Home » People & Culture » Cynefin, a Sense-Making Framework

Cynefin, a Sense-Making Framework

The world is changing constantly. This causes tremendous anxiety everywhere, and for good reasons. Many of the systems we depend on to dispense wealth, understanding, and happiness appear to be broken. People everywhere have to adapt to a new level of complexity brought about by dealing with other people and cultures who do not respond according to assumed values and behaviors.

One solution is to run shrieking to the hills, away from this world and into a land where the old assumptions and known practices still work. Another is to deal with the situation, one way or another, and master at least some sense of order in your own life.

But how? Here is one tool for analyzing new situations which steps out of the assumptions and best practices and beyond the many solutions in search of problems.

The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework was developed in 1999 by Dave Snowden. It is a Welsh word, pronounced ke-NAV-in, means “habitat.” It’s about describing the world we live in as a series of different influences and experiences which we move fluidly through.

He describes it as a “sense making model” and not a categorizations model. The purpose is to align our ability to make sense of things with the situation at hand. The data, or reality, precedes the categorization.

It’s best to let Dave himself explain what this means, as he does in this wort video.

The Cynefin Framework can be simplified into two halves, the right one being a known or easily understood course of action and the left being unknown or unknowable. These can be further broken into two parts, with known situations being either simple or complicated, and unknown ones either being complex or chaotic. Each type of situation requires different approaches.

In the center, there is disorder or a lack of knowledge as to where we are. This is an important part of the model, as it asks the user to first take stock of what they can see before deciding how to proceed. This avoids the use of assumptions which are not true and asks that everyone first look at the situation with clear focus.

Military training is very good for improving leadership through strategy development and effectiveness through tactical understanding.

I like to think of proceeding from here through a tactical plan, the OODA loop. This is a practice deeply embedded in military training which stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (repeat).” In practice, it’s about entering a battlefield and taking command of the situation. In essence, it’s an application of the scientific method to learn about reality through repeated observation of both surroundings and consequences of action.

As an observation centered course of action, OODA applies well to Cynefin. What is the situation? What can we determine about it? What is the best course of action? Once that action is taken, how has the situation changed? This can be repeated continuously. In The Cynefin framework, this breaks down into four basic frames.

Known – Obvious A world which is well understood and direct action can be described by best practices. If these are in place they can be applied. If not, they can be cribbed from a similar situation and possibly adapted.

Known – Complicated There may not be simple cause and effect even in a known situation, but courses of action are still quite well known. These can be described as good practices, or a series of actions which are acceptable. One example given is a car breakdown by the side of the road. Should you patch it together with duct tape, bypass the broken part somehow, or call a tow truck? Your answer may depend on your resources, and they all have merit. There are choices which can be made based on how this particular situation interacts with other situations.

Unknown – Complex First observation may honestly tell you that you do not understand what the best course of action might be. In this case, the Decision part of your OODA loop should focus on either an experiment or other way of gathering more data. How do things influence each other? What can we say about this world? There is some order in a complex situation, but it is limited. Relationships are not clear. It may be possible to define best practices one day, but not now. Emergent systems, so very common in a technology drive world, often fit into this category.

Unknown – Chaotic Some situations are genuinely without order. In such a situation, quick action to create some small pocket of order is necessary. Once Observation and Orientation confirm that this is the situation, the only Decision is how to Act. Such situations are rare on a daily basis, unless you live in a war zone, but they do come up from time to time. It is also worth noting that chaos is usually bounded in some way, meaning that the first step towards mastering it is to understand where it stops.

This is my understanding of the Cynefin Framework and how to make use of it. It can be a sueful approach to policy and business as well as daily life. If nothing else, as a sense-making framework it can relieve anxiety and help everyone to deal with the work which is increasingly emergent and thus complex.

3 thoughts on “Cynefin, a Sense-Making Framework

  1. Pingback: Getting Past Anxiety | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

  2. Pingback: Trade Deficits Tell Us Something | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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