Navigate complexity with Cynefin

In the world of innovation, leaders are constantly faced with complex challenges where the right way forward may not always be clear. This is where the Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden, becomes an invaluable tool.

By categorizing problems into different domains, it offers innovation leaders a structured approach to understanding complex situations and making better decisions. Here’s how innovation leaders can harness the power of the Cynefin framework to become more effective in their roles.

Understand the framework

First and foremost, innovation leaders must create a strong foundation by gaining a deep understanding of the Cynefin framework. This means understanding the distinctive characteristics of each domain and recognizing where different types of challenges belong.

Assessment of the situation

When faced with a challenging problem or a critical innovation decision, the first step is to assess the position within the Cynefin framework. This involves a thorough understanding of the nature of the challenge and the level of uncertainty and complexity it entails.

Using the Cynefin framework

Now let’s delve into exactly how innovation leaders can get the most out of the Cynefin framework across its different domains:

The clear/simple domain

In the clear domain, problems are well defined and have clear cause-and-effect relationships.

Here, leadership is about using established routines and best practices. This is the domain of the plain and simple.

As an innovation leader, challenges in this domain are not your problem, perform the challenges according to familiar routines or delegate to a traditional project manager.

The complicated domain

The complex domain involves problems that are advanced but analyzable with expertise. Leadership in this domain means bringing together experts, analyzing data and using good practices and the experiences of others to create solutions. As an innovation leader, your path to solutions lies in seeking expert advice, data analysis and informed decision-making in complicated scenarios.

The complex domain

Complexity reigns in the complex domain. Here, the problems are unpredictable and cause-and-effect relationships elusive and sometimes contradictory. Leadership requires experimenting, examining the situation and learning through small experiments that are sure to fail. As an innovation leader, your opportunity for growth lies in embracing uncertainty, encouraging innovation, and fostering a culture of adaptability and resilience. Daring to remain in the uncertainty of complexity without being influenced by others’ will to directly choose a path is often the role of the innovation leader.

The Chaotic Domain

In the chaotic domain, situations are in chaos, and speed is crucial because the conditions are also constantly changing in these complex challenges. Leadership requires quick, decisive action to try to create stability. New methods may emerge. As an innovation leader, you can improve your skills by staying calm under pressure, making quick decisions and maintaining situational awareness. Once stability is restored, it is crucial to move to a more suitable domain for long-term solutions.


Clutter means a state of confusion where the nature of the problem is unclear. In this realm, leadership revolves around meaning-making and deciding which of the other domains the situation belongs to. As an innovation leader, you can become more effective by recognizing when you are in a state of disarray and working to create understanding by moving the situation into a more manageable domain using information and analysis.

Flexibility and adaptability

The Cynefin framework emphasizes the importance of leadership flexibility. Effective innovation leaders understand that different situations require different approaches. They do not apply the same strategies to all domains and demonstrate their adaptability and versatility as leaders.

To learn from experience

Continuous self-evaluation and reflection is key for innovation leaders. Learning from both successes and failures is critical to personal and organizational growth. Each experience contributes to your development as a leader in the complex world of innovation.

Cultivate a learning organization

Innovation leaders can also champion the use of the Cynefin framework within their teams and organizations. Encourage a culture of learning, experimentation and adaptability, where your team embraces the framework to effectively navigate complex challenges.

By using the Cynefin framework, innovation leaders can chart a more informed and effective course through the complexities of their roles. It empowers them to make decisions that align with the specifics of the challenge at hand, fostering a culture of adaptability and innovation that is critical in today’s ever-changing landscape.