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List of methods / Cynefin® specific methods

The Four Points Contextualization method gathers the collective experiences (turning points or decisions, fact, or fiction, past or future) - known as micro-narratives - of people from an organisation to create the Cynefin® framework and contextualise it to the organisation's own perception of the situation. As such it creates an easy way to agree into which domain a situation falls: incoming data is compared to the "exemplar" micro narratives by which the domains and boundaries are defined. People generally determine their action by reference to the known past or hypothetical future states. This method creates and defines Cynefin® using that principle. It can be used standalone to gain understanding, or as the starting point of a strategy process or conflict resolution event.

Four points has generally been considered the most authentic method of creating the Cynefin® framework. It includes the domain of disorder and instantiates the principle that in a sense-making framework the data precedes the framework in contrast to a categorisation model when the data comes second.

As of 2020, the three points version is intended as the primary method to create the Cynefin® framework. As such, it may make the four point version redundant.


  • You need a large wall and some butcher paper so that an area of around 2m x 3m can be marked out (a smaller area will work)
  • Some tape or bluetack to hold the paper on the wall
  • A number of hexies for the micro-narratives
  • Some ribbon to support the emergence of the framework and some pins to hold the tape on the wall


Steps Notes
A representative group is asked to select the four exemplar micro-narratives that define the extreme states of the Cynefin® framework (although the framework is not explained). Instead the language used is along the lines of:

1. the case where the right answer is most self-evident;

2. where experts or due process should be able to produce the right answer;

3. the case where with the benefits of hindsight we would all know what to do, but not in advance;

4. the most chaotic/random/unexpected event.

These four exemplars are then placed on the extreme corners of a large workspace, ideally a vertical one with lots of natural light and space for people to move around. In a virtual environment this can be done through polling.

If people are not aware of the Cynefin® Framework there is no need to explain it.

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There are variations on how you have the group select the exemplars. Be sure to have them do it without bias, using a representative sample group.

There are variations on how you have the group select the exemplars. Be sure to have them do it without bias, using a representative sample group.

With that complete, each subsequent micro-narrative is placed onto the work space in dynamic tension between the four corners and also with all the other micro-narratives. This can take time and should not be rushed. People should be allowed to modify the micro-narratives or create new ones as they occur to them.

Modifying the micro-narrative may be editing the contents, or splitting off a new micro-narrative and placing that elsewhere. This is a spatial, analogue exercise that is group based.It's done progressively by working through the micro-narrative fragments / data points.

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You'll need to watch for dominant personalities when activities like these take time. Have multiple activities running in the room so you can rotate these dominant individuals.

Once all the items are allocated, you create boundaries using ribbons. Do not under any circumstances allow people to draw them with a pen. The boundaries are created around those items which are unambiguously in one of the four states described in step 1 above. We can now see disorder, and as illustrated, it is normally a very large domain at this stage. Our objective is to reduce disorder to allow an authentic and ontologically aware decision making process so we move onto the next stage This also has a degree of negotiation. If there is ambiguity then it's in Disorder (for now)

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This stage of the process clearly illustrates the power of the Disorder domain and the ability of a diverse group negotiating boundaries. Remind them that metaphor and heuristics can help here, as aids to the discussion of the individual fragments.

The items within each domain are now split into two: those which can define the space and those which are extreme examples.The extreme items represent a boundary zone of the domain, back into disorder. That completes the group. Now proceed to bifurcate, trifurcate or quarter the remaining items in disorder to create the defining boundary objects between the four major domains. With this over, we have a framework where the boundaries have emerged from the data, and where domains and boundaries are defined in language that is understood within the organisation: comprised of the organisation's identity narratives. This is in contrast with other strategy models and processes that use abstract ways or case based examples (mainly from US manufacturing industry Boundaries are finally defined by two perspectives, one on each side, looking in different directions.

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Ultimately the contextualised model is defined by the narrative language of the group; particularly the language of discourse for the group.

Post Process

Now the model is in place it can be incorporated into training programmes so that it becomes part of the common discourse of the organisations:

"Hang on, its like these three examples and they are all complex, so we need to create safe-fail experimental probes not analyse, or Its a dead ringer for this cluster so why aren't we simply applying best practice?."

Human language is intimately linked with and dependent on common narratives, and the naturalistic approach that underpins Cognitive Edge approaches reflects that. Once established the populated framework can also be used to test for cultural affinity, show different silos how their different perception of the domains is creating conflict or misunderstanding etc. etc. We now have the advantages of a categorisation model, but if the model starts to stretch we can always re-set using the emergent process, moving from exploitation to exploration then back to exploitation again.

Do's and Don'ts

Simple bulleted list including common mistakes

  • Do try and use terms that are common and familiar within the organisation
  • Do keep the output of the exercise (take a photo)

In a virtual environment

The method has been conducted in virtual settings with success over a range of platforms.

See also Virtual facilitation

Note to editors - for specific variations It is acceptable to add a third column to the workflow if needed


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.


Shared Context and Sense Making https://www.infoq.com/articles/cynefin-share-context/

Blog posts

Link with commentary


Link to case articles here or third party material