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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

A Beautiful Approach to Making Difficult Decisions

How do you make difficult decisions? Benchmarks, experts, experiments? Do you tailor your approach or see what sticks? In reality, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Different situations benefit from different approaches. And one way to really clarify this is through the Cynefin framework.

What it is

The Cynefin (pronounced kuh-NEV-in) framework offers a way to think about the problems and decisions in a very helpful way. It’s changed how I think about everything from humanity to strategy. It’s changed how I coach. It really is a goldmine.

The model itself was developed by David Snowden in 1999, while at IBM. Cynefin comes from the Welsh word meaning habitat or place. Snowden implied that this is wrapped in the idea of connection and perception.

The Cynefin framework is a conceptual decision-making tool. Its purpose is to help leaders make sense of situations and behaviors. And it looks like this:

We’ll get into what all this means, but this isn’t a typical two-by-two matrix. There aren’t axes of high to low, like a typical categorization model. (e.g. the BCG matrix). The Cynefin framework is a sense-making model. It’s a way to try to understand and make sense of the data we observe.

  • In the bottom-right, we find the obvious domain. Things here are predictable and repeatable.

  • In the complicated domain, there is still cause and effect, but it’s not clear. It requires expertise to figure out and there might be multiple right answers.

  • In the complex domain, things are unpredictable. Cause and effect exist but can only be determined in retrospect, looking back.

  • Finally, in the bottom-left is the chaotic domain. Here, this is no cause and effect, period. Things are in disorder.

The reason this all matters is that each of the four situations calls for different actions. When we can understand which domain we’re in, we can tailor our responses. And this is a very powerful way to approach making decisions.


The obvious domain is characterized by very clear cause and effect. Things here are predictable and repeatable. Examples in life might be simple tasks, like driving a car or cooking a meal. People who work in the obvious domain include factory workers or custodians and cleaners.

In the obvious domain, we see fixed constraints. There are rules to follow when driving. There are clearly specified steps to take in the assembly process in a factory.

When something comes up as a decision in the simple domain, we sense, categorize, and respond. This means that we take quick stock of what’s happening and categorize it into a known and predictable pattern. If the fire alarm is beeping and there’s no fire, we know that the battery needs to be changed.

This is where (and only where) the idea of best practice can come into play. In the simple domain, there is a discernible best response that we can take, and we can build a catalog of those best practices for each of the categories we build.


In a complicated domain, there is still cause and effect, but it’s not clear. It requires expertise to figure out and there might be multiple right answers. Difficult math problems or designing a newsletter might be in the complicated domain. In the professional world, coders and architects work in this domain often.

Here, there are governing constraints. That is to say, there are no clear rules for every situation, but there are some defined boundaries that clarify what’s in and out of bounds. An architect may be designing creative solutions, but there are codes and regulations to stay within.

Instead of sense, categorize, respond, we sense, analyze, and respond. The answer isn’t obvious, but it can be figured out. We can bring in experts and data to help identify the possible next steps, and there might be several.

In this domain, there is no longer a best practice response. Instead, there are good practices. This is an important distinction. There is not a perfect solution here, there are many potential choices, some good, some bad. People will disagree, and that disagreement is helpful in making a good decision.


Not to be confused with the complicated domain, the complex domain is characterized by unpredictability. Cause and effect still exist, but they can only be determined in hindsight. Big life decisions can be complex. Romantic relationships can be complex. Doctors, politicians, and military leaders spend a lot of time in the complex space.

In this domain, we find enabling constraints, or light or fluid constraints. Because causality is difficult to determine in the complex system, there are no hard and fast rules, no strict limitations. Constraints may change or even be changed by our actions.

Here, we react through probe, sense, and respond. This means we must explore and test before we can make a good decision. We build safe-to-fail experiments, not failsafe designs. This is the land of brainstorming and getting smart people in the room.

What we come out with is an emergent practice, something new. The value of experts here is no longer in best or good practices, but in creating unique ideas and approaches.


Chaos is defined by randomness. In the chaotic domain, there is no cause and effect. Natural disasters can be chaotic. A business crisis can be chaotic. Startup founders can visit the chaotic domain often as they pivot and deal with setbacks.

Here, there are no constraints. The situation is chaotic and never-before-seen, and the factors that determine causality are constantly shifting.

In order to stabilize the situation, we act, sense, and respond. In a way, any action is acceptable. Because there are no constraints, we can’t design safe-to-fail experiments. Instead of probing, we act with our best guess and adapt based on how it plays out.

What comes out of this is a novel practice, something completely new. Although there are lessons learned, it’s both the first time and the last time this practice will be used, because this event will not happen again or in the same way.

The “cliff”

It’s worth noting that there are transitions between any of the four domains with one exception: moving between obvious and chaotic. In the Cynefin framework, this is drawn as a cliff or symbolized with a squiggle at the bottom of the boundary.

The risk here is that people who are grounded in obvious domains and ways of thinking, often those focused on process and best practice, can get complacent and fall off the cliff in a crisis when things become chaotic. Out of instinct, they apply bureaucracy as a solution and only cause more harm. They are vulnerable to change.

A simplified example from earlier is that, when the fire alarm is beeping, an obvious domain response to change the battery might make sense. Best practice. But if it’s beeping because of a fire, because of a chaotic event, you need to diverge from best practice and act in a novel way.

This makes the obvious domain a very hazardous place to stay in the long-term. The implication here is that management practices should spend the most time in the complicated and complex domains, moving rarely into the more risky obvious domain and moving into the chaotic domain only when necessary.


There is a fifth domain, and it’s the dark area in the middle, joining the other four. It’s called “disorder,” and it means not knowing which of the domains you’re in. The inherent risk of not knowing is that we tend to fall back on our habits and preferences.

Snowden argues that this is where we spend most of our time, in disorder. We may naturally lean towards our preferred ways of responding, but the danger is in applying them to each and every circumstance. We are each naturally drawn to best practices or expertise or brainstorming, and can go there by default.

Only having one view on how to respond limits us from tailoring our approach and holds us back from effective decision-making. This is the lesson I’ll end with.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the many different situations of life. Take some time to integrate this framework into your life and use it to inform how you react. And know, too, that no one situation fits perfectly into a single domain. There is always fluidity and flexibility.

The Cynefin framework is one tool to help us think better about our decisions. If you are curious about more resources I’d suggest watching David Snowden explain the model himself or visiting his company, Cognitive Edge. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Originally published in The Startup


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