Cynefin – A leaders decision mindset

Cynefin – A leaders decision mindset

The greatest leaders know that when trying to solve a problem it is never the case of a “one size fits all” process. Their decisions and subsequent actions will depend on the situation at hand; the best decisions are made by adapting their approach to the evolving environment.

So how does a good leader decide which approach to use in a given situation? How do they avoid making the wrong decision?

In this article we will go through the Cynefin framework, a tool that helps in making better decisions by assessing the situation.

Cynefin, pronounced “kun-ev-in,” is a welsh word that translates as “habitat”. Yet it also describes the cognitive processes involved around decision making in a situational context which means personal history influences thoughts and feelings around that context.

The Cynefin framework is a tool for solving problems, it allows any given situation to be placed in a specific “context” or “domain” and explains these with cause-and-effect relationships. This means that the assessment of a situation can be more accurate and any response more appropriate.

The Cynefin framework is used to categorise problems or decisions, so that the response can be appropriate for that situation. It can provide a clearer better decision making process especially for crisis situations.

By avoiding the same management style or decision making process for every situation, a mistake that can cause huge disruption and cost to a team or company. The Cynefin framework encourages flexibility and adaptability when making decisions, so that management styles can be shifted to fit with the situation at hand.

The Five Domains

Obvious – “The Domain of Best Practice”

The “obvious” context is used when the cause-and-effect relationships are apparent to everyone involved, here your options are clear.

Normally the steps to take are in-place and explicit for this situation these will dictate the next stage of the process. For example, a problem encountered by helpdesks are quite predicable, and there are processes already in-place to help handle most situations.

At this stage a situation goes through a process “Sense – Categorise – Respond”. This simply means you assess the situation, categorise its type, and then respond using best practice. Often there is one established “correct” answer, usually based on previous experience with that type of problem and thus and existing process or procedure in-place.

The weakness of this step is when an obvious context is oversimplified. Often as a results of leaders, or organisations becoming too complacent when they achieve success. to avoid such occurrences there should be clear communication channels in place, so team members can report any situations which don’t fit an established category.

When leaders are not receptive to new ideas because of past experience and success, then this creates another challenge with the “obvious” context. For example, when leaders automatically assume that because a previous solution worked, it will work again. Overcoming this requires a leader to remain open to new ideas and a willingness to pursue innovative suggestions.

Complicated – “The Domain of Experts”

The “complicated” context is when there are multiple correct solutions. This context has a clear relationship between cause-and-effect, though this might not be visible to everyone due to the problem being complicated. For example, seeing several symptoms that are causing an issue, yet not knowing how to fix the issue.

The decision-making process to follow in this context is “Sense – Analyse – Respond”. This means assess the situation, analyse what is currently known usually with the help of experts, and decide the best course of action to take using good practice.

A weakness often exerted by leaders in this context is an over reliance on experts in complicated situations, at the expense of potential creative solutions. Overcoming this can be achieved by assembling a team of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and ensure that everyones views are heard; there are many techniques that can be used for doing this.

Complex – “The Domain of Emergence”

In the “complex” domain it might be impossible to even identify one “correct” solution, or even to spot the cause-and-effect relationship. This is the domain that many business decisions are categorised into.

Complex situations are unpredictable, and the best approach is to “Probe – Sense – Respond”. Instead of trying to control the situation or insisting on a plan of action, the better course of action is to be patient, find the patterns, and encourage a solution to emerge.

In complex situations failure to find a correct response should be treated as a learning experience, experiments should be conducted to refine the solution. Any process around these situations should be to guide a teams thinking.

Communication is key to success here. Gathering a diverse team people to innovate, creative solutions to complex problems. Generate new ideas there are many techniques for achieving this, and encourage your team to debate the possible solutions.

Chaotic – “The Domain of Rapid Response”

A chaotic situation, has no relationship between cause-and-effect, this means the primary goal here is to create order and stability. Crisis and emergency scenarios regularly fall into this domain.

The decision making process to follow here is “Act – Sense – Respond”. Firstly a leader needs to act decisively to address the most pressing issues, then sense where there is potential for stability and where there isn’t, and finally respond to move the situation from chaos to complexity.

When navigating chaotic situations, to be successful, conduct risk assessments to identify potential risks, prioritise them, and make sure you have a comprehensive crisis plan in place. It’s not possible to prepare for every situation, having some plans in place for identifying risks is usually helpful.

Reliable information is critical in uncertain and chaotic situations, make sure to know how to communicate during a crisis situation.


Identifying a situation that is in “disorder” can be very difficult. It just isn’t clear which of the other four domains is dormant, and usually people will revert to decision making techniques that are known and comfortable. The primary goal in this situation is to gather more information, so that you can move into a known domain and then take the appropriate action.

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