Cynefin & Sense-Making Framework

Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin & Sense-Making Framework (1) gives us a model with which we can view how most pre-agile organisations are using the wrong model to solve today’s complex problems.  Agile and the resulting organisational change is the new model to solve today’s complex problems.

The sense making framework gives us a set of problem domains that we may find ourselves in at any given moment.

Simple and Complicated systems

The simple and complicated domains are ordered systems. In a simple system, the relationship between cause and effect exists, is predictable, repeatable and can be determined in advance. The relationships is obvious and can be determined simply. For a given problem in this domain, we sense the problem, fit it into a category and respond with a standard solution. This leads to true best practice solutions at any given point in time.

In the complicated domain, there is still a direct relationship between cause and effect, however it is not self-evident. We need specialist or algorithmic help to derive a solution. Here we can find good practice and design patterns to solve problems. We sense the problem, analyse the solution and execute against a plan.

There may be many solutions to the same problem, hence good practice, instead of best practice.

An example of a complicated system is a wrist watch. A specialist watch maker can take apart a complicated watch and put it back together again.

Complex systems

Complex systems do not have causality. There are light constraints on agents and agents can modify the system. Cause and effect are only obvious after the event.

The way to solve problems in this domain, is to sense the problem and probe for a solution. This means to take small safe steps to experiment with the problem domain and view the results. If the results lead us closer to a solution, then we do more of the same or similar experiments, and if the results don’t move us closer to a solution, we try something else.

Each step should be safe to learn and sit must be safe for the results to take us in the wrong direction. We iteratively probe, sense and respond or adapt. The practices emerge from the data.

An example of a complex system is a frog! No one can take apart a frog and put it back together again and expect it to be the same. Complex systems have behaviours that arise or emerge from the system, making the system more than the sum of its parts. A complex adaptive system is one in which the observer of the system changes the behaviour of the system just by observing. (2)

Chaotic systems

No cause and effect relationship can be found. Usually ‘panic stations’ and act quickly until the system is stable.


The central space is for when you do not know which of the domains that you are operating in. Typically according to Dave Snowden (3), when we do not know what domain we are operating in, we default to using the method from that which we are most familiar with.

Tools for the complex age

“It is no longer good enough simply to operate well. Corporations have to operate and manage creative destruction at the pace and scale of the market, without losing control, or they will falter and fade” – Richard N Foster and Sarah Kaplan – Creative Destruction.

Organisations are struggling to stay alive and remain competitive. The world’s largest companies, those in the fortune 500 have an average lifespan of 15 years today compared to 67 years in the 1920s. (4)

Companies who want to survive in today’s complex world, need to adopt complex ways of working, thinking and problem solving.

The reason why Agile is changing organisations across the globe

Agile provided that solution for single team software developers. The values, principles and practices that have arisen from Agile, have given us a rich conceptual tool set to make Agile scale and conduct real meaningful organisational change allowing organisations to deal with the complex problems they face.

Agile gives us the empirical process for product development and resultant organisational change that occurs because of agile adoption gives us a mind-set for addressing complexity that replaces the ‘traditional’ mindset which dealt with merely the complicated.


1. Cynefin and the Sense Making Framework –

2. LKUK13: Cynefin in Action – Liz Keogh –

3. Dave Snowden –

4. Can a company live forever? Based on Richard Foster’s work –

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