Explaining Cynefin for the first time

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Introducing Cynefin® in one line:

  • Cynefin® is a framework which helps you make sense of the world, so you can act more effectively in it.


Cynefin® can be beneficial in a number of ways:

  • It can be used as a backdrop for conflict management between different parties in a problem area that requires cooperation. This process requires 'collective sensemaking'.
  • It can be used to map a problematic situation so different strategies can be used to handle different subdomains of the problem.

The Cynefin® Framework helps us to get a grip on the nature of the dynamics of the situation we are in. We can never get a full understanding of how things are because we as humans are only able to take in a fraction of the available information. However, by defining what is most defining for the dynamics of the interactions in the patterns around us, we get enough sense of the situation to act successfully.

Much simplified the Cynefin® Framework helps us understand the nature of the ways things are, which helps us better connect to the way we know how to act. Put another way, it is an Ontological Framework that has Epistemological implications.


These two ways of introducing Cynefin® reflect the way many people come to understand Cynefin®, as a framework that can:

  • on one level, be understood and of value simply by being drawn as picture on the back of a table napkin or any blank paper readily to hand.
  • on another level, because the framework incorporates and draws upon a number of bodies of knowledge, there is still value to be gained over a long period of time.

One of the unique strengths of Cynefin® is that it respects many ways of knowing, how to act and what to do. Put another way it does not imply that all knowledge accumulated to date must be forgotten. Cynefin® acknowledges and is explicit in stating that many ways of doing things have value - in the appropriate context.


There are three main types of context, or systems. These can be summarised as contexts or systems where the nature of the system means:

  • there is no known relationship, between actions taken and what may happen as a result. A Chaotic system is inherently unstable, it has no restrictions or constraints and the outcomes of actions or interventions are unknowable.
  • actions taken can have multiple possible results. In Complex Systems, constraints do exist but they are not rigid, human systems are complex and interactions between people can result in unexpected or emergent outcomes.
  • actions taken will have stable and predictable outcomes. Ordered Systems, are highly constrained and stable, or rigid, a cause or an action results in an effect.


In Cynefin®:

  • Chaotic systems are represented by the Chaotic domain.
  • Complex systems are represented by the Complex domain.
  • Ordered systems are represented by the Complicated and Clear domains.


Understanding the nature of the current context or system is, however, not always clear. In complex systems for example, outcomes cannot be reliably predicted in advance, but may appear to be obvious in hindsight. This hindsight can lead to a mistaken belief that a lack of knowledge or error in judgement was to blame for an avoidable mistake. The true cause of unexpected outcomes is often confusion about what the nature of the context or system being dealt with was.


In Cynefin® confusion about the nature of the context or system being dealt with, is represented by the Confused domain.


So in summary, the Cynefin® Framework helps people:

  • make sense of the nature of the context or system they are part of, in order to
  • make better decisions on how they can know what to do.


Movement between Cynefin Domains

It can be helpful as an analogy, to visualise changes in context or the domains of Cynefin® as changes in state, or phase shifts between solid, liquid and gaseous forms of matter.

  • Solid matter has a definite, or stable, form. Solids can become a liquid, or in some situations can skip straight to a gaseous form. Solids are like the Complicated or Clear domains.
  • Liquid matter can take many forms, depending on the context or boundaries acting upon it. Liquids can change to become either a solid or a liquid. Liquids are like the Complex domain.
  • Gases can be unstable, unpredictable, and whilst many cannot be seen with the naked eye, their impacts are observable. Gases are like the Chaotic domain.


As with changes or phase shifts in states of matter, changes in context or systems require energy. In Cynefin® one way to talk about the disposition of a context or system, to move between one state and another, is to talk about the energy gradient of the system.

Understanding or making sense of these changes is developed further by Cynefin® Dynamics, movement between domains has been part of the Cynefin® Framework since its inception. At times, it may not be obvious when a change in state, or domain, is plausible, possible, or predictable. The Cynefin® Framework helps increase awareness when these changes in state, context or system are beginning to happen, or have already changed. This is useful as these changes, particularly when unexpected, are often a sources of confusion, particularly when outcomes which have previously been stable and predictable suddenly become unstable and unpredictable.

The last domain in Cynefin® is the Aporetic domain. One way to effect a move between domains in Cynefin® is through a deliberate move into a state, from which, many potential outcomes are possible - causing some deliberate confusion as to the actual outcome. This move and state is represented by the Aporia domain.


  1. triple point to introduce the domain of confusion

The triple point in thermodynamics is the point at which the three phases (gas, liquid, and solid) of a substance coexist in thermodynamic equilibrium. Similarly, there can be a point where a system can be chaotic, order and complex which we refer to as a state of confused, or the domain of confusion. It is also an authentic state as we may not truly know which state we are in and may need to explore the system.

  1. the catastrophic fold
  2. add aporia as A/C label
  3. add liminal line and that also contextualises aporia
  4. add reverse liminality
  5. add dynamics and the four points of coherence
  6. generating outcomes and contextualising to map to domains
  7. 3D representation to demonstrate energy expenditure of movement