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Understanding complexity: the Cynefin framework

By Martin Cole

complexity - cynefin

I write and talk a lot about complexity and working and leading in complex environments. And in doing so, I invariably refer to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

Cynefin (pronounced Ku-nev-in) is a Welsh word meaning something like ‘habitat’, but which also implies multiple unknowable factors in our environment and our experience.

Snowden first introduced Cynefin as a decision making framework to a wider audience in a classic Harvard Business review article in 2007.

Since then Snowden has continued to refine his thinking on Cynefin as a sense-making tool. A forthcoming book on Cynefin is planned, but a lot of the latest ideas are on Snowden’s blog.

The framework is a fantastic aid for distinguishing between the predictable and the unpredictable and between the complicated and complex spaces. The ability to readily make these distinctions is critical to leadership, understanding, decision making and action planning in organisation settings – and in life generally.

But the framework is more than a simple diagrammatic, Cynefin recognises the shifting and evolving circumstances in which we operate.

In this post, rather than try to fully explain Cynefin myself, I’ve gone to the source and included Snowden’s latest visual representation of Cynefin below, as well as Dave Snowden’s own video about Cynefin, which is now a few years old.

I’ve also included Jennifer Garvey Berger’s video on Cynefin, which is an excellent introduction to the framework.

Cynefin framework

Cynefin Framework: image from Dave Snowden/Cognitive Edge

Dave Snowden

Jennifer Garvey Berger


About the Author

I'm Martin Cole. I am a UK qualified lawyer, a leader within the financial services regulatory and compliance sector and an organisational and executive coach. I have an Master of Science (M.Sc). in coaching psychology and am certified as a coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership. I also have a Bachelor of Laws (LLB (Hons.)) and was admitted as a barrister by the Inner Temple (now non-practising). I have lived and worked in London and Sydney and now live near Edinburgh in Scotland with my wife and two daughters. I support Crystal Palace FC, have wide ranging musical tastes (especially Jazz, Blues and Soul) and oppose mediocrity, selfishness and organisations that fail to value their people.

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