The Cynefin Review Part 4 – The Chaos Domain

The Cynefin Review Part 4 – The Chaos Domain

In this article, part 4 of the Cynefin Review, we will explore the chaos domain. An organisation may move into the Chaos Domain from a number of different directions.

The best way to enter the Chaotic domain is intentionally. The Chaotic domain can be a great place for innovation and discovery.


Managed Innovation

We can start with the square ‘Managed Innovation’, which is in the Known problem space and in the ‘Entered With Intent’ space. It will take a lot of energy to stay in this space, therefore lessons will need to be learnt quickly. If situations get out of hand, then there is space to recover in the adjacent squares.



Last Chance Saloon

Entering into the realm of Plausibly Likely To Happen means that there is some hope of choosing the constraints that will form from Chaos, rather than some other agent creating the constraints for you.

The problem has now become unknown, so some rapid thinking and adding constraints are required.

These are the only 2 squares on the red line in the Chaos Domain.



Activate Planned Response

In this space, the problem is still known, and there is a plausible chance of recovery. This is where the recovery team is activated, ideally with an innovation team.

As the problem is known, plans and recovery actions can be created in advance. These should be executed now and quickly.


Authoritative – Pull Back and Rethink

In this situation, it is best to apply some draconian order and have a single point of decision making. This is the only modern day viable place for the wolf pack type leader who dictates the solution in rapid fire instructions that allows very fast centralised decision making.


Seize the day

At the top of the model, in the space of a known problem, but unimaginable solution, there is still chance of innovation and recovery.

This state is most likely entered when the organisation thought it was dealing with an Obvious Domain problem and then got too complacent.

To recover you must find the constraints quickly, contain the problem, and try to move to Planned Response.

If a planned response can not be found, you will find yourself forming and activating the crisis team in ‘Crisis Management’ or in ‘Last Chance Saloon.’


Crisis Management

In ‘Crisis Management’, the problem has now become unknown. You may have moved to this square straight from the Obvious Domain or because you were unable to determine the problem and couldn’t ‘Seize the Day’.

If you can – find the constraints required to turn this into a favourable situation and ideally learn and innovate solutions.



The square ‘Duffer’ is my favourite. This is in the unknowable space, where the problem is unknowable with no chance of understanding it. It is also entered with intent.

The reference Duffer comes from Swallows and Amazons when the Amazons write a letter to their Daddy asking if they can go out on the river.

The reply comes back:

Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown

Only duffers drown.

Hence, if you enter this square, you are a Duffer!


Ride the Flow and Pray

In the space of unknowable problems and a plausible chance of recovery, you have no option but to hope and pray. Trust in God.


Death and Rebirth

Here we end the cycle, with the end of one type of problem and the birth of something new. From all destruction there is rebirth.

If the organisation finds itself here, then it’s time to reach for the CV, the airport, or a bottle of whisky, until such time that a new dream and purpose can be found for a new opportunity.

The problem here is unknowable with an unimaginable chance of recovery.

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  1. Pingback: Cynefin Review Part 7 - Finding Your Place on the Framework - Adventures with Agile

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