Know where you are!

Life is full of challenging situations and difficult problems you need to overcome, full of decisions you have to make. Whether you are a surgeon in the middle of a transplantation, a diplomat negotiating of a political agreement, a local shop-owner on Main Street competing with global stores right next door, or an environmentalist promoting a healthier consumer life-style: you constantly consider options, evaluate trade-offs, make choices. And your understanding of the circumstances is of paramount importance to make such decisions well. You need to know where you are in order to prepare your next steps.

Easily said, but: Could anybody help you chart a path? Would anybody have a map? I think the Welsh business consultant Dave Snowden developed exactly such a map. His Cynefin framework can give you this all-important sense of where you are and what you could do. That I’d like to introduce you to today (and feel free to watch and listen to Snowden’s own explanation). Let’s start with the following sketch adapted from Snowden’s original depiction.

Cynefin - Basics

At first glance, this chart seems like a quad-chart, but make no mistake. What you see are actually five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. Each of the first four domains requires a different approach to successfully address the situation or solve the problem. But there’s no single approach that would be successful in all domains. Consequently, if you don’t know where you are, or misjudge the domain you are in, you will likely take the wrong course and sink into disorder, the fifth domain that’s looming at the centre of the chart. The boundaries between the domains are rather gradual transitions, not sharply defined. Therefore, this model doesn’t support a simplistic black-and-white categorisation.  Rather, the Cynefin framework serves as a sense-making model, helping you see what type of situation you are in and identify a reasonable course of action.

In the simple domain, the inputs and outputs, the causes and effects are well-known. Everything is rather obvious. You have a clear model of the situation and just need to find out in which specific box your concrete problem fits. Once you identified the problem, you can look up the well-established solution. This is the world of standard operating procedures and best practice. You can follow a basic three-step approach of (1) sense – take the data and information the situation provides; (2) categorise – identify the problem and the standard solution for it; and (3) respond – implement the standard solution.

The complicated domain follows rules that are similar to those in the simple domain. But the moving bits and pieces are more numerous, and so are more interactions between them. While this situation is not directly obvious, you still have a clear model. It just takes some effort to analyse the situation and then identify an appropriate solution from known good practice. Your approach then is (1) sense – take in what the situation tells you; (2) analyse – evaluate the data against your model, consult with experts if necessary, and identify a reasonable course of action; and (3) respond – implement that plan.

For the complex domain you have no pre-existing model to compare reality with. In stark contrast to the complicated domain, you don’t know upfront how things work there or which rules apply. Instead, you’ll observe a myriad of interrelated components, whose behaviours can be explained only in hindsight, but cannot predicted a priori. Therefore, you need to poke the situation and see its reaction to gather data that help you devise your approach. You’ll develop your understanding and mental model on the fly, creating your path one step at a time. In this is the domain of emergent practice your approach becomes (1) probe – experiment with the situation, refine and repeat as necessary ; (2) sense – evaluate the information obtained from experiments and chart of path forward ; and (3) respond – take action to move your problem over to the complicated domain.

In the chaotic domain, there’s no model to describe the situation, there’s not even time to think. Hesitation will be painful, and stand-still could be fatal. In such a situation, you must act immediately to get out of the danger zone. This is novel territory, as yet uncharted, and any previous experience is at best only partially useful.  To approach such a situation, you must (1) act – trust your instincts and move away from the trouble ; (2) sense – once you are safe, assess the situation and see what you can do; and (3) respond – move your problem to the complex domain.

And finally, when you are in disorder, there’s only one thing you must do: reassess the situation to identify where you really are, and then deal with that reality accordingly.

The Cynefin framework gives you a good idea of the very different types of problems that might challenge you. And the preferences in decision-making and problem-solving are equally diverse; just think about organisational cultures, about leadership styles, about personal comfort zones. The art is in matching your approach to every problem anew. Your past successes do not make you immune to future failures, as no preferred singular approach is going to be effective under any possible circumstance. Each is advantageous only in some domains but potentially disastrous in others; e.g., the entrepreneurial mind is appropriate in the complex domain, while the efficiency mindset is well suited for the simple domain.

It all comes down to carefully adjusting your approach to the characteristic nature of the specific problem your are faced with. Problems know no mercy, have no sense of courtesy. They won’t meet you half-way to compromise. You can only take them as they are and deal with them according to their individual, specific term and conditions. Your adaptability is key.

I’ll dive into further details in the upcoming post.



  1. Thank you for the post. Knowing where we are or where we stand is the key to successful entrepreneurial decision-making. During the solving process, a simple problem could also be transformed into one of the other domains. I agree that it could easily fall off the cliff of simple into the chaotic domain. Continuous situation awareness is crucial. Having enough data and information is not enough for someone to realize the domain of his/her problem. An interpreter is required to translate this data into relevant information. Sophisticated analysis (or categorization) of case problem becomes overtaken by events, as correlation is usually not causation. Totally agree with the different adopted mindset depending on the domain. I would also add the relevance factor and the answer to the “so what?” Question while searching to know where we are during disorder.

    • Thanks a always for sharing your thoughts. It’s really the continuous situational awareness that matters most, the self-questionining: Do I judge this right? And that’s the essence of an adaptive leadership style. For successful leadership does not confirm that ‘I have the right approach to solve problems’. Leadership success only confirms that ‘for the last problem I used a suitable approach’. Matching the approach to the problem is the essential piece her.
      What is a challenge to individuals is even more difficult for big organisations such as corporations. They are usually geared to the complicated domain, and trying to move every problem to the simple domain (to make their bottom line through efficiencies of scale). If they are faced with a new situation that is decidedly complex (e.g., new technology that pervades their industry sector), it’s actually highly likely that an entrepreneurial competitor could push the former top dog into chaos. And into chaos if the corporation was to insist that the blueprints of past successes offer salvation in the future.
      I like your hint at correlation versus causation. That’ll be an interesting challenge in the near-term, as we rely more on more on big data analysis, which can give us lots of correlations, but is unable to do the reasoning that could identify genuine causation. Judea Pearl’s ‘The Book of Why’ goes in that direction, I hope to read that sometime very soon.

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