Problem Solving and Decision Making: Introducing the Cynefin Framework

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for many business leaders that they may not have seen before. In addition to having to adapt to new government regulations about how their companies can operate, they may be working with a remote workforce for the first time. Furthermore, there is a good chance that leaders are (or will be) working with team members who are afraid to come back to work or with clients who feel that re-openings are happening too fast – or too slow.

So how can leaders navigate these challenging times? Introducing the Cynefin Framework. The Cynefin Framework is a decision-making or sense-making model developed by Dr. David Snowden in 1992. The word Cyefin (pronounced ku-nev-in) is a Welsh word which means multiple places of belonging. The framework is divided into four quadrants. Leaders must take the data at hand to determine in which quadrant a particular situation or problem falls, and once they know that they will have a better idea of how to respond.

The four quadrants are as follows: Simple Context, Complicated Context, Complex Context, and Chaotic Context.

Within the simple context, there are very clear solutions to problems and best practices. This quadrant is best reserved for straightforward tasks that do not have unknown influences on them such as accounting practices or the assembly of a particular product. When you are operating in the simple context, it is like baking a cake – you just follow the recipe!


Self Reflection Questions: Is there a “best practice” for this task or problem?

Who can I delegate to manage this task so that I may focus on other quadrants?

Am I overlooking anything that might drive us into the Chaotic Context?

Within the complicated context, there are often many ways to get a desired result and many right answers. In the complicated context, leaders must usually rely on the knowledge of the experts on their team. You are not looking for a “best practice” but a “good practice”. If the task at hand is to plan a wedding, there may be different opinions on the number of guests, the type of meal, and what band to hire, but ultimately everyone’s goal is to plan a great day.


The goal in the Complicated Context is to find “good practice” and not “best practice”.


Self Reflection Questions: How can I help my experts (who have different opinions about the final product/result) see that we all have the same goal? Am I (or are my experts) fixated on only one solution?

In the complex context there are even more variables and some of the variables you can’t predict. Take wine making for example. The winemaker can control what grape variety he chooses and the type of barrels he puts the juice in, but there are other factors at play such as weather, soil, and even a type of airborne fungus that is so prized among winemakers that they call it the Noble Rot. In the complex context, leaders must often use safe to fail experiments to help them find a way through a problem.


In the Complex Context, leaders must often make decisions based on safe-to-fail experiments.


Self Reflection Questions: What are the unpredictable variables in this situation? What is one safe to fail experiment we can do right now to help find a solution?

Finally, in the chaotic context, there is no obvious relationship between cause and effect. Leaders must simply act in an effort to staunch the bleeding. Consider it like a self-defense scenario. You don’t have time to weigh your options, you need to do something to protect your organization. This is a great time for innovation.


Leaders in the Chaotic Context must be swift and decisive.


Self Reflection Questions: No time to self-reflect – just do something!

At Refinery Leadership, the Cynefin Framework is just one of the tools we use to help leaders develop their skills.  To learn more about how we can help your organization, contact us today.