The Cynefin Framework is a model for understanding the different types of problems we can face and therefore helps you understand what approach to take to:
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The Cynefin Framework was developed by Dave Snowden. A great introduction to it is his 2007 Harvard Business Review article, ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’, co-written by David J Snowden and Mary E Boone.
The Cynefin Framework divides the situations we encounter into different domains. The first two are predictable, or ordered domains. The next two are unpredictable, and there is a fifth, the Disordered Domain.
Here, we see obvious cause-and-effect relationships. You need little or no expertise to understand the patterns and events are highly predictable, based on simple interaction. Consequently, simple problems are susceptible to simple processes and best practices allow anyone to get repeatable results.
The resolution steps are Sense – Categorize – Respond (with best practice)
Here, there is also a strong cause-and-effect relationship, but the patterns can be harder to spot or to predict. Therefore, this is a domain where experts are needed, because of their ability to apply appropriate analytical methods.
The systems are predictable, being formed of simple components, but it is usually the scale of the system that makes the hard to predict. The result is that there is rarely a single ‘right answer’. Instead, there are multiple solutions to problems and no best practices. Instead, there are only good practices.
The resolution steps are Sense – Analyze – Respond (with good practice)
Here, weak cause-and-effect relationships give systems low predictability and prior knowledge and experience offer little insight into the future. Intuition can be a better guide than analysis. Usually, the patterns are emergent and can only be understood with the benefit of hindsight. Events don’t always play out in the same way, and we cannot separate or access all the individual components.
Problem-solving and effective decision-making needs multi-disciplinary teams and sense-making tests. The resolution steps are Probe – Sense – Respond (with a situational response)
Here, patterns are not discernible, or they can be barely glimpsed. They may exist but may also have randomness or non-linear interaction embedded in them. So, the priority is to stabilize the environment. It needs creativity to invent new solutions and the resolution steps are Test – Sense – Respond (with a creative response).
Most of the boundaries between the domains are smooth. But the Simple-Chaotic boundary is massively discontinuous. The danger is complacency, which Snowden and Boone describe as a cliff in their HBR article. It is the concern that you can easily fall from simplicity into chaos.
The final domain of the Cynefin Framework, which Snowden illustrates in the center of the diagram, is Disorder. This is where relationships lack clarity and you don’t yet know which domain you are in.
You need to break down what you know to help figure out which domain your experience fits with.
The danger is that when you assess the situation, you will do so according to your own preferred style of action:
What you should do is assess as carefully as you can, the nature of the situation, and then select an appropriate style of response.
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Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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