Knowledge management: making sense of the world around us – the Cynefin framework quick start guide

First things first: the pronunciation and the meaning. Cynefin, pronounced kuh-nev-in /ˈkʌnvɪn/, is a Welsh word, which as a noun literally means “haunt, usual abode” or “habitat”, but it actually means “place of your multiple belongings”, that can be cultural, geographical, religious, tribal etc.. The concept “Cynefin framework” is used by the Welsh scholar Dave Snowden to describe a perspective on the evolutionary nature of complex systems, including their inherent uncertainty. This is how he describes it:

“Cynefin is a Welsh word with no direct equivalent in English. As a noun it is translated as habitat, as an adjective familiar, but dictionary definitions fail to do it justice. A better, and more poetic, definition comes from the introduction to a collection of paintings by Kyffin Williams, an artist whose use of oils creates a new awareness of the mountains of his native land and their relationship to the spirituality of its people: “It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatized.” (Sinclair 1998).”

Inside The Cynefin Framework

The universal problem solving formula does not exist – our decisions most of the times depend on the context, and the more we understand the changing environment the better choices we are able to make. This is the key to the solution: understanding the problem itself. The Cynefin framework can give us a hand to understand that different situations require different responses in order to successfully arrive to the solution.

Cynefin framework identifies five domains: obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic, differentiated by the relationship between cause and effect, and the fifth – disorder – the space of not knowing in domain you’re in, and the space in which we are most of the time.


In the insight “Cynefin: A Suggestive Framework For Problem Solving“, Mike Bovich explains very effectively the framework’s purpose and functioning, and we bring it entirely below.

The 5 domains of Cynefin Framework explained

Also referred to as “Simple” in the older versions of the framework, is the domain of best practices.

Characteristics: Problems are well understood and solutions are evident to anyone with a reasonable amount of common sense. One example is server patching – this is a well-documented procedure that can be scripted and regulated. Minimal expertise is required.

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, potentially templated, solution.


Complicated is the domain of good practices.

Characteristics: It’s categorized by a list of known unknowns – in other words, you likely know the questions you need to answer and how to obtain the answers. Expert knowledge is required to assess the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. You could reasonably spend enough time in analysis to identify known risk and devise a relatively accurate plan.

For example, the development of a new CMS system would be a complicated problem. Competitors exist, the market is well understood and there is significant precedent. 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: It is categorized by unknown unknowns – you don’t even know the right questions to ask. Experimentation is required to even understand the problem, let alone begin to solve it. The final solution is only apparent once discovered. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it’s not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem.

For instance, the emergence of Twitter® was a complex situation in 2007. When developed, Twitter defined a new market. And it wasn’t possible to predict what features would stick and which would miss the mark. Expertise was needed, but it required experimentation to discover the nature of the product.

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. The immediate priority is containment. Production defects could be an example of a chaotic situation. Your initial focus is to correct the problem and contain the issue. Your initial solution might 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 and stop the bleeding. When you’ve gotten 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, then you are in disorder. Priority One is to move to a known domain in one of the four corners.

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.

It’s worth noting that Cynefin emphasizes the cliff between Obvious and Chaotic. There is an ever-present danger that even well-controlled systems might slip into chaos due to apathy, negligence, or any number of other reasons. It’s important to remain vigilant to keep things in control.

Can Cynefin Framework Help Me?

Of course! It can help you make the first, and probably the most important step: orientate yourself and understand where you are, so that you can grasp the context and find the appropriate solution.

In his article, Bovich gives us 2 interesting examples: “the Lean Startup is tailored to problems in the complex domain. You have many unknown unknowns and need to iterate through a series of experiments just to define the problem space. In contrast, Web hosting, for example, is more of a complicated problem. While we are solving new problems, they are often extensions of existing problems and are revolutionary vs. evolutionary. Remember that step one is to figure out where you are today. Cynefin can help you do that.”

You are now ready to begin your own exploration. Be sure to check out this video where Dave Snowden introduces the Cynefin Framework with a brief explanation of its origin and evolution and a detailed discussion of its architecture and function.


Cynefin Framework

Cynefin: A Suggestive Framework For Problem Solving” by Mike Bovich 

Understanding the Cynefin framework – a basic intro by Julia Wester