Cynefin: a tool to help you think

I’m always excited when I come across a tool that helps me to think!

This week I came across a framework designed to help you take a situation where you are confused and identify the best course of action!

It’s got a weird name; it’s called Cynefin (named after the Welsh word for habitat), Dave Snowden developed it at IBM in 1999.

The framework categorizes situations into five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder.

In the simple domain, cause and effect are clear, and solutions are easy to find. For example, if you need to make a backup of a website, you know exactly what to do. If you can write a process or procedure, you are in the simple domain.

In the complicated domain, things get a bit more challenging. Cause and effect aren’t immediately apparent, but you can figure them out with analysis. When you are conducting discovery to understand the client’s needs and then developing a recommendation you are in the complicated domain.

The complex domain is where creative agencies often shine. This is where you’re dealing with emergent patterns and unpredictable outcomes. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle without knowing what the picture is supposed to look like. The Cynefin framework acknowledges the importance of experimentation in this domain and encourages you to try a bunch of stuff until you find what works. The way forward in the complex domain is to take small actions, make small changes, and see how the results look. Then do it again!

In the chaotic domain, everything is in complete disarray, and you need to act fast to restore order. For example, if a project is falling apart due to unforeseen circumstances, you might need to pivot quickly to salvage the situation. Here, small changes aren’t enough and the system is not predictable enough for you to make sense of it, so decisive action is required.

Finally, there’s the disorder domain, where you don’t even know what domain you’re in. This can happen when a project is so complex and unpredictable that it’s hard to know where to start. The Cynefin framework helps you recognize when you’re in this domain and encourages you to take a step back and evaluate the situation before taking action.

I love how this framework helps me to think about my thinking — if I can understand which domain I’m in then I know what kind of solution I’m looking for and how to go about working my way toward that solution.

Do you think this framework could be helpful for you? If so, hit reply and tell me how you’d apply it.

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