The Cynefin decision-making framework

The appropriate way to lead a group changes based on the situation you find yourself in — is it right to command people without listening to their input? This framework for thinking can help make that choice.

It’s pronounced KUN-iv-in, of course! It’s Welsh, meaning a habitat — and carries with it a sense of rootedness. It’s more like a place to stand — a place to view your own perceptions and make a choice.

A visual guide to the Cynefin Framework by Edwin Stoop, demonstrating the process of making a decision that is outlined below.

A visual guide to the Cynefin Framework. Edwin Stoop

The core idea behind the framework for decision making is that depending on the situation, the path to making a choice isn’t always the same.

The above graphic demonstrates the core principals — that the context in which you’re making a decision can be thought of in five ways — either simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or disorder. Let’s examine them by looking at the extremes — simple and chaos.

Simple situations

Simple situations are straightforward, easy-to-make decisions where everyone can likely make the right choice. I was recently helping to stuff 4,000 attendee packets for a conference — it was a classic simple situation.

Decisions in simple situations are best made in a distributed fashion. Anyone can likely make the right choice, and the exact science of how the task is done (say, what order you stuff a conference packet in) isn’t important. Leaders should focus on facilitating the task at hand, not commanding specific details.

Chaotic situations

Chaotic situations are… you know where I’m going here, right? They’re chaotic. Think “my house is on fire!” or maybe easier to relate to for us, “Harvest is broken!”

Decisions in chaotic situations are best made in one central place. It doesn’t matter if they’re the absolutely best decision — it matters that someone has decided what to do, and we’re now doing it. It’s appropriate to command specific details, rather than facilitating discussion (think “you in the red shirt: call an ambulance”).

The cliff

See the interesting little orange blob there on the bottom of the graphic? That represents a cliff — it’s easy to fall from a situation where simple decisions are being made into chaos, and it’s hard to climb back from chaos to a simple situation.


I think the most interesting part of this framework for decision making is that it doesn’t actually have a lot to do with making decisions — rather, it tells you how to behave in order to make a decision, given your feelings and the information at hand.

Your house being on fire is obviously a chaotic situation for you — but, if you’re a firefighter, it’s no longer chaotic — it’s complicated, but they’re the experts.

Further reading

If this interests you and you’d like to learn more about the rest of the decision making framework, you might consider reading more on Wikipedia or the Harvard Business Review. This is a recap of a workshop I attended at Codemash 2018, as presented by @agilesquirrel and @docondev.