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Cynefin framework

Aim of the method/approach
Decision-making tool to help you deal with management challenges in complex systems

When to use it?
This tool is useful in the planning phase of a process, when decisions are made

How difficult is it to use it?
Easy – moderate – for experienced users/facilitators

Tool for thought or tool for action?
Tool for thought

Helps to make good management decisions by addressing complexity

Description of the tool
The work of Kurtz and Snowden (2003) is helpful in showing how to deal with management challenges in complex systems. They developed a decision-making tool, the Cynefin (Welsh for “habitat”) framework, which distinguishes between four key types of situation: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. In this framework, the level of complexity is related to the nature of the relationship between cause and effect, and this requires different forms of analysis, planning, monitoring and management. An explanation of these four types is presented within the context of the framework developed by Snowden and Boone (2007) to guide leaders and practitioners in their decision-making and management styles.

Simple context – the domain of practice
In simple contexts or ‘known knowns’, there are limited, stable interactions, and cause-and-effect relationships are predictable and clear to everyone. In this context leaders/development practitioners must first assess (sense) the facts of a situation, then categorize and respond to it. Simple contexts are often heavily process-oriented, such as the processing of loan payments. Following strict procedures and using ‘best practices’ will generally lead to the same result. In this situation, decisions can be delegated and the appropriate actions taken and so close monitoring is not needed. To avoid complacency and to keep on top of new changes, leaders/development practitioners need to communicate regularly with staff and stakeholders and have an open-door policy towards those with innovative ideas on improving processes.

Complicated context − the domain of experts
In complicated contexts or ‘known unknowns’, there is a clear relationship between cause-and-effect, but not everyone can see it, and there may be multiple right answers to problems that may arise. In this situation, leaders/development practitioners need to sense, analyse and respond to the situation. Experts can help to analyse the situation, and investigate options. For example, a sick child can be diagnosed and treated by a medical doctor, or an irrigation engineer can be called upon to help find solutions to irrigation problems. Within this context, monitoring needs to be supported by those with the specific expertise in question.

Complex context − the domain of emergence
In complex contexts or ‘unknown unknowns’ cause-and-effect relationships may be identifiable in retrospect, but cannot be predicted with any certainty. Here, dealing with multiple challenges requires to first probe, then sense and respond to a situation. Examples include dealing with climate change, food security or HIV/AIDS where solutions are not known beforehand but need to be discovered through the collaboration of different experts and practitioners (e.g. interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research). In this situation, outcomes may be unforeseen and this requires initiatives to be flexible and closely monitored to adapt quickly when results prove negative. This also requires room to conduct safe-fail experiments, so that instructive patterns can emerge. It also involves working closely with key stakeholders to understand what is happening, how planned interventions are progressing, and practising adaptive management.

Chaotic context − the domain of rapid response
In chaotic contexts or ‘unknowables’, cause-and-effect relationships are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist, only turbulence. Leaders are expected to first act to establish order, then to sense where there is stability and instability and respond in a manner that transforms the chaotic situation into a complex one, or even into a simple situation. Examples include crises like the September 11, 2001 attack, drought, or war. In crisis management, communication is crucial and has to be direct and top-down as there is no time to consult people. It is important to transform this situation from chaos to a complex one where identification of emerging patterns can help discover new opportunities and prevent similar situations happening in the future.

Steps needed when using the tool
Each of these types of context requires a different decision-making and management style with implications for the way M&E is carried out, as described in the table below:


  • Kurtz, C.F. and Snowden, D.J. (2003) ‘The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex and Complicated World’, IBM Systems Journal, 42(3). Available from: http:// [accessed 6 March 2017].
  • Kusters, C.S.L. et al (2017). Managing for Sustainable Development Impact: an Integrated Approach to Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. Wageningen, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen University & Research, and Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.
  • Snowden, D.J. and Boone, M. (2007) ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’, Harvard Business Review, November 2007: 69–76.