Cynefin - Useful framework or bullshit?

I posted about this graphic on another thread. I find the unnecessary fancy name off-putting (liberal bullshit; making something simple unnecessarily complicated) but I was intrigued by the concept.

I looked around for an alternative and came across Tom Graves who uses “SCAN” instead, this is his graphic.


Where I found this useful is as a way of thinking about the issue mariners have with written procedures. That’s almost all the mariners at Linkedin complain about - that good seamanship can’t be broken down into a series of simple steps.

But not all the problems a mariner has to solve are the same. A problem that is “simple and straightforward” can be more easily broken down into simple steps. And so forth.

Use "best practice when the third mate inspects the fire extinguisher and "good practice when voyage planning.

Here are some links:

This one in the comments is the creator of Cynefin, Dave Snowden responding to Tom Graves criticism

Tom actually deleted most of the responses - he made some nonsensical statements about chaos only being seen as something to exit from in Cynefin - it isn’t and I posted written evidence but that was taken down. Why you would use the word ‘liberal’ I don’t know

This is unexpected. Thanks for the comment. Welcome to gcaptain!

The liberal part I can explain. It’s an inside joke here at the house. Basically conservatives today seem to like to dumb things down. Sometimes that’s a not a good idea. So for example a suggestion that perhaps it might be a good idea to look at the manual before tearing into a piece of equipment, “that’s a bunch of liberal bullshit” is both an acknowledgement that it might be a prudent to do so but also that the plan remains to plunge ahead.

As far as the chaos, that part I’ve not delved into. Not sure I’d understand it without spending a lot of time and maybe not then.

Tom Graves mentions Col John Boyd who I like for breaking down these ideas for people working at the operations level. Do you have any recommendations?

We did a lot of work to map OODA to Cynefin last November - in Quantico with the Boyd archives - strong links between the two. And by the way, it isn’t “unnecessarily complicated” to use a word in a language few people know - it means they make fewer assumptions that with a common English name. It’s a basic sense-making technique with considerable utility.


I read your comments on Tom’s site again so I see your point. Proof is in the pudding, using “Cynefin” forces a look without preconceptions.

I hadn’t made the connection to the term “sense-making” till now. That brings to mind Karl Weick. I’ve gotten a lot from reading his stuff. In particular The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster and his analysis of the Tenerife air disaster.

There are five schools of sense-making :slight_smile: Weick, Dervin, Klein, Various big Data Guys and me (there is an article which describes this)

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Ok then, that leads me here:

12 years out of date! You might want to check out Hayward Jones “Sensemaking methodology” in EPIC April 6th 2015

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This Wikipedia article seems good.

This idea of moving through the domains seems useful.

I’ve been reading up a little on the difference between the domains by looking for some examples of each.

According to Wikipedia simple:

The simple / obvious / clear domain represents the “known knowns”. This means that there are rules in place (or best practice), the situation is stable, and the relationship between cause and effect is clear:

An example is following a recipe.


The complicated domain consists of the “known unknowns”. The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise; there are a range of right answers. The framework recommends “sense–analyze–respond”: assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice.[2] According to Stewart: "Here it is possible to work rationally toward a decision, but doing so requires refined judgment and expertise. … This is the province of engineers, surgeons, intelligence analysts, lawyers, and other experts.


The complex domain represents the “unknown unknowns”. Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers. “Instructive patterns … can emerge,” write Snowden and Boone, “if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail.” Cynefin calls this process “probe–sense–respond”.

In casual conversation complicated and complex are often used interchangeably. An example of each is from here A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

Ferraris are complicated, rainforests are complex.

Beyond begging the question with the “Liberal/Conservative” arguments, the problem I see in this is placing upper management evaluation techniques in the hands of those who aren’t schooled/trained in these methods of thinking. And these are simply evaluation techniques (in my opinion) used to overcome the shortfall of “good judgment skills” with some employees.

It is when these methods cross the boundary of “Line & Staff” (workers and suits) that the suspicion and distrust begins to build. In the end, learning to think and develop good judgment will be invaluable when later faced with problems which could prove costly. Clear understandable evaluation techniques will have their place in this too. So many of these newfangled business buzz words are nothing more than “corporate slang” and at best discommnicate and alienate. It’s been my experience with women in middle management that they feed on new “buzz words” perhaps owing to their native advantage with language. Many persist in trying to use these terms when in meetings with others who don’t yet know their meaning. This is often experienced as a power play when it happens to win thru intimidation. (with words)

Without context it struck me as little buzzword-y but now understanding that it’s intended as a tool for sense-making it makes…well, more sense.

If a search for “Weick” is done here it can be seen I’ve been on this track for a while now.

I think they’re best keep to the KISS principle. (keep it sweet and simple)

First one I ever saw was called The Marketing Matrix, simple enough for everyone…

Ideas that have worked well and are sure. . . .|. . . .Ideas that could work with more refinement
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ._____________________… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ideas not worth pursuing or developing. . . . . .|. . . . .Sure fired failures Don’t repeat

Perhaps I missed something about gentler,kinder world… KISS meant “Keep it simple stupid” in my day. Perhaps long gone concept now. Am still kicking and preach the same thing to the newbies.

I’m with you. Management philosophy boiled down to 4 rules. 1. Treat people as you wish you had been treated not as you were treated. 2.There are no stupid questions just stupid answers. 3. I screwed up, sorry. 4. Everybody makes mistakes even when trying to follow rules 1,2 and 3

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That’s only the first part of the rule, here’s the rest.

I’ve always taken the position it is better to ask a stupid question than to make a stupid mistake.

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One finds oneself at times working for inquisitive idiots. Hence rule 2.

The first time I saw this framework was long ago. It was being suggested as a way to organize work groups and the quadrants were labeled something like analyzer, promoter, helper, organizer

Anytime that I know I am going to ask a stupid question, I start with, "Hey, this is going to sound like I am stupid, but. . . . ". I am never afraid to ask about something that I don’t know.

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