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Hybrid working: planning for the future
Hybrid working: planning for the future

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4.2 Cynefin – making better decisions

The Cynefin® Framework (pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’) is the Welsh word for ‘place of your multiple belongings,’ (Cynefin, n.d.a) and was developed by David Snowden in 1999. David Snowden and Mary Boone published the framework in the Harvard Business Review [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] in 2007 and since then it has helped leaders understand their challenges and make decisions in context, based on the different environments we are operating in. By sense-making we can develop an awareness of what is really complex and what isn’t and respond accordingly. This ensures no energy is wasted in overthinking the routine but also ensures that we shouldn’t try to resolve complex scenarios with standard solutions.

When making decisions and planning for change, the Cynefin framework is designed to develop your ability for sensemaking, by learning from the past and exploring possible future scenarios. The model focuses on five situational domains that organisations and leaders operate in:

  1. confused
  2. clear
  3. complicated
  4. chaotic
  5. complex.

Constraints are then applied to each of them, and the model then helps to indicate the type of processing that works best in each domain. Figure 19 shows the five domains of the Cynefin framework.

Described image
Figure 19 Cynefin sense-making framework

In the video ‘Introduction to Cynefin’, Dave explains how the framework evolved and how it can be used to make better decisions, both as a leader and within teams developing future scenarios and managing change projects.

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Video 8 Introduction to Cynefin
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As Dave Snowden explains in Video 8 ‘Cynefin Framework – Getting started with Cynefin’, there is an element of simplicity in its approach for problem solving as ‘one size does not fit all’, and he highlights the importance of informal networks for better and more effective problem solving. The Cynefin framework can be adapted, to provide a simple approach that could be fitted on the back of a napkin, and he refers the children’s party story to demonstrate the simplest of the framework.

He believes there are three things all organisations that should do to build employees’ confidence for anticipating and dealing with unknowns and change, and to build informal and formal networks:

  • Map your knowledge to the granularity required
  • Repurpose what you are already good at
  • Build formal networks.

Activity 12 Getting started with Cynefin

Timing: 30 minutes

We recommend you allow up to 30 minutes for the introduction, then allocate time outside studying this course to take your understanding further.

1. Take some time to explore the Cynefin framework, using the following resources and the video below:

In the following video ‘Cynefin Framework – Getting started with Cynefin’, Dave Snowden explains the framework in more detail.

How could it help you make better decisions? Consider the following questions and make notes in the text box below:

  • What are the challenges for understanding which ‘system’ you are in?
  • What does ‘ontology’ mean to you? (If this is a new term to you, you may wish to research it first.)
  • What are your formal and informal networks that you can draw on?
  • What is your personal preference: chaos, complexity or order? Why is that?
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Video 9 Cynefin Framework – Getting started with Cynefin (2022)

2. Write a short introduction to Cynefin, based on your learning so far.

(If you would like to take your learning further, feel free to allocate time to this outside your study time for this course.)

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Understanding your challenges and the support you have to assist in approaching problems is fundamental for futures planning and implementing change. The Cynefin framework can help you make sense of the problem and highlight who can support you and lead to better decisions being made. It can help to ask those you trust so you can become more comfortable with talking about uncertainty and dealing with ‘unknowns’ as it can help you accept that often we are operating in an environment where the unknowns will not necessarily become known.