Cynefin Dynamics

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Cynefin Dynamics


Although some people tend to take a static view of the Cynefin® domains, Cynefin® always intended to look at the dynamics of situations. Making sense of a situation will always have a degree of fluidity as the context evolves and the knowledge progresses. The introduction of liminality renewed the attention to Cynefin® Dynamics and many dynamics exist. The above diagram captures the essential ones, which we are detailing below. The decisions points have been marked (alpha, beta, gama, etc) and are also explained.

Movement between the domain can be achieved by:

  • Progressing the knowledge from multiple probes
  • Changing the nature of the constraints (enabling / rules or governing / policies)
  • Placing boundaries and the nature of the boundaries
  • Decomposition
  • Etc.


Blue line: Progressing to Stability

This is the most stable pattern. It starts in the Complex domain making use of multiple safe-to-fail probes. As some of the probes start revealing a path forward, probes are narrowed and iterated in the liminal domain to confirm that they are producing consistent repeatable results and that stabilisation is possible. As the certainty increases, it transitions into the Complicated domain. On the other hand, if and for as long as the probes produce variable / inconsistent results, it cannot progress towards the Complicated domain and remains in the Complex domain.

This journey goes through the alpha inflection point in the liminal space between Complex and Complicated, which will verify that genuine repeatability & certainty has been achieved to support the progress to the Complicated domain.

Shifting to the Complicated domain allows us to exploit the solution and gain critical scale by aggregation or repetition. The transition to the complicated domain will also lead to the formation of governing constraints.

The journey of the blue line continues with the Beta inflection point. At this point it is time to confirm:

  • If this is genuinely in the Complicated domain, or if the situation has evolved and destabilised what was previously established. In practice it is important to check (and double check) if variations and exceptions are happening. This would call for cycling back to the Complex domain
  • If the situation has continued to stabilise successfully and proven so over a period of time, it would make a candidate for the Clear domain.

The progress to the Clear domain involves some level of popularisation through the rigidification and/or automation of policies, processes or procedures. It enables further progress in scale and repetition without the need for a high level of expertise.

Moving to the Clear domain is a commitment as, once you get into Clear, it is difficult and has a high cost to return from (for instance, imagine reverting the decision of which side of the road you drive on). This is why there is a further Delta check-point, just before committing, at the transition between Complicated and Complex. If the stability cannot be confirmed at this point to warrant progress to the Clear domain, it requires a radical rethink (see Red line).

Red line: Route of radical change (Shallow dive into chaos)

The red dynamic is triggered as a last-ditch recovery from the Delta inflection point, and when we realise that the situation is not sufficiently stable to progress to the Clear domain. A typical such scenario would be when the stability may appear to result from the constraints, but people have built an immunity to them and the apparent stability is in fact the result of informal networks and the practices that have developed work-arounds.

This is the point where radical new thinking is needed and the red line goes through Aporia and optionally a shallow dive into the Chaotic domain before rejoining the blue line in Complex - beware of entrained expertise in the complex/chaotic liminal state as could make this a potentially hazardous change.

Passing through Aporia and the Gamma inflection point offers a state of suspension where things can go multiple ways. The situation can become decomposed, recomposed and exapted.

Purple line: the grazing dynamic

The purple line is a constant cycle that can never stabilise in fluid situations, it is a state of near-continuous liminality

The cycle starts in the Complex domain with multiple safe-to-fail probes but the patterns that may emerge are only ever temporary and never settle past the liminal area between Complex and Complicated domains.

The cycle then circles through Aporia to decompose, recompose, exapt and a shallow-dive into the Chaotic domain to imagine radical novel ideas that will feed the cycle again, maybe with a chance to achieve stability and joining the blue line.

Early-day start-ups and people focused on innovation tend to operate in this Purple line / grazing dynamic. This requires a very different way of managing, by distributing the decision making, setting intents and holding the coherence.


  • Exiting from Chaos - The aporetic liminal area is also the normal target for an exit from involuntary Chaos.
  • Innovation always involves a shift in Aporia.
  • The shallow dive into the Chaotic domain enables breaking the ossification of organisations.

Decision points

Decision points
Inflection Point Domain Dynamic Decisions
Alpha Complex-Complicated or Complex-Complex <include>
Beta Complicated-Clear or Complicated-Complex <include>
Delta Complicated-Clear or Complicated-Aporetic <include>
Gamma Aporetic-Redistribution through decomposition <include>

Exercises & methods facilitating the inflection points and transitions

  • Scrum in the liminal transition between Complex and Complicated domains (alpha inflection point). Scrum offers an iterative approach to prove repeatability
  • Entangled trios to offer cognitive diversity for making sense and decisions in the Aporetic phase (gamma inflection point).
  • A number of facilitation techniques can support the shallow dive into chaos such as Ritual Dissent or Triopticon.



The Dynamics and Constraints of Cynefin Zhen Goh at #AgileIndiaLite 2020

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