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The Cynefin Framework: An Application

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Romeo Lavarias
March 29, 2021

2020 will undoubtedly go down as a year unlike any experienced by many, due to COVID-19, the most active hurricane season in history and social and political protests, to name a few reasons. 2020 challenged all public administrators with their daily decisionmaking in public organizations. But through this chaos lies an opportunity to look at decisionmaking in our organizations and how we may run them—and ourselves for that matter—for the better, and for the “new abnormal” environment that may stay with us. We have learned that more and more will be asked of us, and expected from us, because of the new environment. We are now facing an added layer of complexity to the everyday decisions and efforts. So, we need to be able to distinguish between the multitude of decisions we are faced with. One way of accomplishing this is through the application of the Cynefin Framework, which was introduced at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Emergency Management Institute’s (EMI) Executive Academy in 2019.

The Cynefin Framework was proposed by David J. Snowden and Cynthia F. Kurtz in a 2013 article in IBM Systems Journal, titled, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex and Complicated World.” They challenge the three notions prevalent in organizational decisionmaking, 1) the assumption of order, 2) rational choice and 3) of intent, in that they may not all be true, but yet the decisionmaking tools and techniques assume that they are present. What makes Cynefin unique is that, as stated by Snowden and Kurtz, it:

“Gives decisionmakers powerful new constructs that they can use to make sense of a wide range of unspecified problems. It also helps people to break out of old ways of thinking and to consider intractable problems in new ways. The framework is particularly useful in collective sense-making, in that it is designed to allow shared understandings to emerge through the multiple discourses of the decisionmaking group.”

Julia Wester, on her website, Everyday Kanban, simplifies the Cynefin Framework by proposing that not all situations are equal and can be labeled or grouped. She then applies different responses to each group. She further eludes, “How often have we come across someone trying to handle a difficult situation in an oversimplistic way, and then be confused that it failed?”

The Cynefin Framework proposes five (5) domains for all problems:

  • Obvious is where cause and effect are linear, empirical in nature and generally not open to dispute. The decision model used here is to sense the incoming data, categorize the data and the respond in accordance with predetermined practice. Wester describes this as the domain where problems are understandable, and solutions are evident.
  • Complicated is where cause and effect are in place, but may not fully be known, or may only be known to a small select group of people. This is where expertise may be sought out. Snowden & Kurtz propose that in the complicated domain, experiment, expert opinion, fact-finding and scenario-planning are appropriate. This is the domain of methodology, which seeks to identify cause-effect relationships through the study of properties which appear to be associated with qualities. Wester places best practices in this domain.
  • Complex is where we seek understanding from multiple perspectives because we may not even know what the question may be. Snowden & Kurtz state that this is the time to stand still, pay attention and gain new perspective on the situation rather than relying on past experiences to determine your response. Wester proposes that the best approach is to develop and experiment to gather more knowledge in the plan to move this problem into the complicated domain.
  • Chaotic is where there is no perceived link between cause and effect. The system is turbulent and there is no time to investigate the change. It requires immediate action, quickly and decisively. Wester proposes that the problem requires containing the problem and fixing it immediately. Once stabilized, then you can look into what the next steps should be.
  • Disorder is where all players involved in a problem seek to use all four domains. Some will try to apply the usual standards of practice, some will seek to experiment, some will seek to seek outside input and some will try and solve it immediately. Wester proposes that you seek out what information you know and what information you do not know to guide everyone towards the appropriate domain.

Given today’s social and political environment, and the unknown future that lies ahead of public organizations, effective and efficient decisionmaking will always be needed. Nothing wastes more time or causes more damage than trying to impose a solution to an incorrect situation. The Cynefin Framework can tell us how to approach situations or identify what situation we are currently in. Therefore, by knowing what type of situation you are dealing with, you can utilize your limited resources far more effectively and efficiently towards problem-solving.


Author: Romeo is the Emergency Manager for the City of Miramar, FL and is an Adjunct Professor for Barry University’s Public Administration Program where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He is a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers. His research interests include homeland security, ethics, emergency management, and performance measurement. 

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