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Your ultimate guide to the Cynefin framework for better decision-making

Effective problem-solving and decision-making require a tailored approach that adapts to every situation. The Cynefin framework is a tool for leaders. It helps them make the best decisions in a particular situation. The framework allows categorisation of situations based on a set of criteria, and guides leaders towards the most appropriate decision. It moves away from the one-size-fits-all approach towards an adapted, tailored response. This article is the ultimate guide to the Cynefin framework. It explains what the framework is and goes deeper by looking into its five domains. We also provide some guidance on how to use the Cynefin framework so that your leaders are fully equipped for best decision-making.

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The ultimate guide to the Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is a flexible model. It doesn’t require the use of strict rules, roles or other restrictions. On the contrary, the framework is usable in various contexts and highly adaptable. This section gives a good understanding of what the model is and provides key insight on the five domains to consider using it.

The Cynefin framework explained

Cynefin is a word that comes from Wales. It means habitat. The word is pronounced as “kun-ev-in”.  This decades-old framework is a concept sometimes referred to as a “sense-making device”. Over the years, the Cynefin framework has evolved from the work of Dave Snowden at the Cynefin Centre.

The objective of the framework is to provide decision-makers with the context of the situation so that they have an accurate view of the situation and can move towards the most appropriate decision. The model categorises situations without removing their uniqueness. It helps apply the right solution to a problem while making sure the context is taken into consideration.

The framework was developed to assist leaders with the challenges they face and to make decision. It is composed of different domain which we explore in the following section.

The Cynefin framework and its five domains

With the Cynefin framework, problems are categorised in five different domains. When facing a challenge, leaders should first identify which domain it is associated with. Let’s have a look at these domains in the section below:

Obvious or simple domain

The obvious domain is the most straightforward one. In this category, there is a direct relation between cause and problem. It is obvious. The answer is easy to define and undeniable by all parties involved. It is a category considered best practice and has the following characteristics:

  • A clear relationship between cause and effect
  • A simple and single correct response
  • A fact-based approach
  • A simple problem statement with an evident solution
  • Little expertise required to solve the issue

Complicated domain

The complicated domain is a category where the issue is more challenging but there are still opportunities to find good practices. There might be multiple answers to the problem and as such a diagnosis is required to understand which answer is more suitable. The approach is somewhat quantitative. Here are the main characteristics of this domain:

  • Several possible answers are available.
  • An understanding of the situation, what is known and unknown, can be gained.
  • A fairly clear question needs to be answered.
  • The way to get the answer requires investigation.
  • The challenge is somewhat predictable.
  • The relationship between cause and effect is not straightforward and needs to be found out.

Complex domain

The complex domain is when the solution is discovered through the development of a safe situation. The solution comes to light with experimentation and investigation that allow to unearth valuable information. Typically, the type of problem is more unpredictable and only hindsight can tell if the answer is appropriate. Results of the investigation are used to define the next steps towards the solution. Here are the main characteristics of the complex domain:

  • Some elements of the situation are known, others are unknown.
  • The starting point is somewhat unknown and requires investigation.
  • Questions need to be asked as part of an investigation.
  • The solution comes to light upon investigation.
  • No routine solutions apply.
  • A certain level of communication is required between the stakeholders involved.

This complex domain applies to a situation that needs to be probed, sensed and responded to.

Chaotic domain

The chaotic domain required an immediate response. It is assimilated to a situation of crisis. A solution needs to be applied to prevent harm and to make a return to the normal environment. There is no time for investigation or any type of work that will result on identifying the cause. The issue needs to be tackled with a prompt decision. Here are the characteristics of the chaotic domain:

  • There must be immediate containment of the issue.
  • A solution can be temporary but needs to be fast.
  • The source of the issue is identified after the initial patching up of work is delivered.
  • There is no clear or straightforward answer to the challenge being faced.
  • Stakeholders look at what fixes the issue as a priority, instead of the right, long-term solution.
  • A decision needs to be made fast and there is no time to take a step back and reflect.
  • The action needs to be immediate to re-establish order.


Disorder is the space in the middle of all the domains. It is a category that applies when other sectors are unknown. Disorder is a challenging space to be in as there is no sense of the situation. People will act based on their preference and won’t place their focus on improving the situation. Approaching disorder requires a methodology that starts by breaking down the situation into smaller chunks of challenges. These smaller challenges are then applied to the other four domains to be dealt with. Here are some essential characteristics of the disorder category:

  • Any situation where the challenge doesn’t fit in another category.
  • Situation when “firefighting” mode is present.
  • Stakeholders have strong personal opinions or preferences.
  • There is no time to address to investigate the situation.

Using the Cynefin framework at work

Now that we have a clear understanding of the different domains that are part of the Cynefin framework, let’s have a look at where it can be used on a daily basis at work.

For project work

Project work often incorporates different moving parts. These may have dependencies and, as such, are more likely to bring challenges. Project managers can use the Cynefin framework to address the issues they face. For example, they can separate all the actions that need to take place into the different domains. Complex projects require an agile approach and methodology. Applying the Cynefin framework to all the moving parts will help with the decision making and will smooth the process end-to-end.

For more on how to break down a project into smaller actions check our post that explains what are work packages in project management.

During group leadership

Group leadership requires contextualisation. Compartmentalising the topics of discussion in each Cynefin domain leads to interesting results. It ensures that leaders analyse the context of each situation and consider it in their decision. For complex challenges that businesses may face, the framework provides an approach that encourages leaders to prioritise, analyse the situation and its context and make the most appropriate decision based on the level of urgency.

Related: A comprehensive list of leadership qualities: a guide

Throughout your career

Being familiar with the Cynefin framework can be useful throughout one’s career. Although there might be somewhat of a routine as part of the work, there are often unexpected events that occur. These may require decision-making and as such the application of the framework can bring value. This application demonstrates adaptability and resilience which are highly sough values in the work environment.

The Cynefin framework is a valuable tool for your leaders. It places the context at the centre of the problem resolution. The framework provides essential insight on the knowledge flow as well, thus increasing transparency and allowing to move from chaos to a controlled situation. Encourage your leaders to use this model. By doing so, you positively impact the company culture and improve decision-making. For more on decision-making check our post that explains what is a decision matrix with definitions and examples.

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