The Cynefin Framework

Contingency Theory
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Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

The Cynefin Framework

A recent application of contingency thinking on decision-making is the Cynefin framework described by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone in the HBR of Nov 2007. They distinguish between 5 decision-making contexts, each requiring its own decision-making style:
I. Simple
- Characteristics of context / How can you recognize it? Clear causes and effect.
- Recommended Decision-making style: Ensure proper processes are in place, delegate. Apply the best practice.
- Decision model: Sense ⇒ Categorize ⇒ Respond.
II. Complicated
- Characteristics of context / How can you recognize it? Cause and effect relationships discoverable, but not apparent to everyone.
- Recommended Decision-making style: Involve (teams of) experts, analyze. Apply a good practice.
- Decision model: Sense ⇒ Analyze ⇒ Respond.
III. Complex
- Characteristics of context / How can you recognize it? No causality, emergence, flux.
- Recommended Decision-making style: Create safe experiments, wait for patterns to emerge. Then amplify or dampen/drop. Apply the emergent practice.
- Decision model: Probe ⇒ Sense ⇒ Respond.
IV. Chaotic
- Characteristics of context / How can you recognize it? Turbulence, crisis
- Recommended Decision-making style: Take immediate action, communicate clear and directly. Apply a novel practice.
- Decision model: Act ⇒ Sense ⇒ Respond
V. Disorder
- Characteristics of context / How can you recognize it? None of the 4 above is prevailing or at least it is not known which one is prevailing.
- Recommended Decision-making style: Break down into the other 4 realms.

Adept decision-makers should learn how to:
1. Identify the context properly
2. Change their behavior and decisions to match that context
3. Prepare their organizations to understand and deal with the different contexts.

See also the Stacey Matrix.


Gary Wong
Consultant, Canada

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Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

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Philippe Guenet
Coach, United Kingdom

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