Article / Policy Innovation
Published: 05.07.2023

Let’s say we are the TP hotel director. Problems we might face range from handling guests’ complaints, broken elevators, tons of cancellation, to a guest causing chaos by accidentally ringing the fire alarm etc. Or worse, if it is a problem we have no idea at all about what to do, we usually go with ways that are comfortable or familiar. However, sometimes, they are not the most effective nor appropriate ones.

But, HOW do we know what is the most appropriate approach for the problem we’re facing? Consider “Cynefin Framework” as a tool to help us assess our situation, respond and make decisions according to the context. Moreover, this tool will help us anticipate future scenarios so we can be prepared. When we encounter a problem, employing Cynefin Framework will allow us to assess and classify our situations into any of these 5 domains:

1.Simple Context is a manageable situation where causes and effects are apparent to all stakeholders. There is an obvious or explicit way out, therefore, it is a Domain of (choosing) the Best Practice. Most of them are problems with operations or processes. For example, problems occur in Help Center, reception or guest complaints etc.

  • Steps: Sense-Categorize-Response Assess the situation, categorize what kind of problem it is and respond according to the existing procedures.
  • Be Mindful that we might oversimplify the problems and miss out on other potential irregularities. We could be trapped in once a successful solution that we see problems through the same old lens.
  • