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The various domains of the Cynefin model.

Cynefin /ˈkʌnɨvɪn/ is a Welsh word, which is commonly translated into English as 'habitat' or 'place', although this fails to convey its full meaning. The term was chosen by the Welsh scholar Dave Snowden to describe a perspective on the evolutionary nature of complex systems, including their inherent uncertainty ("The Cynefin framework"). The name serves as a reminder that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by our experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience, as well as through collective experience, such as stories or music.

The framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply. It draws on research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, anthropology, and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology, to describe problems, situations, and systems. It "explores the relationship between man, experience, and context"[1] and proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making, and knowledge management in complex social environments.

Meaning of the word[edit]

A more complete translation of 'cynefin' would convey the sense that we all have multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. The word is sometimes used to describe an environment where a person feels they belong[2][3] or knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the generations.[4] It can also refer to fleeting moments in time: "a place or the time when we instinctively belong or feel most connected. In those moments what lies beneath mundane existence is unveiled and the joy of being alive can overwhelm us."[5]


The Cynefin framework was originally developed in 1999 in the context of knowledge management and organisational strategy by Dave Snowden.[6] It was originally a modification of Max Boisot's I-Space[7] combined with the study of actual, as opposed to stated, management practice in IBM. By 2002, it had developed to include complex adaptive systems theory and had started to become a general strategy model.[8] It was then further developed and elaborated with Cynthia Kurtz as a part of their work with the IBM Institute of Knowledge Management (IKM).[9] Kurtz had worked with Snowden as a part of an IBM special interest group on narrative from 1999 before joining the IKM in 2001.[10] Kurtz and others continued this work at Cognitive Edge, which had been formed by Snowden when he left IBM in 2005.[11] This period included work to extend the model to Leadership with Mary E Boone, which culminated in the publication of a seminal article in the Harvard Business Review in 2007. [12]

Description of the framework[edit]

The Cynefin framework has five domains.[13] The first four domains are:

  • Obvious - replacing the previously used terminology Simple from early 2014 - in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense - Categorise - Respond and we can apply best practice.
  • Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense - Analyze - Respond and we can apply good practice.
  • Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act - Sense - Respond and we can discover novel practice.

The fifth domain is Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision. In full use, the Cynefin framework has sub-domains, and the boundary between obvious and chaotic is seen as a catastrophic one: complacency leads to failure.


The work of Snowden and his team was initially in the areas of knowledge management, cultural change, and community dynamics.[9] It subsequently became also concerned with some critical business issues, such as product development, market creation, and branding. Their work has also involved issues of organizational strategy and national security.[9]

Others have used the Cynefin framework for such purpose as analysing policymaking within the George W. Bush administration and the impact of religion in that process,[1] the nature of response to bioterrorism, as well as aspects of measurement in the British National Health Service. It has also been used for the retrospective study of emergency situations,[14] the management of food chain risks,[15] and to study the interaction between Civilians and Military during disaster control,[16] as well as recognition of question patterns from citizens requests by (social) service organizations.[17] Most recently it has been extended to cover software development within Agile.[18]

Its use in the context of leadership was the cover feature in the Harvard Business Review in November 2007.[12] The article in question was designated as the 2007 Best Practitioner-Oriented Paper in Organizational Behavior by the Organizational Behavior Division of the Academy of Management with the following citation: "This paper introduces an important new perspective that has enormous future value, and does so in a clear way that shows it can be used. [The article] makes several significant contributions. First, and most importantly, it introduces complexity science to guide managers' thoughts and actions. Second, it applies this perspective to advance a typology of contexts to help leaders to sort out the wide variety of situations in which they must lead decisions. Third, it advises leaders concerning what actions they should take in response."[19]

In 2011, the same paper was a Citations of Excellence winner as one of the 50 best papers published in 2007, based on research impact.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b O'Neill, Louisa-Jayne (2004). "Faith and decision-making in the Bush presidency: The God elephant in the middle of America's livingroom" (PDF). Emergence: Complexity and Organisation 6 (1/2): 149–156. Retrieved 2013-01-06. 
  2. ^ T. H. Parry-Williams "Hon" (poem) See
  3. ^ Lindsey Colbourne (2012), Dwi'n Dysgu Cynefin, Video
  4. ^ Davies, Peter Ho (2008). The Welsh Girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-91852-3. 
  5. ^ Theatre Cynefin Wales,
  6. ^ Snowden, D. (2000). "Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities" conference proceedings of KMAC at the University of Aston, July 2000 and Snowden, D. (2000) "The social ecology of knowledge management". In Knowledge Horizons : The Present and the Promise of Knowledge Management ed. C Despres & D Chauvel Butterworth Heinemann October 2000.
  7. ^ Boisot Knowledge Assets 1998.
  8. ^ Snowden, D. (2002). "Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self Awareness". In the Journal of Knowledge Management – Vol. 6, No. 2, (May) pp. 100–111.
  9. ^ a b c Kurtz, C. F.; Snowden, D. J. (2003). "The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world". IBM Systems Journal, Volume 42, Number 3, 462. Retrieved from
  10. ^ Blog post. Retrieved from
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Snowden, David; Boone, Mary (November 2007). "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review: 69–76. 
  13. ^ Snowden, David (2005). "Multi-ontology sense making – a new simplicity in decision making". Informatics in Primary Health Care 13 (1): 45–53. Retrieved 6 January 2013. 
  14. ^ French, Simon; Niculae, Carmen (2005). "Believe in the Model: Mishandle the Emergency". Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 2 (1). 
  15. ^ Shepherd, Richard; Barker, Gary; French, Simon; Hart, Andy; Maule, John; Cassidy, Angela (July 2006). "Managing Food Chain Risks: Integrating Technical and Stakeholder Perspectives on Uncertainty". Journal of Agricultural Economics 57 (2): 313–327. doi:10.1111/j.1477-9552.2006.00054.x. 
  16. ^ Otten (January 2006). "Civiel-militaire samenwerking bij crisisbeheersing, Carré" (in Dutch) 29 (11-12). pp. 32–34. 
  17. ^ Martha van Biene (2008). Beyond the standard question - narrative research into question-patterns. Arnhem-Nijmegen: Hogeschool van Arnhem en Nijmegen, Faculteit Gezondheid, Gedrag en Maatschappij. ISBN 978-90-813751-1-5. 
  18. ^ Pelrine, Joseph (March 2011). "On Understanding Software Agility: A Social Complexity Point Of View" (PDF). Emergence: Complexity & Organization 13 (1/2): 26. 
  19. ^ "Outstanding Practitioner Oriented Publication in OB". Organizational Behavior Division of the Academy of Management. 2008. 
  20. ^


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  • Firestone, J. M. and McElroy, M. W. 2003. Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth Heinemann, pp. 104–133.
  • French, S. "Cynefin: repeatability, science and value". European Working Group "Multiple Criteria Decision Aiding". Series 3, nº 17, Spring 2008, pp. 1–5.
  • French, Simon. Niculae, Carmen. 2005. "Believe in the Model: Mishandle the Emergency", Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, volume 2, issue 1, (2005).
  • Koskela, Lauri. Kagioglou, Mike. 2006. "On the Metaphysics of Production". Proceedings of the 13th Annual Conference on Lean Construction. pp. 37–45.
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  • Lambe, P Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness Oxford: Chandos, 2007.
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  • Mark, A. Snowden, D (2004) "Researching practice or practising research - innovating methods in healthcare the contribution of Cynefin" Presented paper at the Organisational Behaviour in Health Care Conference on the theme of Innovation held by the Centre for Health and Policy Studies (CHAPS) University of Calgary at the Banff Centre Alberta Canada.
  • O'Neill, Louisa-Jayne. 2004. Faith and decision-making in the Bush presidency: The God elephant in the middle of America's livingroom. Emergence: Complexity and Organisation. Vol. 6, No. 1/2, pp. 149–156.
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  • Snowden, D (2006). Perspectives Around Emergent Connectivity, Sense-Making and Asymmetric Threat Management. Public Money & Management, Volume 26 Issue 5, pp. 275–277.
  • Snowden, D.J. Boone, M. 2007. "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review, November 2007, pp. 69–76.
  • Verdon, J. 2005. Transformation in the CF, Concept towards a theory of Human Network-Enabled. Ottawa: National Defence, Directory of Strategic Human Resources, Research Note, July 2005, 52 pages.
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