This technique was originally developed by
Dave Snowden and The Cynefin Company
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Cynefin Framework

Decision making within organizations can fail in a lot of ways. One that I’ve often seen is that we mistake the way we should make a decision because we assume the environment has clear causality when it actually doesn’t. The answer is usually finding out more about our environment that is referred to as sensemaking. 

Sensemaking helps us understand our current place in a conceptual environment (and sometimes a real one) to make better decisions. If we understand what dynamics that exist inside that environment we can figure out what is going on, what we should do next, and how we might learn from that. 

Dave Snowden created a sensemaking framework called Cynefin to help address some of these mismatches in understanding. The first example of this framework was in 1999 but I probably became aware of it through a 2007 article in HBR article. It has changed the way I consider the problems I’m figuring out and the solutions we use for them. 


As a framework, it helps a person think about the way they should make sense of an environment. It does this by offering different domains that we may be within and the way that changes our exploration, judgment, and actions. 

Originally, there were five domains:

Source: By CC BY-SA 4.0,

Within these domains you can put products, problems, processes, and other concepts to consider what types of practices you might use to create, iterate, and sensemake in the domain. Though most of the interesting work I’ve done moves between complex and complicated (more on liminality later). 

There are further relationships with Wardley Mapping and how you might find analogies in each of these domains in different evolutionary stages of a Wardley Map. 

This has further evolved to a four domain map recently: 


I recommend reading the whole post by Snowden as it talks through the way he teaches this new three domain Cynefin with helpful signposts for people. 


More recently Snowden has been thinking about the liminality or the spaces between the domains that we may want to consider. It includes common patterns of movement through these domains, as Wardley Mapping considers. 

The Cynefin wiki page on dynamics has a great illustration of the borders and the path through them:


In particular, I’d point to the different dynamics that have a lot of dependency on what you find during your exploration. In certain cases you may need to go back into a complex or chaotic domain to find out something more. This may take many cycles before you find something stable. 

The dynamic I find myself most in is the one between complex and complicated when PM’ing the PM experience (aka product operations). This is because our teams are complex in the way they work together but the processes we create are meant to create complicated (and potentially clear) rituals that we follow consistently. The biggest problem will be when we have a process that already exists in the complicated domain but should really be rethought by going back into the complex one. 

Domain-aware decision making

How do we use this to make better decisions? 

First of all, we want to use this framework to consider what domain we are in so we can learn from the environment. A component of decision making that is often forgotten is what are we going to learn from this decision besides “were we right?”

Second, we want to understand the ideal end domain for this. In some cases it might be to create a process that is in the complicated or clear domain. But in other cases it might be respecting the fact that we will always be in the complex domain and to build our decision making process around that fact. Trying to force something into the clear domain can create a circumstance that a crisis is generated by falling back into chaos. 

Finally, the dynamics help us dip into places like chaos, say for ideation, to consider more options than we were originally. 

“Cynefin” as a set of tools and methods

Cynefin as a framework is an incredibly helpful one for sensemaking and decision making. There are many other tools like Ritual Dissent, and more recently Estuarine Mapping. There is a group of people inside the complexity community that self-select into talking about these frameworks that if you are interested in you should start to watch too.