My Riff on the Cynefin Framework

Updated 2013 ~ An Interpretation of the Cynefin Framework

Updated 2013 ~ An Interpretation of the Cynefin Framework

I’ve been working on this interpretation of the Cynefin (kun-ev’in) sense-making and decision-making framework for months. This combines 4 sources; Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden (2003), Dave Snowden and Mary Boone (2007), Dave Snowden blogging (2006) and Joachim Sturmberg and Carmel Martin (2008). See here for some of the Snowden references. I started this after I took the Cognitive Edge practitioners course in Sept. 2009. I’ve kept a copy of the framework taped into the cover of my notebook and I have kept adding and deleting to it. At the ICKM 2009 conference I heard Louisa Lam from the HK Chinese University library talk about her research on sense-making from interviews with doctors and nurses in Hong Kong public and private hospitals. She kindly gave me her presentation and the reference to Sturmberg & Martin’s excellent paper. This is also related to my earlier post on Patrick Lambe’s ‘Knowledge Wheel’ here.

The framework quite accurately describes how sense-making and decision-making takes place in large and small organizations. This is based on my experiences at a very large international corporation, one of the world’s largest construction projects, a large urban private university and restaurant and catering kitchens in France and New York city. I used various versions of the framework in a couple of different papers and projects during my MSc Knowledge Management. My riff deliberately has a lot of words; it is not meant to be simple and elegant. The sources all have much more elegant diagrams of the framework. Here I want to have a mnemonic of the facets that interact in the framework. A lot of times the framework is drawn without the centre ‘disorder’ and I feel it needs this centre to make the point clear that the actors are always trying to compress and minimize the force of ‘disorder’. Snowden and Boone use ‘order’ ‘disorder’ and ‘unorder’ in their paper and I think it helps to show all of them. In this version of the framework ‘ordered’ ‘disordered’ and ‘unordered’ form one continuum thru the centre and ‘content’ ‘disordered’ and ‘context’ form another continuum. These intersect at ‘disordered’. ‘Content’ and ‘context’ are borrowed from Sturmberg and Martin. For me ‘content’ means solid, verifiable fact or the gut-feeling that this is the right thing to do. Leaders in a chaotic situation need ‘content’ to push thru a decision. Knowledge workers need ‘content’ to make sense of normal and expected events. For me ‘context’ is that body of related and potentially useful knowledge that experts and risk-takers rely on to make their decisions. Experts and risk-takers need the ‘context’ of a situation to know when to analyze or to probe. ‘Ordered’ situations are suitable for teaching and applying what is already known. ‘Simple’ and ‘Complicated’ better practice and good practice responses can be taught quite successfully. ‘Unordered’ situations are flexible learning environments that require a more collaborative and ultimately decisive response. ‘Complex’ and ‘Chaotic’ responses need time to emerge and form. ‘Simple’ and ‘Complicated’ responses can be applied successfully in large groups. The groups may even benefit from being hierarchical with defined and predictable relationships among the actors. ‘Complex’ responses need a small and very socially flat group to work out when and how to probe, sense and respond. ‘Chaotic’ responses need a very small egalitarian group or only one leader to make the critical and insightful decision to calm down or solve the situation.



  1. Dave Snowden said

    I’d tend to say that the behaviours you identify (Collaboration, Decisiveness etc.) and not unique to any particular domain. DItto risk takers etc. Always a danger with over categorisation. Will have to think about whether content is appropriate in Chaos as decisive action is needed and a response really shouldn’t take time (although that is true of complex)

    My take anyway, always interesting to see how people use/interpret it

  2. Baoman said Snowden explains the Cynefin Framework on YouTube

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: