What Is the Cynefin Framework and Why Should You Care?

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Ironically, decision makers often struggle to decide if they have chosen the right course of action for their businesses, or whether a decision that’s already been made could have used a more effective alternative.

But what if a predefined algorithm existed that would not only enable companies to decompose each problem but understand all the available options? As it turns out, there actually is!

Whether working in healthcare, catering, finance or even web development, the Cynefin framework is an extremely effective decision making tool that allows us to classify problems into one of five individual categories and readily provides solutions for every one of the five problem types.

How does the Cynefin framework work?

Cyne… come again? Yes, trust the Welsh to come up with a nigh-unpronounceable word (it’s ku-ni-vin, by the way).

Created in 1999 by Welsh management consultant and researcher David Snowden, in essence, as briefly summarised above, Cynefin is a problem-solving framework that allows us to divide all issues into one of five decision contexts or categories — a realm of obvious or simple classification (called “obvious” or “simple,” for obvious reasons), a region of structured or complicated classification (“complicated”), a “complex” domain, a “chaotic” domain, and the largely unclassifiable “disorder.” This helps managers not only to identify how they perceive various situations, but also to make sense of their own and other people’s individual behaviour. The five Cynefin categories are extensively outlined below:

1. Obvious

The obvious domain is characterised by a very clear cause-and-effect relationship that makes problem solving extremely simple. For this reason, it is easy to deal with these issues by following common-sense established best practices.  A good example of an obvious problem would be realising that you have to go food shopping. According to the Cynefin framework, this should be done by first sensing (assessing the situation), then categorising (the problem type) and eventually responding (by following the appropriate best practice).

In practical terms, therefore, first, you would have to figure out exactly what you are lacking  — water, beans, yoghurt, etc. — then decide how urgent each and every item is and where and when you should probably buy them, and finally carry out your shopping routine as normal.

2. Complicated

Complicated problems, on the other hand, could potentially have a variety of different solutions. Although there is also a discoverable relationship between cause and effect here, however, this will likely not be immediately apparent to everyone — so you may need to enlist the help of experts to be able to suss them out. In these types of situations, we are told to sense, analyse, and only then respond to the problem.

A practical example would be if you needed to buy a camera for your professional photography lessons. In this case, the most important part would be the analysis, where you would set out to discover which features are indispensable, what cameras are currently on offer and what your photography teacher recommends.

3. Complex

In complex situations, spotting cause-and-effect relationships might be a practical impossibility. Because these sorts of problems are inherently unpredictable, instead of attempting to gain control by being insistent on a plan of action, it is better to conduct experiments to see if any positive outcomes are yielded. This is why the Cynefin framework recommends a probe-sense-respond approach to these issues, where the “sense” part of the above prescription would correspond to observing successes and failures.

Imagine, for example, that you are the owner of a popular chain restaurant that is launching in a foreign market. In order to tailor your menu to the locals’ characteristic taste, you would have to resort to trial and error.

4. Chaotic

The chaotic domain, for its part, is the realm of urgency and crisis. In these critical situations, it is vital to act first in an attempt to restore some stability (act-sense-respond). If, for example, all your servers have suddenly gone offline, you may not know what has caused the problem, but what you do know is you have to reverse it immediately. If, for instance, you were stuck on a remote island that had been cut off from the mainland due to a natural disaster, the only way to get what you need would be to buy everything before the shops ran out of supplies.

5. Disorder

And finally, the last Cynefin domain is known as disorder. This applies when it appears impossible to discern which of the four above domains is dominant. In such cases, therefore, it is better to gather more intel until you are able to move into the other categories. A possible example would be a move to another city. If you had already signed a tenancy contract but had not yet seen your new house in person, because you would not know what to expect upon arrival, it would be difficult to know if anything was needed.

When should you use the Cynefin framework?

Cynefin is an extremely effective tool which can be utilised in a variety of different circumstances. Though it is famously employed in product development, marketing and organisational strategy, you can use this ingenious framework whenever searching for the appropriate response to a challenge.

Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that you find yourself in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. You customers have halted all of their purchases and you are left with nothing but a massive cash deficit whilst still somehow having to pay your employees. How exactly should you act in such a terrible scenario? Well first and foremost, with the help of the Cynefin framework, you can find out which domain the problem belongs to.

So checking each domain one by one, we know that this is certainly not an obvious situation. After all, the problem has never even been dealt with before, as this pandemic is wholly unprecedented in modern times. But is the problem complicated? Well, arguably not. While you do have a number of different options available to you, the vast majority of factors are entirely out of your control. The problem is also not of the complex variety, as you cannot predict any outcomes because you simply do not have the data for it — but what about the chaotic domain? Yes. This would actually tick all of the boxes.

Happily, because you know that chaotic problems don’t really have a “correct” solution, you can take some obvious actions like cutting expenses and maintaining your customers, but if you want to see some real improvements, you will first have to wait for the uncertainty to clear.

Conclusion

As Agile legend Kent Beck once stated, whenever you are lost, the best thing you can possibly do is go up a hill and have a look around — Cynefin is the metaphorical high ground that will allow you to do just that. This is particularly true for any business providing software development services, but it can make a lasting impact on any company.

The Cynefin framework can help you serve your customers like never before, as instead of cowering in the face of difficulties, you can easily classify problems and identify the best possible solutions.

David Blackwood, 

Tech Reporter at Software Planet Group

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