Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic – a way to make sense – part 1

For the last week I’ve been pondering a new tool to help understand the world around me. It’s called a sense-making model by its inventor.

The Cynefin Framework was developed by David Snowden. It’s pronounced cunevin or ku-nev’-in.

This series of posts will give an overview, provide two links to videos, and apply the model to several areas.

(This discussion is cross-posted from my other blog, Nonprofit Update. I’ll put them on this blog as well because the Cynefin Framework is quite helpful for understanding the messy world around us.)

The model has four quadrants. The primary driver is how the relationship between cause and effect changes based on the nature of the situation.


Cause and effect are directly related and well-known. If you do X, you get Y. There isn’t a muddled relationship. Anyone can see the relationships.

This is a place where best practices are used.  The solutions are obvious to all; no experts needed.

In accounting, this is where there are obvious answers, such as how do you do a bank reconciliation and how often. How do you process a renewal in a membership organization or a new driver’s license at DMV?

Those issues have obvious answers.


There is a relationship between cause and effect, but you have to study and analyze the situation to figure it out.

This is where good practices come into play because there probably isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Experts are needed in this quadrant to analyze the situation and figure out what to do.

Building a bridge across a river gorge is an example of complicated issue.

In accounting, this would be revenue recognition issues. Fair value of derivatives, disclosure issues for contingent liabilities, and assessment of going concern would be matters for  experts to analyze because there isn’t a clear answer.


There are interconnected and complex cause and effects. However, those aren’t necessarily obvious at the time and any visible relationships are ambiguous. Relationships are non-linear and interconnected. Humans react in unexpected ways to causes in this quadrant.

An example of this quadrant is a battlefield commander. Any action taken will have very complicated and likely unexpected impacts.

Another example from the military sphere would be the decision whether to prosecute someone for wrongdoing when that person has very high levels of security clearances. A successful prosecution might require disclosure of very sensitive information that is more important than punishing the wrongdoer. A strategy of the defense team in that situation might be to spill the beans on unrelated security issues to deter prosecution. What should a military commander do? He or she is in the complex quadrant.


There aren’t any obvious relationships between cause and effect here. The goal is to take action to move the situation into another quadrant, which can then be dealt with.

The hours after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. are a prime example of chaotic. The illustration given is Mayor Giuliani. Were his actions exactly correct? We can’t ever know. What he did, in terms of this framework, was take action which pushed the chaos into another quadrant, where staff, responders, and others could deal with specific issues.

Next post:  where it gets difficult and links to detailed explanations.

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