the cynefin framework

This is a retrospective on how my work has been influenced by the Cynefin framework, which I first came across in late 2007, many years after it had been originally published in 1999. It’s interesting to note that this was the same year as The Cluetrain Manifesto which shifted how we think about markets in light of the internet.

“Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.” —The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cynefin framework has had a similar effect as the Cluetrain Manifesto — it has helped us to see that much of our world is not a complicated piece of machinery, but rather an entanglement of complex adaptive systems. From the perspective of Cynefin, I could see that there is no single best way to address our pressing business, societal, or environmental issues, which continue to get more complex, and even chaotic.

After reading some of the background information, I concluded there is no single best way to address our pressing business, societal, or environmental issues. The majority of our challenges are not Obvious or Clear (addressed with best practice, as Frederick Winslow Taylor prescribed with his 1911 Principles of Scientific Management) nor are they merely Complicated (addressed by good practice) but more of our issues are Complex (addressed through emergent practice) and Chaotic (addressed by novel practice). In 1911 Taylor saw standardization as an improvement on existing ad hoc work methods.

“It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.” —F.W. Taylor

Influenced by Cynefin, I looked for a principle that would reflect work that is more and more focused on on dealing with complex challenges. Using Taylor’s own format, I developed the principle of network management that — it is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work rests with all workers, especially management.

principle of network management

Cynefin can help us connect work and learning, especially for emergent and novel practices, for which we do not have good or best practices known in advance. When we want to create a conducive learning environment for knowledge workers, the Cynefin framework helps us to see the inherent weakness of instructional systems design (ISD) which works from the premise of predetermined learning objectives and activities, usually based on good and best practices observed in the workplace.

Instead, we need a learning design model that helps to template ‘desirable patterns’, recognize ‘undesirable patterns,’ and provide a variety of ‘seeds’ for the complexity of the working environment. Any learning intervention involving several people is arguably in a complex environment and needs to allow for emergence. One aspect of complex environments, according to the Cynefin framework, is that “Cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect and do not repeat.” That is also true for most working environments today.

When no one can understand the vagaries of a situation in a changing, complex environment then the only thing to do is try out new things based on our best judgement and then watch, learn, and keep trying new practices. There are few universal best practices or even good practices outside simple or automated processes. There are things that work for some people, some of the time. As learning professionals, our job is to understand our organization or client’s situation and look outside to see what others are doing. We have to try things out and see how they work. If we wait for the best practices, we will be too late. This is life in perpetual beta.

A new type of training department

Informed by Cynefin, I have made several recommendations for a new type of training department. One of the ways we have addressed simple and complicated problems has been through training. Training works well when we have clear and measurable objectives. However, there are no clear objectives with complex problems. Learning as we probe the problem, we gain insight and our practices are emergent (emerging from our interaction with the changing environment and the problem). Training looks backwards, at what worked in the past (good & best practices), and creates a controlled environment to develop knowledge and skills.

To deal with increasing complexity, organizations need to support emergent work practices, in addition to their training efforts. They must support collaboration, communication, synthesis, pattern recognition, and creative tension, all within a trusting environment in order to be effective. One method of supporting emergent work is the fostering of communities of practice.

Here are some specific practices for those who lead HR, learning and development, or organizational community efforts.:

  • Be an active and continuous learner and engage in activities that take you out of your comfort zone, so that you know what it’s like to be a learner.
  • Be a lurker or a passive participant in relevant work-related communities (could be the lunch room) and LISTEN to what is being said.
  • Communicate what you observe to people around you, solicit their feedback, and engage in meaningful conversations.
  • Continuously collect feedback from the workplace, not just after courses.
  • Make it easy to share information by simplifying and synthesizing issues that are important and relevant to fellow workers.

I also came across articles by Glenda Eoyan at Cognitive Edge discussing three types of accountability, depending on the stability of the environment.

  1. Stable systems > Outcome-based accountability
  2. Active, self-organizing systems > Learning-based accountability
  3. Random & chaotic systems > Sharing-based accountability

Many of our HR and work practices are still premised on the assumption of stable systems, but as events from floods and wildfires to a global pandemic have shown, this is no longer the dominant situation. Some of the project-based work I have done uses learning-based accountability, where we are all responsible to help the rest of the team learn.

