Technique 2.97 Modified Cynefin (5Cs)


"...the framework draws on research into systems theory, complexity theory, network theory and learning theories..."

Wikipedia, 2021

This is a way of defining problems, challenges, issues, etc, ie 5 Cs

i) Clear (obvious, known, 'known knowns', simple)

ii) Complicated (knowable, 'known unknowns")

iii) Complex  (unknown unknowns)

iv) Chaotic (unknowable unknowns)

v) Confused (disorder, anarchy)

NB i) & ii) are sometimes regarded as domains of 'ordered' as cause and effect are known or can be discovered. Most of our past strategies were developed to handle this area. On the other hand, 'complex', 'chaotic' and/or 'confused' are 'unordered', ie hard to link cause and effect.

Even though each of the 5 Cs requires a different approach for analysis and resolution, many situations are a mixture of the 5 Cs; those elements must first be ' disentangled'. It can help you find your sense of urgency.

Five Cs





More detail on each of the 5 Cs

- Clear (tightly constrained; minimal degrees of freedom; use 'sense-categorise-respond'*i; identify the situation and solution will be evident; procedures, formulae and recipes can work well; use best practice; used in legal structures, standard operating procedures, practices that are proven to work, etc; decision-making based on reason, ie find the proper rules and apply them; its downsides include oversimplification, ingrained thinking (not receptive to new ways of thinking), becoming complacent, ie best practice becomes past practice)

- Complicated (governing constraints; tightly coupled; use 'sense-analyse-respond'*ii; experts can analyse and resolve the situation rationally, especially with a multi-disciplinary approach, ie requires refined judgement and expertise; use good practice; usually a range of workable answers)

- Complex (enabling constraints; loosely coupled; use 'probe-sense-respond'*iii; experimentation, ie trial and error will be required to find solution(s); most likely multiple answers that need monitoring and managing; emergent practice; cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, if at all; used in battlefields, markets, ecosystems and corporate cultures; doesn't work with a reductionist, take-it-apart-and-see-how-it works as your action can change the situation in unpredictable ways)

- Chaotic (lacking constraint; de-couple, ie need to stabilise or establish order in the situation, ie stop the bleeding; escape to another domain; use 'act-sense-respond'*iv; use novel practice; cause and effect are unclear; unfolding events are too confusing to be handled by a knowledge-based response; examples include 9/11 terrorist attacks, emergency services like firefighting)

- Confused (there is no clarity about which of the other domains to apply, ie potentially multiple perspectives with experts disagreeing; each component needs to be separately resolved, ie breakdown the situation into constituent parts and assign each to one of the other 4 Cs).


i) sense-categorise-respond, ie establish the facts (sense), categorise, then respond by following the rule or applying best practice

ii) sense-analyse-respond, ie assess the facts, analyse and apply the appropriate good operating practice

iii) probe-sense-respond, ie use experimentation (trial and error) to determine what works and doesn't, to decide what to do, ie increase or decrease activity

iv) act-sense-respond, ie act to establish order, sense where stability lies (its present or absence), respond to turn the chaotic into complex, where the identification of emerging patterns can help prevent future crises and discovery of new opportunities.

Example of using the 4 Cs is the 1993 Brown's Chicken massacre Palatine, Illinois

 "...when robbers murdered seven employees in Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant - a situation in which local police faced all the domains......had to act immediately to stem the early panic (chaotic), while keeping the Department running (simple), calling in experts (complicated), and maintaining community confidence in the following weeks (complex)..."

Wikipedia, 2021

Moving through the 5 Cs

"...As knowledge increases, there is a 'clockwise drift' from chaotic through complex and complicated to simple. Similarly, a 'buildup of biases', complacency, lack of maintenance can cause 'catastrophic failure': a clockwise movement from simple to chaotic, represented by the fold between the domains. There can be counter-clock wise movement as people die and knowledge is forgotten, or as new generations question the rules; and a counter-clockwise push for chaotic to simple can occur where......rules to be imposed suddenly..."

Wikipedia, 2021

Criticisms of Cynefin include

- it is difficult and confusing

- needs a more rigorous foundation

- too little selection of possible contexts

- some terms, like 'known', 'knowable', 'sense', 'categorise', etc are ambiguous

In summary

"...The framework sorts the issues facing leaders in five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these - simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic - require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth - disorder - applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant..."

Dave Snowden & Mary Boone as quoted by Wikipedia, 2021

"...the value of the Cynefin framework is categorising decision contexts and identifying how to address many uncertainties in an analysis..."

Simon French as quoted by Wikipedia, 2021

"...The framework is particularly effective in helping decision-makers to make sense of complex problems, providing new ways of approaching intractable problems and allowing the emergence of a shared understanding from collective groups..."

Dave Snowden et al as quoted by Wikipedia, 2021

It is used in a wide range of areas including knowledge management, strategy, cultural change, policy-making, product development, market creation, supply chain management, branding, customer relationship management, emergency management, military, agile software development, health care, etc

(for more details see elsewhere Knowledge Base)

(sources: Bob Dick, 2021 & Wikipedia, 2021)


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