There’s a lot more to Cynefin than you might think. It’s like an onion. It stinks. And it makes you cry. And it has layers.

Quick Cynefin Catchup

Cynefin's 5 domain mode

Cynefin’s 5 domain model, based on a great illustration by Rob England

See the previous post for a short outline, or Liz Keogh’s longer one.


Very often, I hear people talking as if a given endeavour is only in a single domain. Often those same people rush to the toughest place to be — complexity. And that’s not entirely stupid, as you should pay attention to the most challenging things first.

However, that pulls you towards an overloaded response, that burdens you with far more risk mitigation than you actually need. Which is what we’re generally trying to avoid.

Why? Because most endeavours are in multiple domains, depending on what level you’re looking at.

Multi Domain Example

When I think about Cynefin, I tend to think about travel examples, as they are both concrete enough to imagine (always a powerful enabler for mental stickiness) and contain enough variation to illustrate different levels of complexity.

So let’s think about going on holiday. (Well it is a very dark Swedish November afternoon outside).

Choosing the holiday is definitely a Complex matter. It involves negotiating amongst family members, based on a shifting compromise of conflicting needs and experiences, and balancing that against moving variables of availability and cost and hassle.

OK, so we’ve chosen where and when we’re going. Great stuff. What’s the cheapest and quickest way of getting there? This has some elements of Complexity in it, left over from the previous phase, but this is a matter of analysis. We take this to an expert travel agent who can assess the permutations and come up with a vastly reduced problem space, down to a few options. Or maybe even one.

This works pretty well with data analysis these days that it’s largely automatable, and companies like Skyscanner have done a great job in moving this towards the Simple end of the spectrum.

We still have to get to the airport, which takes planning and maps and working out when we have to leave. Again, technology has vastly simplified this, but it’s still a Complicated analysis.

Come the day of departure, we have a plan to follow. We have packed. We’re in the car. Now all we have to do is follow the route. Definitely Simple.

Ah, but there’s a bridge closed on the only sensible route to the airport! We’re tight for time, so this has a definite edge of Chaos situation. Fortunately, the transport authority has taken control and posted a diversion route that doesn’t add much more than 5 minutes to the travel time. Phew!

One endeavour. 4 successive layers of Cynefin domains. Some endeavours may have several going on at once as you shift your focus back and forward between macro and micro scale.

Treating all of this with the apparatus designed to mitigate the risk of Complexity would be just crazy and inefficient as anything.

If you are experiencing Complexity, regular replanning is essential. If you are not experiencing Complexity, it is highly wasteful. Plan the Work in Complicated domains, reducing the execution problem (Work the Plan) towards Simplicity.

Work out which Cynefin domain each layer of your endeavour is in (and reassess regularly) to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 The Cynefin Ogre by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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