Understanding complexity is not merely an abstract intellectual exercise: it’s critical for making better decisions. The Cynefin model (pronounced kuh-NEH-vin) is a useful and often misunderstood model of complexity. It defines four domains as shown below: Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. Scrum and iterative/agile approaches are designed to solve problems in the Complex domain, where expertise and planning are not sufficient, processes are non-linear and solutions are non-repeatable.

cynefin decision model.png

The headaches in delivering big projects or new products are often caused by using a Complicated approach to solving what is, in fact, a Complex problem. This mismatch of problem domain and solution approach is shown as Disorder in the middle of the Cynefin diagram.

The straightforward way to apply the Cynefin model is as follows.

  1. Obvious domain: No specialized expertise is required. Apply the accepted Best Practice.

  2. Complicated domain: Expertise and analysis are required to select one of a few proven & repeatable Good Practices.

  3. Complex domain: Run multiple experiments (make multiple bets). Inspect and adapt to discover Emergent Practices.

  4. Chaotic domain: Situation is extremely volatile; Take swift and decisive action; apply Novel Practices.

Notes: Thanks to my friends at agile42 for this practical summary of Cynefin. Dave Snowden is the creator of the Cynefin model.