Managing complexity with Cynefin

26 April 2024

How do you manage complexity in a project? Is it with the same set of tried-and-tested tools that have (mostly) worked for you in the past, or do you find yourself applying fresh, new ideas every time? What do we even mean by complexity anyway? Surely 'complexity' comes in all sorts of shades and therefore no one approach fits all? By understanding what we mean by complexity, is it possible to identify better solutions to problems? Enter the Cynefin Framework.

What is Cynefin?

The Cynefin framework is a way to think about complexity - a tool designed to help decision-makers navigate situations so that they can find the most appropriate way forward.

Using Cynefin, a problem (or situation) is classified into one of 4 domains - Clear, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic - each with its own set of characteristics and approaches to resolving the problem. For instance, clear problems are handled with best practices, complicated problems may require expert analysis, complex issues will benefit from experimentation, and chaotic situations need immediate and decisive action.

There is also a 5th domain, Confused. This is where you are unsure which of the other 4 domains applies. It is characterised by ambiguity and a lack of clarity. Like Chaos, it’s not a place where you will want to linger.

Classifying a problem into a domain is not a one-and-done. As your contextual knowledge of a situation improves, it is possible (and often helpful) to move between domains where you can apply the most appropriate tools for the issue. More on that shortly. First, let's take a look at the 5 domains in more detail.

5 domains

The Clear Domain

In the Clear Domain, problems are straightforward and well-understood, with well-defined solutions that are easy to categorise. The realm of best practice:

  • Characteristics: Highly predictable, low risk, and the steps involved are well-documented and could potentially be automated to increase efficiency.

  • Approach: Sense, categorise, and then respond. These are routine changes anyone on the team can handle due to their predictable nature.

The Complicated Domain

This domain is characterised by problems that require expert analysis to determine the best approach, often involving multiple potential solutions. The realm of the expert:

  • Characteristics: Moderately predictable with a medium level of risk. Solutions require expertise and thorough analysis to understand the available options.

  • Approach: Sense, analyse, and respond. The path to a solution may not be obvious and typically relies on expert judgement.

The Complex Domain

Here, the landscape is unpredictable, and solutions are not straightforward. This domain thrives on adaptability, learning and emergence:

  • Characteristics: Highly uncertain and dynamic, requiring continual learning and adaptation. Solutions involve safe-to-fail experiments to probe various approaches.

  • Approach: Probe, sense, and respond. Teams must navigate through ambiguity and may need diverse viewpoints to steer the project effectively.

The Chaotic Domain

In chaotic situations, swift, decisive action is required to stabilise the environment:

  • Characteristics: Highly unpredictable and volatile, requiring immediate action to prevent further disarray.

  • Approach: Act, sense, and respond. Quick decisions are crucial to regaining control.

The Confused Domain

Represents the liminal space between domains where you don't know or don't have enough information to decide which of the four domains is applied to the current situation:

  • Characteristics: Lack of clarity, ambiguity, confusion, paralysis, potential for mismanagement.

  • Approach: Break the problem down into constituent parts that can be assigned to one of the other four domains.

Movement between domains

As mentioned, classification in Cynefin isn’t fixed. Change is constant. Situations evolve, problems grow, contexts change. So, as your understanding of a problem progresses, expect a degree of fluidity between domains. Some of that movement is beneficial, some isn’t:

  • From Complex to Complicated: Your team has developed an MVP with a feature considered risky or innovative (complex domain). After some positive user feedback, you recognise the feature’s potential so you scale it for a wider audience. This introduces a new set of challenges that require expert insights to ensure that the feature can be scaled and integrated without compromising performance (complicated domain).

  • From Complicated to Clear: As your new feature is rolled out, your team spot opportunities for reuse around the new scaling architecture, so you start to generalise that functionality so that it can shared and re-used (clear domain).

  • From Clear to Chaos: You've rolled the new feature out to the market but an AWS update completely breaks your scaling functionality overnight and all your systems are effectively down.

Software being software, your team will constantly be flipping between various states of confusion, clarity, complexity and perhaps even chaos. You therefore need to be continually assessing the state of play and adjust your tactics accordingly. Clearly, the less time they spend in a state of confusion and complexity the better. And if you find yourself constantly in a near-state of chaos then you have more systemic issues to address.

Using Cynefin to steer a path

In managing complex situations, you need to recognise that the tools that have been successful for you in the past and that have worked for you in most situations, may not be the right tools for the current situation. When all you have is a hammer…

So ask yourself, are you leveraging past successes appropriately? Are you open to innovative approaches when facing new types of challenges? Balancing the clear and complex is crucial - while clear processes streamline routine tasks, embracing complexity can lead to significant breakthroughs and innovation.

The goal here isn't to oversimplify to the point where everything is clear — this will stifle innovation. Nor is the aim to dwell in complexity, which will hinder productivity. Instead, strive for a balance that harnesses the strengths of both. As you navigate through these domains, remember that the right approach can transform complexity from a daunting challenge into a powerful opportunity for growth and differentiation.

Further reading

Article By
blog author

Iain Cameron

Distinguished Engineer