory.

The Chaos Theory explores effects of small occurrences in dramatically affecting the outcomes of seemingly unrelated events.

Complexity Theory is based on assumption that whole is greater than sum of its parts. Any system has large number of elements that are interacting with each other ex. various departments of organisation. These interactions can produce impact which is sometimes disproportionately bigger than sum of individual efforts.

In both chaos theory and complexity theory your past experience may not be of any use i.e. hindsight does not lead to foresight.

“In the complex environment of the current business world, leaders often will be called upon to act against their instincts. They will need to know when to share power and when to wield it alone, when to look to the wisdom of the group and when to take their own counsel.”

-David Snowden in HBR

Snowden used these theories to design a model of change and decision making called Cynefin Framework. The model has 5 domains and your problem lies in one of the domains, the domain tells you what decision to take. The five domains are obvious/simple, complicated, complex and chaotic and disorder.


In simple (later renamed obvious) domain, your options are clear and cause and effect relationships are apparent to everyone involved ex. problems faced by call centre executives, there are well defined processes to handle them, and you can come up with best practices to handle such situations. It is also called domain of best practices.

'Don't spend money I don't  have, eh!  Always, a simple solution to a complex problem!'

In complicated domain a problem is complicated and may have several solutions. Due to complication you may not be able to decide which solution to apply. In other words there is clear relationship between cause and effect but solution is not visible to everyone. So you need expert to solve your problems. Since there is dependence on experts it is called domain of experts.


In case of complex domain it is very difficult to identify one correct solution or find cause and effect relationship. Today many organisations are facing problems that fall in this category. In such situations instead of coming with plan of action, it is better to be patient, look for patterns and wait for a solution to emerge. In such situations the leader instead of giving solution should gather diverse group of people and encourage them discuss possibilities and come up with innovative solution. This is also called domain of emergence.


In case of chaotic solution, there is no relationship between cause and effect, so first step is to establish order. Since crisis or emergency situations fall in this domain what is required it to act decisively. Since this domain requires quick action and decisiveness, it is called domain of rapid response.


Last domain is domain of disorder, here you are not clear on which of the above four domains you fall in. So primary goal here is to gather more information and move to any one of the four domains and take appropriate action.


“During the Palatine murders of 1993, Deputy Chief Gasior faced four contexts at once. He had to take immediate action via the media to stem the tide of initial panic by keeping the community informed (chaotic); he had to help keep the department running routinely and according to established procedure (simple); he had to call in experts (complicated); and he had to continue to calm the community in the days and weeks following the crime (complex).”

-David Snowden in HBR



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