Practical Systems Thinking: The Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework is among the most widely used frameworks for understanding how systems are organized. It might be the most practical means of bringing systems thinking to life. A system, after all, is simply an organization of things within some constraint or boundary.

We rely on The Cynefin Framework (pronounced /kəˈnɛvɪn/ kuh-NEV-in) as a central platform in our training and consulting work for strategy, evaluation, and design. The reasons are many, but its utility is the most important of them.

What makes the Framework so useful is that people can relate to the stories we tell about systems using it. Perhaps the best story comes from the Framework’s founder and chief advocate, Dave Snowden in describing how to organize a children’s party using systems thinking*.

This video has been our most widely-referred source for teaching the fundamentals of systems thinking since it was first made.

The Framework has also been an inspiration informing the development of a centre for studying and intervening in complex systems based in Wales. It’s also developed into a burgeoning practice and learning community centred around the model.

The video below adds detail to help explain how the Cynefin Framework functions and where it came from.

We recommend reading Chris Corrigan’s excellent update on the Cynefin Framework. Chris has been one of the leading practitioners contributing to the thinking on the Framework’s use and development.

Using the Framework

Unlike many other Frameworks, Cynefin is useful throughout a project life cycle, not just at a particular stage.

In the beginning, we recommend using it to orient yourself to the situation you’re facing. What kind of problem situation do you find yourself in? What elements of the situation are complicated, complex, or simple? These questions aided by the Framework can help you identify key aspects of the system and complement systems mapping work.

As you move through the project, the Framework can help serve as a wayfinding tool. When you know where you are, it is easier to see where you are going. Social systems are dynamic, so while we may find ourselves in a quadrant at one stage, this can shift during the project or at particular moments.

The Framework can also be used as an evaluation tool by helping frame the questions you ask and the strategies that link your actions to your outcomes. By inquiring about the way your work and activities are organized within systems, we can ask better questions and assess real influence and possible impact.

We recommend starting any evaluation with the Cynefin Framework.

We also recommend using the framework as part of a strategic assessment approach to planning and sensemaking. The framework can help you to determine the role of evidence and practice — when to look for ‘best evidence‘, practice-based evidence, and innovative problem-solving options.

Moving Forward with Cynefin

We recommend using Cynefin Framework to anyone working in applied systems thinking, check it out. There is a global community of scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers who are working on advancing, testing, and documenting the use of it in practice. A recent book has been published that provides further examples and can be of use to anyone looking to get into Cynefin.

It’s worth the effort to explore – and we think you’ll agree.

* It is worth noting that our use of the term systems thinking is just that: thinking about systems and how they are organized and function. We recognize there are many different definitions and models of systems thinking including those used by Dave Snowden that may not fully subscribe to ours.

If you want help in applying lessons from the Cynefin Framework or building up your systems thinking capacity for action and strategy, reach out and let’s have a coffee meeting. We can help.

Image credit: Mitchell Luo on Unsplash; Snowded, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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