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The various domains of the Cynefin model

Cynefin /ˈkʌnɨvɪn/ is a Welsh word, which as a noun means "haunt, usual abode" or "habitat" and as an adjective "customary, habitual, familiar, usual, ordinary".[1][2] The term was chosen by the Welsh scholar Dave Snowden[3] 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"[4] and proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making, and knowledge management in complex social environments.

Meaning of the word[edit]

"Cynefin" is the state of being influenced by multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal, etc. “It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.” [5] or knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the generations.[6] 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."[7] "Cynefin" is related conceptually to the German word, Heimat[8] and has been linked to the Maori Tūrangawaewae which means a place to stand [9]

Description of the framework[edit]

The Cynefin framework has five domains.[10] 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.[11] 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.[11]

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,[4] 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,[12] the management of food chain risks,[13] and to study the interaction between civilians and military during disaster control,[14] as well as recognition of question patterns from citizens requests by (social) service organizations.[15] Most recently it has been extended to cover software development within Agile.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "cynefin". GPC Online. University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies. 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2015. 
  2. ^ "cynefin". Welsh-English / English-Welsh On-line Dictionary. University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Retrieved 16 June 2015. 
  3. ^ "Honorary Professorship for David J Snowden –". Bangor University. 15 April 2015. Retrieved 15 June 2015. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Introduction to "The Land and the Sea' Kyffin Williams Gomer Press; First Impression edition (1 Jan. 1999)
  6. ^ Davies, Peter Ho (2008). The Welsh Girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-91852-3. 
  7. ^ Theatre Cynefin Wales,
  8. ^ Dale, Ann, Ling, Chris and Newman, Lenore (2008) Does Place Matter? Sustainable Community Development in Three Canadian Communities. Ethics, Place & Environment,11:3,267-281
  9. ^ Berger & Johnson 'Simple Habits for Complex Times' p237
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ a b 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
  12. ^ French, Simon; Niculae, Carmen (2005). "Believe in the Model: Mishandle the Emergency". Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 2 (1). 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ Otten (January 2006). "Civiel-militaire samenwerking bij crisisbeheersing, Carré" (in Dutch) 29 (11-12). pp. 32–34. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ Pelrine, Joseph (March 2011). "On Understanding Software Agility: A Social Complexity Point Of View" (PDF). Emergence: Complexity & Organization 13 (1/2): 26. 


  • Bellavita, Christopher. 2006. "Shape Patterns, Not Programs, Homeland Security Affairs, vol. II, no. 3, pp. 1–21.
  • Joachim P. Sturmberg. Carmel M. Martin. 2008. Knowing – in Medicine, Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, Volume 14 Issue 5, Pages 767–770
  • 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.
  • Kurtz, C. & Snowden, D. 2003, The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex-Complicated World, IBM Systems Journal, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 462–83.
  • Lambe, P Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness Oxford: Chandos, 2007.
  • Lazaroff, M. and Snowden, D. (2006), Anticipatory modes for counter terrorism. In Popp, R. and Yen, J. (Eds), Emergent Information Technologies and Enabling Policies for Counter-Terrorism (IEEE Press, Wiley).
  • 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.
  • Otten, Jan (2006). Civiel-militaire samenwerking bij crisisbeheersing, Carré, 29 (11-12), pp. 32–34.
  • Shepherd, Richard. Barker, Gary. French, Simon. Hart, Andy. Maule, John. Cassidy, Angela. 2006. Managing Food Chain Risks: Integrating Technical and Stakeholder Perspectives on Uncertainty. Journal of Agricultural Economics. Volume 57, Issue 2, pp. 313–327.
  • Snowden, D (2000). "The social ecology of knowledge management", in Despres, C and Chauvel, D (Eds), Knowledge Horizons: The Present and the Promise of Knowledge Management, Butterworth-Heinemann: Oxford, 237-265.
  • Snowden, D (2005) "Strategy in the context of uncertainty", Handbook of Business Strategy, Vol. 6 Iss: 1, pp. 47 – 54
  • Snowden, D (2005). "Multi-ontology sense making – a new simplicity in decision making" in Informatics in Primary Health Care.
  • 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.
  • Woodhill, A.J. 2008. Shaping behaviour - How institutions evolve. The Broker, Issue 10, October 2008, pp. 4–8.