Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic – a way to make sense – part 2

Previous post introduced the four quadrants of the Cynefin Framework: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

One of the major implications of the framework is to highlight that the world is not neatly ordered.

In addition, leadership styles need to change based on the nature of the situation.

(This series of articles 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 boundaries in moving between quadrants, from simple to complicated to complex to chaotic, are fuzzy. Situations can blend from one to another.

The boundary between simple and chaotic is described by Prof. Snowden as a cliff. If circumstances change rapidly or the organization isn’t paying attention to changes, the fall from simple to chaotic will be painful. If technology or competition overtakes you, the apparently abrupt shift to chaotic will hurt.

Leadership style

Leadership styles in each quadrant are different. The approve-it-if-the-specific-rules-are-met style in simple matters won’t work on a complex issue.

Likewise, a commanding general gauging nuance to modify battle plans on the fly (complex quadrant) won’t do well in running a DMV office (simple quadrant).

Where it gets complicated

The simple and chaotic quadrants seem to make sense. You need bureaucratic rules in simple issues and you just need to get out of the chaotic quadrant to someplace you can deal with.

The complicated and complex areas are more difficult to grasp. One example is the difference between building a bridge over a river and changing traffic patterns.

The bridge requires engineers who can figure out every one of the hundreds of variables and calculate the correct answer to within 4 significant decimal places. Another engineer can recalculate all the work.

Changing traffic patterns in the downtown area are complex. As one factor is changed (make a one-way street two-way or add a left turn signal) people will respond is some way which will then create another change to the traffic pattern.

Gauging all those factors is very difficult. It is unlikely you can calculate an exact answer or have any answer you implement work just the way you expected.

Knowns and unknowns

Here is another description of each quadrant:

Simple – “known knowns” – you know the facts and you know that you know it.

Complicated – ‘known unknowns” – you know what you are missing yet have the tools & ability to figure it out. For example, how do we build this bridge?

Complex – “unknown unknowns” – we are missing information and don’t have any idea what we’re missing, but we can tentatively work the problem to find a solution.

Chaotic – “unknowables” – we can’t even figure out what we don’t know or make any sense of the situation.

Longer explanations

You can see A simple explanation of the Cynefin Framework by Shawn Callahan at this 4 minute video:


You can see Dave Snowden give a summary of The Cynefin Framework in eight minutes at this video:


The original article is behind a paywall at Harvard Business Review. If you perform an internet search on the exact title, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, you can find several copies of the full article available in a PDF. I’m not sure how to link to those places, so you’ll need to do your own search if you are really interested.

Next post – How it gets messy

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