For freelancers and others who live and work on the Web, this becomes a natural way to work. The same can be said for sharing-based accountability, especially among bloggers and others who share online. We have learned that the more you give, the more you get back in the form of feedback and more learning opportunities.

I have wondered out loud that if an organization is only focused on outcome-based accountability can it thrive in more active or random environments? Even in 2007 it seemed that most market and socio-economic structures were becoming more random and chaotic. This trend has continued. Reframing the concept of accountability remains an important conversation to start with HR professionals and executives.

Here are some of my conclusions about complexity, learning, and work — developed over the past decade.

  • Networks – Our workplaces, economies, and societies are becoming highly networked. That means the transmission of ideas can be instantaneous. There is no time to pause, go into the back room and develop something to address our challenges. The problem will have changed by then.
  • Life in perpetual beta – Not just rapid change, but continual change, requires practices that evolve as they are developed. In programming, this has meant a move from waterfall to agile methods. Beta releases are the norm for Web applications and as we do more on the Web, other practices are sure to follow.
  • Complexity – The Cynefin framework shows that established practices work when the environment or the challenge is simple or complicated. For complex problems there are no established answers and we need to engage the problem and learn by probing. This requires a completely different mindset from training for defined problems and measurable outcomes. The integration of learning and work is not some ideal, it is a necessity in a complex world.

Networked digital platforms give us a better way to engage in collaborative work and help us integrate learning into our daily practice. One such sensemaking framework is personal knowledge mastery — a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world and work more effectively. PKM keeps us afloat in a sea of information, guided by professional communities and buoyed by social networks.

Given our complex and chaotic challenges, the only way to operate as knowledge professionals in an organisational context is where work is learning, and learning is the work. The Cynefin framework can help us navigate how to approach the nature of our work challenges across the domains that it so neatly describes. It lets us see more clearly so that we can focus our sensemaking and knowledge-sharing as we work.

Follow up post — Cynefin & PKM

7 Responses to “the cynefin framework”

  1. David Ronfeldt

    I’ve appreciated a past post or two you did about Cinefin. As I recall, I used one on my blog years ago. As I rush by today, I have just one quick comment / question about this post: That diagram by Berg shows COMPLEX at a lower level than CHAOTIC. That strikes me as wrong, for COMPLEX is at least somewhat knowable and manageable compared to CHAOTIC. — the latter’s unknowables seem more daunting that the former’s unknowns, over time..Yes? No?

  2. David Ronfeldt

    Maybe I just don’t quite understand Cynefin, but now I’m wondering about viewing it in terms of evolutionary phases: first a system starts with a new (or old) level of COMPLEX, then for a while ot settles into a phase of CLEAR management, but next as its success breeds new problems the system becomes evermore COMPLICATED, finally resulting in CHAOS so problematic that matters can only be resolved by moving to a redesign and next level of COMPLEX. Have your or others already written about Cynefin as an evolutionary progression? That would fit my sense, say, of the TIMN progressions from T, to T+I, to T+I+M, and next to T+I+M+N if we don’t totally collapse and lose our way here in the U.S.

  3. David Ronfeldt

    Thanks for your comment and extra graphic today. Yes, Chaos may indeed “settle down” into a new kind of Complex. But it still makes sense to me that Complex settles into Clear for a while, after which Clear can’t handle growth well enough and turns into Complicated, which eventually results in Chaos. If so, graphic needs rethinking and redoing to fit with TIMN.

    I’m slow about this, but I remember that Snowden is a FB friend of mine. Maybe I should ask him too? And maybe I should do a post about it, unless I’m headed wrong?

  4. Dave Snowden

    Chaos in Cynefin is the absence of effective constraints. In a human system we really can’t cope with that so constraints occur very quickly. That means complex is a lower state than chaos and it takes energy to remove and sustain the absence of constraints

  5. Ravi Joshi

    Intuitively chaos would still be lowest order though to me.
    Understand its missing constraints but why is it between complex and clear…. still not getting that. Appreciate clarification please

  6. Harold Jarche

    Clarification is in the 19 October comment above and Dave’s comment on 20 October..


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