Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is a strategic model that aims to describe problems, situations, and complex systems, categorise them, and suggest context-specific strategies to correctly classify them.
Cynefin Framework

What is the Cynefin Framework?

The Cynefin Framework is a knowledge management model that aims to describe problems, situations, and systems, and categorise them. The focus lies on the current situation rather than the future success of a project. This is a Welsh term and can roughly be translated as habitat or place. Metaphorically, Cynefin represents that all individuals and systems are the result of their developmental history.

The model was developed in 1999 in the context of knowledge management and organisational strategies, among others, by former IBM employee Dave Snowden. By 2002, the Cynefin Framework had developed to the point where it included the theories of complex adaptive systems and had established itself as a general strategy model.

The five domains of the Cynefin Framework

The five domains of the Cynefin Framework consist of five domains. These differ mainly in terms of the relationships between cause and effect. This composition is also called the Cynefin Matrix. Snowden calls the model a Sense Making Device. It is a framework for making the context of projects visible and tangible.

The simple domain

In this domain, the goal and the way to achieve it are clearly defined. Situations are predictable, and there are simple and unambiguous relationships between cause and effect. There is always a clear path to the goal. Therefore, Dave Snowden calls this domain obvious.

The complicated domain

In the Complicated Domain, there is a clearly defined goal, but the way to achieve it is unknown and not obvious. To achieve the goal, analysis and expert knowledge must be relied upon. These are complicated systems. However, even though causes and effects are complicated, they can still be understood analytically.

The complex domain

In complex systems, there are numerous influencing factors that are dependent on each other. In this domain, a concrete plan cannot be developed to achieve a goal because there is no linear cause-and-effect pattern. Therefore, creative solutions need to be developed. Frequently, different approaches needs to be tested, and the best solutions to a problem are often found late in the process.

The chaotic domain

In the Chaotic Domain, there is an unmanageable number of certain influencing factors that are interdependent. Clear cause-and-effect relationships are no longer recognisable, but fast action is still required.

In comparison to the Complex Domain, there is no time for trial and error. Quick action and spontaneous decision-making are essential. In a chaotic environment, the strength of leadership plays a key role.

The disorder domain

The Disorder Domain is at the centre of the Cynefin Matrix. A disorder occurs when it is not clear which of the four environments (Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic) a system is exposed to. Then, no strategies can be developed, and it may happen that the approach taken does not fit the corresponding environment.

The best practices from the respective environments must always be used in the corresponding domain. For example, if a measure from the Simple Domain is applied in a Complicated System, a disturbance of the entire system or the entire Cynefin Matrix is created. In such a case, the areas of context and behaviour do not match, causing maximum irritation for problems.

The right solution path can only be found in such a situation if it has been clearly defined which environment one is exposed to. Only then can the appropriate best practice approach be used to solve problems.

In one of his articles, Dave Snowden gives an example of a disruption: a group of officers are supposed to spontaneously take care of a nursery. They prepare themselves, plan their tasks and analyse possible obstacles. Hence, theoretically, the officers are preparing for a complicated environment. However, in practice, they experience a chaotic environment with many small children playing. A new classification of the environment is therefore necessary before the officers can manage the situation applying appropriate measures.


  • THE CYNEFIN FRAMEWORK. Cognitive-Edge Ltd. Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre, Wales.
  • Cynefin Framework: Kontext is King. Digitale Neuordnung (#DNO). AD GmbH, Köln.
  • Das Cynefin Framework: Wie Führungskräfte auch in komplexen Situationen die richtigen Entscheidungen treffen. DMEXCO. Koelnmesse GmbH, Köln.