Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis

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Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin® framework

This publication is a shared effort between the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, and the Cynefin® Centre. It aims to provide sense-making support to the European policymaking process. The output expressed does not imply a policy position of the European Commission.

The tasks and opportunities below are short term, starting early 2021.

Description of book

This field guide helps to navigate crises using the Cynefin® framework as a compass.

It proposes a four-stage approach through which we can:

  • assess the type of crisis and initiate a response;
  • adapt to the new pace and start building sensing networks to inform decisions;
  • repurpose existing structures and working methods to generate radical innovation;
  • transcend the crisis, formalise lessons learnt and increase resilience.

The field guide stresses the importance of setting and managing boundaries, building informal structures, keeping options open, distributing engagement and keeping an ongoing assessment of the evolving landscape.

Action items, real life examples and demonstrations complement the references to the developing theoretical framework.

Category: 2.2.1 Books

Bibliographic Information

Snowden, D. and Rancati, A., Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis. A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin® framework, Smith, B., Snowden, E., Winthagen, V., Andriani, P. and Caspari, A. editor(s), Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020, JRC123629



What to do first

  1. Assess the situation & orient yourself to the issue at hand.
  2. Create response strategies, including what the triggers will be for a phase shift back to normal operation when the crisis is over.
  3. Create your approach towards interventions and how to manage constraints.
  4. Design Briefs, Goals and Missions, using material produced by the sensing networks.

Decisions to be made

  1. If it isn't a crisis, then focus on Organisational resilience and monitor for outliers that indicate if the system is becoming over constrained.
  2. If it is a crisis, decisions must be made quickly, authority and hierarchy is useful in these circumstances.
  3. Set Draconian constraints, including to prevent premature convergence.
  4. Capitalise on opportunities to make changes whilst the system is open to it.
  5. Make focussed, tactical use of shallow dives into chaos, using small numbers from existing informal networks by relaxing constraints.

Tasks and activities

  1. Create triggers to identify emerging issues which were unknowable beforehand.
  2. Distribute the cognition
  3. Create a map of the Dispositional Landscape
  4. Start Journaling
  5. Reset measures to the short-term, focus on the present, ahead of Crew design



Open communication during the Adapt stage is critical and should be communication by engagement and action. Use Commanders Intent over direct orders or what to do.

Leadership activity

  1. Craft the conceptual Scaffolding
  2. Centralised coherence (understanding) of the big picture and set Vector measures.
  3. Design Crews - Using the Briefs, Goals and Missions design, set the reporting cadence.
  4. Design and make Social Network Stimulation interventions - de-risk these through using informal networks and enable spontaneity and awareness across Crews.
  5. Co-ordinate portfolio of interventions using the approach designed in Assess stage, weave together insights from the Crews.

Sense making

  1. Distribute the engagement and use Fractal Decision Making.
  2. Gather rich data.
  3. Disintermediate Crew insights from the Leadership.

Tasks and activities

  1. Work at a coherent level of granularity - generally this means at a lower, or more finely grained level.
  2. Break up consensus, reduce team sizes, set up Crews.
  3. Fragment information to increase knowledge transfer and creation, as well as increase the options to recombine and repurpose later.
  4. Reduce the cadence, focus on Weak Signals identified from the Human Sensor Network, monitor for anything that appears to be stabilising.
  5. Map and manage dispositions. Focus on how to create 'more stories like this, less like that'
  6. Dispositional Exaptation or Adjacent Possibles - monitor for opportunities and issues.
  7. Continuous mapping and managing of constraints and boundaries.


Stress-based Exaptation

In a crisis or Chaos:

  1. Scan assets using ASHEN and repurpose whatever is at hand, doing something is better than nothing.
  2. Leverage opportunities where something has been commodified.
  3. Separate needs or challenges from knowledge, to enable recombination.
  4. Look for novel combinations of roles, processes, paradigms, values, assets, capabilities and connections.
  5. Weave learnings into design of Briefs, Goals and Missions as well as interventions.

Simulated Exaptation

If you're in Chaos by choice:

  1. Use Probing Crews if they're already set up, nurture competencies and capabilities over relying on methods.
  2. Remove constraints and conceptual boundaries, reframe the problem, think in concepts and metaphors, challenge the norm.
  3. Explore unreasonable ideas.
  4. Use Boundary objects to understand the disposition of the organisation and the wider landscape.
  5. Use Speculative Design and conceptual prototypes to explore Adjacent Possibles.
  6. Challenge assumptions, preconceptions and paradigms.
  7. Replace filtering of any outputs generated by reflection, with abstract signification.
  8. Dampen activity which isn't working

Dispositional Exaptation

If you're designing for exaptation:

  1. Design strategic interventions and Conceptual Scaffolding canvases.
  2. Design SNS interventions, making generative use of informal networks.
  3. Design Organisation structures and processes to create novel could connections based on experiences.
  4. Entangle novel combinations of roles in action based research experiments.
  5. Choreograph (Stage and Structure) fractal engagements of: Individuals; Triads; Groups; and Plenary, to ritualise knowledge exchange.
  6. Design harvesting methods to collect needs or challenges and Knowledge, using templates which produce actionable outputs.
  7. Capture Rich Data.
  8. Challenge roles, question the problem space, but maintain coherence. Don't break constraints that can't be restored.
  9. Ensure needs or challenges and knowledge are separated, to enable novel re-combinations to be made.



Set Draconian Constraints but have a relaxed style in a crisis.

  1. Maintain awareness of relaxing controls to far in crisis and an inevitable subsequent re-imposition.
  2. Make decisions on what novelty to keep, and what to revert.

Tempo and Organisational design

Adapt and evolve the cadence of review cycles to allow stability, increasing cadence as things start to stabilise.

  1. Use review cycles which create stability and endurance over velocity.
  2. Maintain coherent heterogeneity of cadence and control.
  3. Follow Heuristics for size of units


Create narrative and sense-making infrastructure, which can be used as a training dataset when codifying learning.

  1. Set Boundary Conditions around autonomy and clarity about rules and expectations if they are broken.
  2. Use mass engagement and journaling of narratives, particularly when crossing the boundary to recovery.
  3. Use training dataset to create Anticipatory Triggers for later Weak Signal detection.

Codify Learning

Consolidate and ritualise learnings, to scaffold Organisational Resilience, before Organisational memory fades.

  1. Link situational narratives to capabilities and assets, generating insights about novel combinations as opportunities to repurpose. (Boyd Spiral + Wardley)
  2. Use Ritual Failure in Anthro Simulations to increase scanning, including for Weak Signal detection.
  3. Create and use Archetypes to depersonalise and displace failure.

Future development

Method documentation and workflow builds

  1. Knowledge mapping includes Decision mapping and the Dependency matrix with associated workflows, forms and other supporting documents maybe done with one time or several
  2. Constraint mapping and visualisation including control forms for constraint variation together with monitoring systems may include writhing a concept piece
  3. Triopticon which will include the need for graphic visualisation and animation
  4. Crews formation and training process together with role definition and operational procedures - crisis and non-crisis
  5. Document and create process for the aporetic turn including methods for creating aporia as well as safe to fail probes including linked control document and process

Slots requiring base knowledge of SenseMaker®

  1. Documentation and process for creating human sensor networks in the public (will require SenseMaker® knowledge)
  2. Documentation and process for creating human sensor networks in an organisation (will require SenseMaker® knowledge)
  3. Document MassSense process for distributed situational assessment and scenario planning, some funds are available to create a basic workflow package around existing SenseMaker® capability (open APIs) and this opportunity may includes sweat equity options
  4. Exaptive generation of novelty - this requires SenseMaker® knowledge and also has sweat equity options for the development of automated workflow

Training and adoption support material

Awaiting definition