The Cynefin Review Part 3 – The Complex Domain


Starting with the Complex domain, we can look at the grid to see the tendencies for each column or row (I’ll leave it to you to decide which are columns and which are rows ;)).

The red line through the middle shows the ideal place in the domain. If the behaviours that you notice are on this line then you are ok. The further away from the line, the more trouble you are likely to be in!

Let’s review each square in turn.

Projects and Initiative

This is a good place to start. We can see that projects and initiatives start with Orthodoxy, meaning many but not all people support them, and they are supported by business cases. This is on the red line and not a bad place to be.

Ready For Exploitation

As we travel along the red line towards the right, we enter ‘Ready for Exploitation’. We are moving closer to the Complicated domain, where we can start to add constraints and so ‘exploit’ the solution by standardisation and perhaps mass production or commoditisation. This square is within the Synchrony space so we have mass agreement, and it is also within the Beyond Reasonable Doubt space, so we are pretty sure we can apply the right constraints for exploitation.

When we do this, we can safely exit the Complex domain, and enter the Complicated domain off to the right of this domain as shown on the diagram with the red arrow.

Missing In Action

To the left of ‘Projects and Initiatives’, we have ‘Missing in Action’. This square is within the Cognoscenti space, meaning only a few people understand or follow what is going on. It is also in the ‘Gut Feel’ space, meaning that a few people have gone off on a gut feel hunch. Hence ‘missing in action’. This is not a problem, as it is on the red line, and perhaps real insight and understanding will come from this team.

In this space, we need to manage risks, and apply the ‘Safe to Fail’ or as I prefer ‘Safe to Learn’ approach to problem solving and innovation.

If this team is not managed, or the risks too high, or other problems occur, then the problem may move to the Chaos domain.

Group Think

Now we move off the red line, and go to the top of the model. ‘Group Think’, is far from the line and is in Synchrony space, meaning everyone is in agreement. It is also in the Gut Feel space, meaning there is no data to back it up.

Dave puts SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) into this space.

The solution to come out of this square (behaviour) is to break it up.

Break It Up

‘Break it Up’ is in direct response to the square at the top of the model representing ‘Group Think’. Breaking up the group think with zero tolerance refers to adding more people and diversity to the problem and referring back to real data and case studies.

Hopefully this should ‘ground’ the thinking and create more open minds and allow different hypothesis to try for new experiments.


Heretics and Mavericks

At the very bottom of the model and far away from the line we have the ‘Heretics and Mavericks.’ This square is in the Beyond All Reasonable Doubt space and also only believed by a few. These are the heretics and mavericks. The advice here is listen to them and positively move to ‘Coaching and Mediation’, otherwise the behaviours and problem will move towards ‘Hide It’.

Coaching and Mediation

This square refers to the action required when there are ‘Heretics and Mavericks’ who understand their version of truth beyond all shadow of a doubt but no-one is either listening or able to understand.

Those in the know need to be able to relay their information in a way which a larger audience can understand and then take action or mitigate the risk. Therefore the ‘Heretics and Mavericks’ need coaching and their discussions with others may need mediation.

Left unchecked, the ‘Heretics and Mavericks’ will give up, and then the problem and organisation will lose the chance to understand this important point of view.

Hide It

If ‘Heretics and Mavericks’ are not heard for whatever reason, then the problem will be hidden. This may happen because no one wants to speak up through frustration and fear of conflict. Or perhaps because those who are trying to listen give up as they cannot understand the problem in the way expressed.

In this state, the organisation thinks there is greater consent for a solution than there really is and therefore moves prematurely into using tools and solutions for the Complicated domain. This can set the organisation into Dynamic 3, the move through Chaos.

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