Today, we discuss making sense of complexity, and the Cynefin framework from a leadership perspective and why applying this theory in the workplace can often be tricky.

Complexity science is a vast topic that covers many talking points. In this post, we’re going to zero in on one specific aspect of complexity: the Cynefin framework. It has been around since the late 90s, but what exactly is it?

Don’t worry; we’ll briefly go over this, but the article’s primary focus is to consider complexity in the workplace. How can leaders make sense of complexity while at work?

Let’s jump into things!

What is the Cynefin framework?

The Cynefin framework is a system that Dave Snowden developed in 1999. Its primary goal is to enable leaders to understand the different workplace challenges better. As a result, this will help individuals make decisions in context. It’s all about aiding leaders in figuring out how to make sense of the challenges they face and what actions should be taken.

How does the Cynefin framework work?

The whole ethos behind this framework is splitting situations into four domains or categories.

These are:

  • Complex
  • Complicated
  • Chaotic
  • Simple

How do you assign a situation to a category? It’s all down to the options you have and the cause-and-effect relationship.

The simple domain is when you have clear options, and it’s obvious what the cause and effect are to everyone involved.

The complicated domain is for situations with multiple correct solutions and a clear relationship between cause and effect. However, the issue is complex, so the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t clear to everyone involved. You can see a few reasons why there’s a problem, but how to fix it is not apparent.

In the chaotic domain, there is no relationship between cause and effect, so you must figure out how to stabilise the situation. This is typically the category that crisis scenarios fall into – like something happening out of the blue. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of this.

Finally, we have the complex domain. This will be our primary focus, but how do you define complexity in the workplace? The Cynefin framework dictates that complex situations are those where you may struggle to pinpoint a specific correct solution. Likewise, you struggle to find the relationship between cause and effect. Unfortunately, the majority of business situations fall into this category.

If you want to learn more about this framework in detail, there’s a good article here that goes through each domain and explains them. We’ll not worry about the other three for the rest of this post, as complexity is our main focus.

How do you solve complex situations?

Making sense of complexity in the workplace can be tricky for anyone. As mentioned above, it is often hard to distinguish the cause-and-effect relationships around you and in situations like that, it is also hard to know that what you are doing now is actually going to make things better or worse.

In this type of situation, ambiguity is common together with the understandable anxiety this can cause for many of us. Leaning into that and understanding that in order to move through it you need to accept it can help. Continuing to act and looking for patterns that occur in response is important, as is reflecting on how you need to alter the way you are leading to support those around you to stick with it while you collectively make sense of what is happening.

According to the Cynefin framework, you need to follow this path:

  1. Probe
  2. Sense
  3. Respond

Probing the situation is another way of saying you should explore it in more detail. Dig deeper into the problem and try to learn more about it. One of the reasons these issues are complex is that they require more innovative thinking to come up with solutions.

The “sense” step is more about assessing what to do next. You need to inspect and pick apart the situation, outlying a few possible solutions to try.

Your response will then enact the solutions, but this should be done as an experiment. The issue’s complexity means you are likely to come up with ideas that do not work. But that is all part of the process. Business experiments help you see what works and what doesn’t, slowly allowing you to find the best possible conclusion. These experiments also help you gain more information and notice any patterns emerging.

Ultimately, the aim is to shift this problem through the other categories. Eventually, you will find the relationship between cause and effect, making it a complicated problem rather than a complex one. Then, the solution and the cause/effect relationship become clear, meaning you have a simple problem on your hands.

Why is complexity a challenge for leaders?

The very nature of complexity makes it the thorn in many leaders’ sides. Wouldn’t it be lovely if every problem was simple? At the very least, complicated issues are easier to manage.

The main issue with complex ones is that it can be hard to see what actually caused the problem. There is no clear cause/effect relationship, so finding a solution is complex. Not to mention you must deal with this while running a business where time is everything. Fast solutions should be seen, but this isn’t always possible when the situation is complex and unpredictable.

Often, solutions to complex problems are only apparent in hindsight. After you have done something, you realise what the right path is. Experimenting is critical; you must explore different options and see the possible outcomes.

How to make better sense of complexity

So, what is the best way to make better sense of complex situations? Sure, adopting the Cynefin framework is an excellent first step. However, one better idea is to get help with your problems. Talk to others and receive different opinions and perspectives – this can help you try solutions you never thought of before or identify causes you wouldn’t have inspected. It’s the adage of two heads being better than one.

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