Cynefin and Management

Cynefin and Management

Having now explored the world of Medicine (esp. Emergency Medicine), let us now explore the world of management through the lens of  the Cynefin framework.

When I began studying management I started exploring for definitive texts on the subjects of Leadership, Organisational Change, Project Management, Financial Management etc. I soon discovered that there were few “definitive texts” (I thinking of Grays Anatomy in Medicine) that have stood the test of time across this field, which appears to have undergone several revisions over recent decades.

What also surprised me was that much of the management literature has yet to harness the value from complex systems science. Instead most texts still seem to explain management as a complicated business and fewer still attempt to explain any differences between complex and complicated challenges….

Here again is where I believe the Cynefin framework can help. The Cynefin framework sees the world as made up of 4 key domains, simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. There is an important 5th disorder, though my focus is on the key 4.

While all involved with management will be very familiar with these terms, few will have considered how to usefully interrelate them.

Let me introduce the 4 domains in the context of management moving from simple to chaos.


Here lets introduce the basic algebra and elementary maths of this world. Numbers can be the foundation of many key management or economic challenges, be that managing beans, pennies or pounds. The skills to handle algebra required to handle these “simple” challenges can be taught at school to the multitude and can be considered to be within a very well established body of knowledge or best practice. It is said that simple tasks can be learned in about 10 hours.

While the basic algebra of a balance sheet or profit and loss account may be simple, the challenge of accountancy is a more complicated affair. The rules of taxation systems take time to learn and apply consistently hence the accounting profession has developed. Complicated challenges are not limited to accountancy of course, but can be seen within very many other fields ( e.g. within management fields the term might fit with skills required for standard operating procedures development, workflow analysis, business process modelling notation etc). The skills required here are those of the highly skilled and often niche expert and the related knowledge in Cynefin terms is named good practice. It is said that complicated tasks take about 1000 hours to learn.

In my view, the challenges inherent in much of organisational management are much more closely related to the challenges of complex systems than most folk realise. Perhaps many intuitively realise this but this important issue hasn’t been articulated adequately to date.
As complex systems cannot be completely controlled, solutions will emerge from amidst the diversity of a complex system, with or without central control.
Those adaptive solutions may often have emerged from the actions of a small group within the system and then they grow organically within the ecosystem- like environs of the complex system.

Complex systems are;

-made up of many parts

-have multiple relationships between those parts

-cannot be completely understood

-cannot be completely controlled

-can be best controlled by harnessing the common patterns that emerge from the system, as the rest will self organise.
It is said that mastery of a complex domain and the pattern recognition that goes with it takes 10,000 hours.

Beyond complexity lies chaos. Of course one doesn’t need to look too far in the management world to see examples of chaos within management systems.
The global financial system, which many may have previously considered to be a complicated system was clearly a complex system on the edge of chaos, before the actions of a single bank helped to triggered the global economic chaos in September 2008.

Chaos is by its nature very hard to control, yet some would argue that real innovation emerges on “the edge of chaos”. According to the Cynefin framework what is needed to move a system out of chaos is some action, which will either exacerbate the chaos or move some of the chaos into more manageable complex or complicated environments that can then be dealt with.

It is within the chaos domain that the importance of leadership is apparent, where some one, just one person is needed to take a lead and attempt to encourage the crowd to follow their lead. It is also said that such leadership is instinctive to some folk and perhaps cannot be taught/learned.

We now move on to explore Cynefin within the context of Information Technology


Foster J (2004) “Why is Economics not a Complex Systems Science?”

Snowden, D , Boone, M, (2007) Leader’s Framework for Decision Making: Harvard Business Review


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