Language selection


Leading in Uncertainty: Using the Cynefin Framework to Excel as a Leader (TRN4-J03)


This job aid explains the Cynefin framework and how to use it in times of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Published: August 31, 2020
Type: Job aid

Download as PDF (347 KB)

Leading in Uncertainty: Using the Cynefin Framework to Excel as a Leader

This job aid provides easy access to the Cynefin framework and to explanatory material and resources that will enhance your understanding of the tool. It also offers a series of questions to guide a reflection on your natural leadership approach.

The Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-NEV-in) was developed as a decision-making tool by Dave Snowden in 1999.

The Cynefin framework is an approach to leading in uncertainty that helps you to quickly identify the sort of challenge you are facing, understand what is required, and make decisions that best suit the situation.

This highly effective tool equips you to:

  • make sense of even the most chaotic situations
  • recognize when your default leadership style is not optimal
  • identify which leadership style best serves the situation

By understanding what different situations demand of you, you will shine as a leader in turmoil and uncertainty.

Cynefin Framework

1.  Complex (Unpredictable)

Realm of unknown unknowns

  • Situations are often unpredictable; observe, look for patterns
  • Cause-effect relationships are emerging
  • Problems are solved by creating diverse teams to brainstorm and experiment
  • Decision model: Probe-Sense-Respond

2.  Complicated (Predictable)

Realm of known unknowns

  • Non-routine tasks
  • Specific expertise needed to diagnose and find good solutions
  • Clear cause-effect relationships
  • Problems result from a lack of resources for proper analysis
  • Decision model: Sense-Analyze-Respond

3.  Chaotic (Unpredictable)

Realm of unknowable unknowns

  • Situations are extremely disordered and confusing
  • Cause-effect relationships cannot be seen and may not exist
  • Chaos requires absolute command
  • Decision model: Act-Sense-Respond

4.  Obvious (Simple) (Predictable)

Realm of known knowns

  • Routine tasks
  • Clear cause-effect relationships
  • One clear solution
  • Problems result from a failure of process
  • Decision model: Sense-Categorize-Respond

5.  Disorder

  • You know there's a problem. Things are not going well, but you don't understand the source.
  • Seek information and patterns to move the challenge into one of the other quadrants.

Obvious (Simple)

In the Obvious (Simple) quadrant, it's easy to apply best practices. Activities are generally routine, and the results of particular actions are both predictable and repeatable.

Making decisions: The decision-making process for this quadrant is to sense what is taking place, categorize it and then respond accordingly.

Illustration: The uncomplicated processes of traditional sales, call-centre operations and basic finance fit well into the Obvious (Simple) quadrant. The problem is clear, the solution is evident and fact-based. Most problems can be dealt with using a formulaic if-then process map.

Caution: It's easy to think that the way things have been done is the way they should be done. However, best practices developed from past situations may need to be adjusted. To prevent a sudden shift from order to chaos, ask the people who do the work for their input on improvements and reflect on the potential impacts of changes in the environment to procedures.


In the Complicated quadrant, the results of particular actions are clear to those with the subject-matter expertise to properly analyze the situation. There may be a number of acceptable if-then scenarios, but the right expertise is required to find them.

Making decisions: The decision-making process for this quadrant is to sense what is taking place and analyze the situation by applying an analytical model or recruiting expertise. Based on your findings you can then respond. Expertise may also be required to implement the solution.

Illustration: If you have clear questions without the answers, you are in the Complicated quadrant. You clearly see what you don't know, so you hire the consultant, facilitator or plumber to assess the situation and deliver the solutions that fit your context.

Caution: Because this realm involves subject-matter expertise, it can be easy to dismiss the perspectives of non-experts. Sometimes the most innovative suggestions come from those who approach the situation from another angle. Engage the diversity on your teams.


In the Complex quadrant, systems change constantly. To respond to the changes, individuals require looser parameters and guidelines. This is fertile ground for Agile design and prototyping where small failures may lead to reasonable solutions and reveal next steps.

Making decisions: The decision-making process for this quadrant is to probe by experimenting on a small scale, sense what arises, and then respond to the new situation as best you can with what you have or whomever you can recruit.

Illustration: In complex situations, there are no clear solutions. Like a scientist, you formulate a hypothesis based on what you know and you test it. You can't predict what your next move will be. You need to discover it.

A good example of complexity is the return to the workplace during COVID-19. Each situation is different and evolving in real time. Even with guidance, effective implementation requires a multi-disciplinary approach and a graduated return to work sites to minimize failure and risk.

Caution: Cause-and-effect relationships emerge only through action, so looking for definitive solutions on which to take action is futile. You don't know what you don't know. The only way to move forward or create order is through experimentation. In advance of experimentation, develop amplification strategies for successful experiments and dampening strategies to minimize the impacts of failure.


In the Chaotic quadrant, situations require risk analysis and clear directives to establish order and ultimately transform the situation from chaotic to complex, where it can be handled more effectively. When you successfully transform the situation, remember to shift your leadership style to suit the quadrant.

Making decisions: The decision-making process for this quadrant is to act immediately to stabilize the situation. Novel practices are often required. Sense the outcomes of the actions and respond accordingly.

Illustration: Any situation classified as a crisis is considered chaotic. Looking at situations like the Lac-Mégantic derailment or the onset of COVID-19, it's easy to see that the most effective leadership strategy is to take control of the situation. You have a problem, you don't know the cause and new challenges arise at every turn (sometimes as a result of actions taken). An effective leader gathers information quickly, directs efforts where they are needed most and is always ready to pivot as the situation evolves.

Caution: Once crises have been managed, they could arise again. Work to identify emerging patterns to prevent this. The advantage of intense challenges is that opportunities emerge, so don't forget to look for them.


Identifying when you are in the realm of disorder can be very difficult. If you can't clearly associate your situation with one of the four quadrants, you are likely in it. In this situation, the only thing you can do is gather more information until you can classify your situation within the framework.

Strategy: Examine the disorder to identify the problems within it. Your challenge may be in applying a different leadership approach for each element.

Caution: The greater the uncertainty and stress, the more likely you are to apply your default preference for action.

Reflection and exploration for exceptional leaders

Take a moment to reflect on a challenging situation that you could have dealt with more effectively.

  • Detail the aspects and characteristics of the situation that made it challenging for you. What decision-making approach did you use?
  • Based on the challenges you faced, which quadrant best characterizes the situation? (Obvious, Complex, Complicated, Chaotic, Disorder) What key elements of the quadrant do you recognize?
  • What did you do that worked, and what didn't work very well?
  • Based on the quadrant you identified, what decision-making approach could you further develop?
  • In what current situations could you find opportunities to practise your leadership approach?


Date modified: