Cynefin Framework

Youtube has a good video by Dave Snowdon on his/Cognitive Edge’s ‘Cynefin sense-making Framework’ for complexity and chaos. I speculate on its applicability outside routine management.



Image via Wikipedia

The Cynefin framework is very much from a human factors / organisational / management point of view, but may have wider potential applicability. It makes reference to evolutionary theories, but these seem not to be essential.


The framework has four main components:

  • simple: sense, categorise, respond
  • complicated: sense, analyse, respond
  • complex: probe, sense, respond
  • chaos: act, sense, respond

plus: disorder: not knowing where one is, and not knowing what to do.


Problems can transit incrementally between simple and complicated, simple and complex or complex and chaotic. But if one treats problems as if they were simple there is a risk of them becoming chaotic, in which case one can not get them back to simple directly, but has to go via complex etc. It is best not to treat things as simple except where doing so would yield a great enough advantage to outweigh the risks. (Even here one should watch out.)

One escapes disorder by applying the framework and associated techniques. (One might modify the framework so that one transits out of order into disorder and can then go into chaos, but apparently managers can only cope with four components. 😉 )

Handling complexity

A complex situation is described as stable. One identifies ‘safe to fail’ probes, i.e. ones whose effects one could recover from, bringing the situation back to the stability. In particular, one needs to be able to tell when the outcome of a probe is not safe, and have to hand sufficient remediation resources and also to be able to tell when the outcome is positive, and to have available amplifying resources. One then tries out such probes until what happens is acceptable and then seeks to amplify the effect (e.g., by pushing harder). Thus one has a form of ‘trial and error’, eventually leading to success by persistence.

Sense making

The video starts with an important preamble: although the framework is typically presented as a categorisation it should really be used for sense-making. That is, one needs to decide for the case at hand what are the appropriate definitions of the components. My interpretation that ‘complicated’ is what an organisation can already analyse, ‘complex’ is what they – after some enlightening – may be able to get to handle, while ‘chaos’ is still too hard to handle. Thus one would naturally expect the definitions to vary.


No palette of options, from which a definition of ‘complex’ could be developed, is provided. It is quite a ‘thin’ framework. 

If one had a given problem, one can see how (using the Cognitive Edge techniques or otherwise) one might usefully characterise complexity as more than run-of-the-mill complicatedness but still handle-able (as above), and identify the main features. This might be appropriate within a typical commercial organisation. But outside such conservative settings one has some potential issues:

  • It might not be possible to resolve a problem without going to the edge of chaos, and solutions might involve ‘leaps of faith’ through some chaos.
  • The current situation might not be stable, so there is nothing to return to with ‘safe to fail’.
  • Stability might not be desirable: one might want to survive in a hostile situation, which might depend on agility.
  • The situation might be complex or complicated (or complex in different ways)  depending on where you think the problem lies, or on what your strategy might be.



We wish economies to be ‘managed’ in the sense that we might intervene to promote growth while minimising risk. The Cynefin framework might be applied as follows:

  • Many commentators and even some economists and responsible officials seem to view the problem as simple. E.g., sense  the debt, categorise it as ‘too much’, respond according to dogma.
  • Other commentators, and many who make many from financial markets, seem to see them as complicated: sense lots of data in various graphs, analyse and respond. Each situation has some novelty, but can be fitted into their overall approach.
  • Many commentators, some economists and many politicians seemed entranced by ‘the great moderation’ which seemed to guarantee a permanent stability, so that the economy was not chaos but was ‘at worst’ complex. Many of those involved seemed to appreciate the theoretical need for probe-sense-respond but it became difficult (at least in the UK) to justify action (probes) for which one could not make a ‘business case’ because there may be no benefit other than the lessons identified and the reduction of options. Hence there was an inability to treat things as complex, leading to chaos
  • Chaos (innovation) had been encouraged at the micro level in the belief that it could not destabilise the macro. But over 2007/8 it played a role in bringing down the economy. This led to activity that could be categorised as act (as a Keynesian), sense (what the market makers think), respond (with austerity).

Here one may note

  • That different parts and levels of the economy could be in different parts of the framework, and to consider influences between them. 
  • The austerity option is simple, so chaos was reduced to simple directly, whereas a more Keynesian response would have ben complex.
  • Whilst the austerity option is economically simple, it may lead to complex or chaotic situations elsewhere,  e.g. the social.

Crisis Management

Typically, potential crises are dealt with in the first place by  appropriate departments, who are typically capable of handling simple and complicated situations, so that a full-brown crisis is typically complex or chaotic. If a situation is stable then one might think that the time pressure would be reduced, and so the situation would be less of a crisis. One can distinguish between timer-scales:

  • a situation is stable in the short term, but may suddenly ‘blow up’
  • a situation is stable in the long term

and two notions of stability:

  • all indicators are varying around a constant mean
  • some aspects may be varying around a mean that is changing steadily but possibly rapidly (e.g. linear or exponential) , but ‘the essential regulatory system’ is stable.

Thus one might regard a racing car as stable ‘in itself’ even as it races and even if it might crash. Similarly, a nuclear reactor that is in melt-down is stable in some sense: the nature of the crisis is stable, even if contamination is spreading.

With these interpretations, many crises are complex or disordered. If the situation is chaotic one might need some decisive action to stabilise it. If it is disordered then as a rule of thumb one might treat it as chaotic: the distinction seems slight, since there will be no time for navel-gazing.

In many crises there will be specialists who, by habit or otherwise, will want to treat the problem as merely complicated, applying their nostrums. Such actions need to be guarded and treated as probes, in the way a parent might watch over an over-confident child, unaware of the wider risks. Thus what appears to be sense-analyse-respond may be guarded to become probe-sense-respond.

In some cases a domain expert may operate effectively in a complex situation and might reasonably be given license to do so, but as the situation develops one needs to be clear where responsibility for the beyond complicated aspects lie. A common framework, such as Cynefin, would seem essential here.

In other cases a ‘heroic leader’ may be acting to bring order to chaos, but others may be quietly taking precautions in case it doesn’t come of, so that the distinction between ‘act-sense-respond’ and ‘probe-sense-respond’ may be subjective.


I may turn these notes into a graphic.

It seems to me that, with experience, one will often be able to judge that a situation is going to be simple, complicated or worse, but not whether it is going to be complex or chaotic.  Moreover, the interaction can be much more interactive. Thus in complex we may have a series of probes, {probe} leading to sense being made and action that improves the situation but which typically leads to a less problematic complex, complicated or simple problem.  Thus the complex part is {probe}-sense-respond, followed by others, to give {{probe}-sense-respond} [{complicated/simple}], with – in practice – some mis-steps leading to the problem actually getting worse, hence {{{probe}-sense-respond} [{complicated/simple}]}. The complicated is then  {sense-analyse-respond}[{simple}] and simple is typically {sense-categorise-respond}: even simple is not often a one-shot activity.

With the above understanding, we can represent chaotic as a failure of the above. We start by probing and trying to make sense, but failing we have to take a ‘shaping’ action. If this succeeds, we have a complex situation at worst. If not, we have to try again. Thus we gave:

while complex fails: shape

Here I take the view that once we have found the situation to be beyond our sense-making resources we should treat it as if it is complex. If it turns out to be merely complicated or simple, so much the better: our ‘response’ is not an action in the ‘real’ world but simple a recognition of the type of situation and a selection of the appropriate methods.

My next quibble is on the probing. This implies taking an action which is ‘safe-to-fail’. But, particularly after taking a shaping action one may need to bundle the probe with some constraining activity, which prevents the disturbance from the probe from spreading. Also, part of the shaping may be to decouple parts of the system being studied so that probes become safe-to-fail.

Overall, I think a useful distinction is between situations where one can probe-sense-respond and those that call for  interventions (‘shape’) that create the conditions for probing, analysing or categorising. Perhaps the distinction is between activities normally conducted by managers (complex at worst) and those that are normally conducted by CEOs, leaders etc and hence outside the management box. Thus the management response to chaos might call for an act ‘from above’.


Cynefin provides a sense-making framework, but if one is in a complex situation one may need a more specific framework, e.g. for complexity or for chaos/complexity. Outside routine management situations the chaos / complexity distinction may need to be reviewed. The distinction between probe-send-respond and act-sense-respond seems hard to make in advance.

Dave Marsay

See also

Induction and epochs



About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

4 Responses to Cynefin Framework

  1. Pingback: Out of Control | djmarsay

  2. Pingback: Induction and epochs | djmarsay

  3. Pingback: Uncertainty and risk ‘Heat Maps’ | djmarsay

  4. Pingback: Complexity Demystified: A guide for practitioners | djmarsay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: