• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Cynefin by Dave Snowden et al | Learning about Complexity

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


Buy | Reviews | Bio

Toby's Cynefin Journal


Toby's Favourite 5 Chapters Summarised:

  1. Organizing Principles: the Spirit of Cynefin | Sonja Blignaut

  2. Cynefin and Theory of Constraints: Allies or Adversaries? | Steve Holt

  3. Weaving Well-being into the Fabric of our Organizations with the Cynefin Framework | Marion Kiely and Ellie Snowden

  4. Cynefin and Strategy | Steve McCrone and Ian Snape

  5. Facilitation Can be Complex (and It Certainly Should Be) | Vivienne (Viv) Read


Organizing Principles: the Spirit of Cynefin

Sonja Blignaut


Principle 1: We embrace messy coherence


Cynefin is all about boundaries. In that way, it reflects human systems such that knowing where the boundaries are between specific contexts are critical to our meaning-making, identity structures, and ability to relate to each other. Cynefin’s boundaries help us to know what kind of systemic context we find ourselves in, and when we are transitioning


Cynefin values coherence and difference, even though they are in tension. Too much difference and things become incoherent. Too much coherence and things become too homogeneous. Rather than creating binary options or false dichotomies, Cynefin values ambiguity, dialectic, and even paradox.


“Conflict and paradox are critical to the advancement of understanding. Introducing a state of Aporia, or deliberate puzzlement, allows us to present seemingly contradictory and competing understandings as valid and useful pieces of the bigger picture.” – Dave Snowden

Focus on Heuristics; they have a level of ambiguity which makes them more adaptable. Heuristics are not that ambiguous; i.e., we can objectively determine whether or not they were followed.


Principle 2: Enable descriptive self-awareness and self-discovery


“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” – Blaise Pascal

We are part of the system. We can also never forget that complex systems are open systems; whenever we interact with them, we become part of that system. The systems we deal with are typically complex socio-technical systems, and in these systems, there is no such thing as an independent or neutral observer or consultant. Every diagnostic is an intervention, and every intervention is a diagnostic


We cannot force another person or a system to change. We sow seeds, some fall on fertile ground, others on impenetrable soil, and yet others sprout but get overgrown by weeds. Our responsibility is to keep sowing the seeds, that is all we have control over.


Complex problems cannot be solved. Any attempt to create a solution changes the nature of the problem. The full landscape of the problem cannot be understood until provisional actions taken to work on the problem are taken. Yet, every one of these provisional actions creates intended and unintended consequences that change the nature of the problem; they change the context itself. Although not solvable in any traditional sense, complex problems can be approached by affecting the way the complex system – the context – around the problem evolves.


Principle 3: Attune to timing and flow


“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and between them, there are doors.” – William Blake

Time matters in human systems. The patterns we can observe today were shaped by the initial starting conditions of the system and many years of evolutionary change.


Complex systems are predisposed towards certain behaviours. If we understand these dispositions and follow those ‘natural contours,’ it takes less energy for change to happen. Take time to understand the desire paths within a system. We can then use those naturally emergent paths to guide us on where to experiment.


Find the evolutionary potential in the present. Set a broad future direction, and move towards ‘adjacent possibles.’ Don't engineer an idealized future that may never come about.



Cynefin and Theory of Constraints: Allies or Adversaries?

Steve Holt


The Cynefin Framework and the Theory of Constraints (TOC) are two philosophies intended to help people make sense of what is going on around them to increase the chances that they make decisions with favourable outcomes.


“Constraint: The factor that ultimately limits the performance of a system or organization. That factor that, if the organization were able to increase it, more fully exploit it, or more effectively subordinate to it, would result in achieving more of the goal.” Eli Goldratt

Cynefin Constraint Definitions:

  • Fixed constraint, in the Clear domain, means that there is only one way to do something. You must do Step 1 before you can do Step 2. There is no alternative.

  • Governing Constraint, in the Complicated domain, means that some specific rules or policies have been imposed on the system to guide what is allowed to be done and how.

  • Enabling Constraint, in the Complex domain, is a bit different. It is a limitation, but it enables emergent system behavior that would have otherwise not been possible.

  • No Effective Constraint, in the Chaotic Domain, means we don’t know how to influence the system and attempts are essentially random guesses.


Cynefin and TOC are very much aligned, very consistent, and each can help the other. The Cynefin Framework is a sense-making approach


Weaving Well-being into the Fabric of our Organizations with the Cynefin Framework

Marion Kiely and Ellie Snowden



Well-being: a complex topic but is typically treated as a simple problem. Well-being is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to discover and create an environment where people can flourish. Cultivating well-being is about changing the workplace environment, not forcing individuals to change.


An example:

Let’s say an employee is told to “Practice mindfulness meditation and you’ll be stress-free.” (The Clear domain.) The same employee may be advised to seek the services of an expert, for instance, psychotherapist or yoga teacher. (The Complicated domain). Both these actions may help restore the employee’s well-being temporarily, but neither “solution” addresses the workplace practices or environment that is evoking their stress response in the first place (e.g., unachievable workload, bullying).


A complexity embracing approach to well-being improvements. Gather narratives from across the system to develop better interventions. Two prompts to gather narratives:

  • Think back to your last week at work, think of one story from your experience when things were made either easier, or more challenging to work here.

  • Which one story from your last week would you share with someone who does not work here? A story which best reflects what it is like to work here?

Using these stories you can co-create small experiments for change. We want more stories like this and fewer stories like this.


Cynefin and Strategy

Steve McCrone and Ian Snape


Strategy is not a noun - a written tome describing a pathway through a prescient future, it is a verb – discovering ways forward.



Plans are susceptible to change and disruption, often in surprising ways. Managers often want to mitigate the effects of change through risk management. However, this approach is prone to failure in complex situations. Cynefin informs managers when and where to apply different approaches to strategy, innovation and culture.


Strategy has an inherent dissonance, a struggle between the ordered and the complex. Organizations that are led with too much planning and deliberate action can become slow and cumbersome. On the other hand, organizations that are too fluid and rely on emergence can become incoherent and reactionary.


“Seeing the world as a ceaselessly complex and adaptive system... involves changing the role we imagine for ourselves... from architects of a system we can control... to gardeners living in a shifting ecosystem that is mostly out of our control.” – Joshua Cooper Ramo

A leader’s job is to set the direction and enable their people and teams to test and learn based on their direct understanding of the strategic environment. Set the direction of travel, manage the tempo, manage the constraints.


The purpose (mission) for the organization should be broad enough to encourage initiative and clear enough to establish intent. Senior managers should clarify the ‘main effort’ or the broad strategies for movement toward the organizational purpose. Coherence comes from our shared understanding of success (purpose) and our shared mental model for movement (Cynefin).


In today’s uncertain, volatile and fast-changing world, the strategy is less about position and more about movement. Executives who can quickly detect and respond to opportunity will create a dynamic organization that is resilient to change and capable of exploiting a change in the strategic landscape.


We all love frameworks, they give our thinking about a problem or project form and structure while allowing us to remain open to specific content.


Strategy needs Scaffolding. To design for today’s challenges, we need to design through and for emergence. To do so, we need scaffolds for change, not frameworks.


Scaffolds are different than frameworks. A framework is a skeletal structure designed to support or enclose something, or an abstract setup for solutions to several related problems. It is a complete structure, usually permanent, and gives form to that which it supports, or encloses, or solves. On the other hand, a scaffold is a temporary structure for supporting something until that something can stand on its own. A scaffold, therefore, supports emergence: lower-level rules creating higher-level order.


Facilitation Can be Complex (and It Certainly Should Be)

Vivienne (Viv) Read


When problems are complex, you need to facilitate the people who are entangled in the problem using a complex facilitative approach.


Traditional facilitation methods, comparatively, impose an ordered approach on complex issues, often leading to dysfunctional or “same old, same old” solutions.


Tips for Complex Facilitation:

  • Avoid Pattern Entrainment - When people do the same as they've always done. e.g. Leader speaks, people follow

  • Design for Distributed Cognition and Multiple Perspectives

  • Design processes in ways that enable participants

  • Design processes to be ambiguous so that participants enter into a state of uncertainty.

  • Never provide detailed agendas or give all the instructions for an activity up-front.

  • Become comfortable with uncertainty and be willing to accept unexpected

Heuristics for Facilitators:

  • Provide no direct examples or personal experiences

  • Use metaphors instead

  • Resist direct comments on behavior, i.e., if someone is dominating a conversation or not participating

  • Do not engage with content, only the process, i.e., make changes to the process or the environment that allows different behavior to emerge.

  • Apply complex domain principles: make small changes, monitor what happens, dampen or amplify patterns – all at the level of the system.

Be aware: Privilege of Process


Some people can feel locked out of effective engagement by processes that privilege those who have been trained in complicated methods. The principles of social construction and embracing diversity embedded in complex methods, allow for all perspectives to be included with equity of participation

©2020 by Toby Sinclair.

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter