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From Chaos to Complicated: How to Navigate the Cynefin Framework

Updated: Nov 8, 2023


a man in braces and a hat stands infront of a large wall sized blackboard filled with calculations, formula, graphs and notes.

The Chaotic Environment

We've all been there – the seemingly never-ending cycle of deadlines, unexpected changes, and constant interruptions that leave us overwhelmed and stressed. Sometimes we go through seasons of disruption, and sometimes those seasons feel never-ending.


The most straightforward way we’ve figured out how to move out of this environment is to categorize the decision-making situations.


The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework is a decision-making tool that helps leaders categorize problems and environments in order to make informed decisions. By understanding the nature of the problem, leaders can identify the best approach to solving it.


It categorizes problems and/or environments into these domains:


Simple:

  • Problems have a clear cause-and-effect relationship and a well-understood solution.

  • Leadership bias to categorization (get each thing done the best way)

Complicated:

  • Problems require analysis and expertise to find a solution.

  • Leadership bias to analysis (what is the best way to get things done)

Complex:

  • Problems have multiple causes with no clear answer, so leaders must experiment and learn as they go.

  • Leadership bias to experimentation (let's try different methods to see what works to get things done)

Chaotic:

  • Problems are unexpected and rapidly changing, requiring immediate action.

  • Leadership bias to action (let's go! you can't streer a parked car!)


The beauty of the Cynefin framework is that it provides a structured and systematic approach to decision-making. As a result, it's a valuable tool for leaders who want to make better decisions, especially in complex and rapidly changing environments.


Categorizing the Environment

The Cynefin Framework is about classifying and responding to events. Still, if we tally up how we most often react to events, even if that’s not the intention, we can effectively classify the environment.


The environment will fall into the simple domain if your processes and expectations are well-understood and straightforward, with clear cause-and-effect relationships and established solutions. We see this in a support environment where the team is trained on how to resolve the bulk of the issues.


It will fall into the complicated domain if you're facing a challenge that requires analysis and expertise, such as integrating new software into your existing systems. This is where we expect to exist in technology or modernization projects, with consistent methodology and a supported team that can make methodical choices based on experience.


The environment falls into the complex domain if your environment is characterized by multiple causes and changing conditions with no clear solution. In this case, teams experiment and learn as they go, prepared for multiple iterations before finding a solution. We expect this in an R&D environment that aims to find innovative solutions, or in environments that are undergoing a lot of organizational change.


It will be chaotic if it’s facing rapid and unexpected changes regularly, such as projects needing to stay on track or retain critical knowledge and skills. In this case, teams need to act quickly to mitigate the impact and contain the problem. We expect chaos in environments where organizational change has been ineffectively managed, or in any project, for any purpose, where the ground has shifted, assumptions proved inaccurate, and things are going unexpectedly off the rails.


We’ve found that companies have especially normalized the chaotic environment in technology environments. Many experience this type of work environment at some point. However, it's essential to recognize that a chaotic environment can harm the well-being and productivity of the people working within it.


Chess pawns on a black surface moving along points attached by lines.

Managing Chaotic Environments

The good news is that it's possible to shift from a chaotic environment to a complicated one. And the benefits of doing so are substantial.


In a complicated environment, we clearly understand our goals and priorities, allowing us to make more informed and effective decisions. Employees are also more motivated and engaged and are better able to collaborate.


But it's important to recognize that shifting from a chaotic to a complicated environment is complex. It requires a structured and systematic approach to decision-making, and it takes time and effort to implement.


The benefits are well worth it. By taking a step back, assessing the situation, and creating a plan of action, you can regain control of the environment and improve your overall well-being and productivity.


It's also important to note that not all work environments need to be clear or free from challenges. A healthy work environment often contains elements of both chaos and challenge. The key is to strike a balance between the two and ensure that the challenges are manageable and motivating.


Where We Come In

We often say that what we do is to walk with you from Chaos to Complicated. Then we give you a cookie, and you put us on speed dial for the next time things get chaotic.


Let's start with a diagnostic, make a plan, regain control and get things happening again.


Talk soon!


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