Complexity and Cynefin



Stage 3

Agile IQ® Level






Complex contexts are often high risk and unpredictable. Rather than trying to control the situation or insisting on a plan of action, the Cynefin framework helps to remind leaders and their teams that the best response it’s often to be patient, experiment with different ideas, look for patterns, and inspects the solutions that emerge.

Knowledge work is complex, not simple

You will only know a solution to complex knowledge work is successful AFTER the solution is applied. This includes software development.

No amount of planning, documentation, or risk management, will tell you that a solution will work. Only in putting the solution together can you be assured that the plan will create the outcome you're after.

Obvious (simple) problems

When a solution is obvious, everything is known upfront. This means that:

  • There are rules and processes in place (i.e., “best practice”)
  • The situation is stable and it is highly unlikely that any change will occur.
  • The relationship between cause and effect is clear: if a plan is actioned the expected result always emerges.
  • There are repeating patterns and consistent events. 
  • There are well established “knowns”.

Actions for leaders

Use best practices
Extensive communication not necessary
Establish patterns and optimize to them
Command and control

Comlpicated problems

When problems are complicated, there are a number of “known unknowns”.

The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise as there are a range of right answers, patterns, and approaches that can be used but only when an expert assesses the problem. 

Actions for leaders

Utilise experts to gain insights
Use metrics to gain control
Sense, analyze, respond

complex problems

When a problem is complex, there are “unknown unknowns”.

Good solutions, plans and approaches to solve complex problems can only be known in hindsight. This requires people to create a plan, enact it, and then assess the results. If the results of the plan are shown to be successful, then we can progress.

Actions for leaders

Create bounded environments for action
Increase levels of interaction and communication
Servant leadership
Generate ideas


In chaos, events are too confusing to wait for a knowledge-based response. Manages often rely on crisis management to first take control and then act. 


Actions for leaders

Immediate action to re-establish order
Prioritise and select actionable work
Look for what works rather than perfection

In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to staunch the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities. Communication of the most direct top-down or broadcast kind is imperative; there’s simply no time to ask for input. [2]

Examples of chaotic domains include:

  • The September 11 attack on the Twin Towers in NYC.
  • COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Australian Black Friday bushfires.

The biggest mistake managers make is to assume that crisis management in chaotic domains can be used to lead people successfully in other contexts. 

Don't use crisis management outside of the chaos domain

The biggest mistake managers make is to assume that crisis management in chaotic domains can be used to lead people successfully in other contexts. These actions are not applicable to another other domain.


In Sprint Planning:

  • Take an item from the Product Backlog
  • Assess the context: which domain does the Backlog item belong to?
  • Is the domain simple? Choose the best practice or process that always gets the job done.
  • Is the domain complicated? Make sure an expert weighs in on a good pattern to leverage.
  • Is the domain complex? Make a plan, but inspect the emerging solution as it comes together every single day. If the solution isn’t working as expected, then pivot and change the plan. 

Complicated and complex work need feedback loops

Daily Scrum is a good time to look at the effectiveness of a solution and pivot if it's not showign signs it will create the desired outcome. At the very least, in Sprint Review, examine the outcome and get feedback from the customer that the emergent solution meets their needs. Put any feedback on adjustments into the Product Backlog and prioritise action for a future Sprint.



Snowden, David J.; Boone, Mary E. (2007). “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”. Harvard Business Review. 85 (11): 68–76. PMID 18159787.

agile iq academy logo 2022-05-05 sm

Enter your details

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close