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Understanding the Cynefin framework – a basic intro

It was Kaizen Camp  when I first learned about the Cynefin framework. The first thing you might be wondering is how the heck you pronounce Cynefin. I know that was my first question. It is Kih-neh-vihn (/ˈkʌnɨvɪn/). The word is Welsh in origin and was coined by Dave Snowden in 1999.

What is it for?

In simplest terms, the Cynefin framework exists to help us realize that all situations are not created equal and to help us understand that different situations require different responses to successfully navigate them.

Different problems warrant different solutions

How often have you seen someone try to handle a difficult situation in an overly-simplistic way and then be really confused when it failed? If so, they could really benefit from an introduction to the Cynefin framework.

Cynefin visualized…

Dave Snowden, released under CC BY 3.0


You can see in the above diagram that there are 5 domains. What? You only see four? Don’t forget the dark mass of Disorder at the center.

The 5 domains explained

Cynefin categorizes problems into 5 domains…

bulleted descriptions below are [largely] as described in On Sense-Making, And Cynefin:

  • Obvious (formerly known as Simple) is the domain of best practices.
    • Characteristics: Problems are well understood and solutions are evident. Solving problems requires minimal expertise. Many issues addressed by help desks fall into this category. They are handled via pre-written scripts.
    • Approach: Problems here are well known. The correct approach is to sense the situation, categorize it into a known bucket, and apply a well-known, and potentially scripted, solution.
  • Complicated is the domain of good practices.
    • Characteristics: You have a general idea of the known unknowns — you likely know the questions you need to answer and how to obtain the answers. Assessing the situation requires expert knowledge to determine the appropriate course of action. Given enough time, you could reasonably identify known risk and devise a relatively accurate plan. Expertise is required, but the work is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
    • Approach: Sense the problem and analyze. Apply expert knowledge to assess the situation and determine a course of action. Execute the plan.
  • Complex is the domain of emergent solutions.
    • Characteristics: 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 discovered. In hindsight it seems obvious, but it was 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.
    • Approach: Develop and experiment to gather more knowledge. Execute and evaluate. As you gather more knowledge, determine your next steps. Repeat as necessary, with the goal of moving your problem into the “Complicated” domain.
  • Chaotic is the domain of novel solutions.
    • Characteristics: As the name implies, this is where things get a bit crazy. Things have gone off the rails and the immediate priority is containment. Example: Production defects. 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’ve stopped the bleeding, you can take a breath and determine a real solution.
    • Approach: Triage. Once you have a measure of control, assess the situation and determine next steps. Take action to remediate or move your problem to another domain.
  • Disorder is the space in the middle.
    • Characteristics: If you don’t know where you are, you’re in “Disorder.” Priority one is to move you to a known domain.
    • Approach: Gather more info on what you know or identify what you don’t know. Get enough info to move to a more defined domain.

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


So, the framework not only tells us how to approach a set of different situations, but the characteristics also explain enough to help us recognize the situation in which we currently reside. You can have great solutions, but if they are applied in the incorrect context, they will be worthless or worse, harmful.

This framework isn’t only useful for pointy-haired management people, it is useful for software developers and all other humans! This can be applied to many different vectors of life experiences. The net takeaway is that you need to pair the right approach with the corresponding situation to achieve optimal outcomes!

More reading


  1. I’d like to suggest another great article to be added to the reading listt: “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world”, published by Snowden and Kurtz in the IBM Systems Journal in 2003. The download link is: http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/kurtz.pdf. I’ve found it to be really useful in explaining the framework in depth, the dynamics, and the difference between categorization and sense-making. It’s great for those who want to understand Cynefin beyond the more basic HBR article. It does have some overlap with “The Origins of Cynefin” paper, which you already mentioned.

  2. Wow.. You have certainly made this framework very easy to understand. I like your writing style! Thank you
    Ps! I still cannot pronounce the welsh word, but getting there 🙂

  3. Thank you very much for simplifying the Cynefin Framework and for additional reading material from both contributors,this will help in my paper which includes management of complexity.

  4. Bruno Baketaric

    October 24, 2016 at 7:26 am

    The Link to the IBM Systems Journal Article is gone – and I didn’t find a (public) alternative. Here’s the DOI at least:

  5. Hi Julia,

    Great article.
    I was wondering how this framework is used or useful in UX Design and if you had an example you could share please.
    Thank you

  6. Joseph Callender

    May 7, 2018 at 8:30 am

    Could it be possible that you think and work as though the work is Obvious but in reality it is Complex / Chaotic?

    I work in pharma. For just about every potential new drug, orgs default to thinking the waterfall-oriented development is the obvious choice. The trial is put together based on internal expertise and external KOL advice and not launched until every feature has been determined and developed based on history and experience that precedes the launch of the trial.

    Obviously the work is complex. Upon launch of the trial the work often becomes chaotic, resulting in the trial being frequently amended on the fly.

    To note, for every ten potential new medicines, only one ever makes it to the market.

    Can teams and orgs think they are operating within one domain while the work actually exists under a different domain? If so, how should such an issue be approached? Would a cynefin framework help in any way?

    • Thank you for reading my blog! I am glad you found this post interesting. I wanted to take a minute to reply to your questions.

      Absolutely – people often act in ways that aren’t suited to the situation they find themselves in. In fact, I think that’s why this is helpful. This framework is a sense making framework to help you look at your situation and get a bit of guidance about how to act appropriately – situational awareness.

      Usually we treat things as they are simple when they are not and we wonder why it goes badly. Occasionally we make things overcomplicated when a simpler solution will do. Just making people aware of this concept can turn on “light bulbs” in their brains and they can see where they’ve gone off the rails and need a little bit of course correction.

      My go-to location for more information about Cynefin is: http://cognitive-edge.com/

      Here is a paper by Annabelle Mark about the application of cynefin to innovation in healthcare, challenging some of the assumptions of that field (full disclosure, I haven’t read this)

      Thanks for reading!

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