Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework was developed by Dave Snowden & Cynthia Kurtz from 1999 to 2005. It is used to describe problems, situations, systems and leadership. By offering a thinking-model, a sense-making model, it explores how we deal with different types of challenges and situations.

The Cynefin framework has four domains and a fifth, “Disorder” in the middle.

In Agemba, the complexity of a story can be assessed as being in any of these four (five) domains – or on the border between these domains such as “Complicated/Complex”.


Obvious (Simple)

In the Obvious domain the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to any reasonable person. The approach to challenges is to “Sense – Categorize – Respond”. We can apply best practice.


In the Complicated domain the relationship between cause and effect exists, but requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge. The approach is to “Sense – Analyze – Respond”. We can apply good practice depending on the expertise at hand.


In the Complex domain the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived partially or in retrospect, but it cannot be completely understood in advance. Many different actors modify the system and each other. The approach is to “Probe – Sense – Respond”, we have to experiment and try things to make sense of it all. We can sense emergent practice.


In the Obvious domain there is no discernible relationship between cause and effect at the systems level. The approach is to “Act – Sense – Respond”. We have to act intuitively to see if we can stabilize the situation. We can discover novel practice.


Disorder is the state of not knowing which domain you are in. In this state people will assume to be in the domain which they are most used to and revert to making decisions and apply methods based more on past experience and comfort.

Zone of Complacency

The boundary between simple and chaotic looks different than the other boundaries in the model, because it signals a change which could be catastrophic: Oversimplifying situations, relying on fixed procedures and best practices in circumstances with accelerated change and great uncertainties leads to complacency, which can cause catastrophic failure in a crisis. This is sometimes referred to as the “Zone of Complacency”


In many of our projects and endeavors we are in the Complex domain and should act accordingly. As leaders in the complex domain we need to (according to Snowden):

  • Probe, sense, respond. We conduct “safe-to-fail” experiments, not “fail-safe” designs.
  • Create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge.
  • Increase levels of interaction and communication.
  • Use methods that can help generate ideas:
    • Open up discussion (as through large group methods).
    • Set barriers and constraints.
    • Stimulate attractors – things that produce attractive results.
    • Encourage dissent and diversity.
    • Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence.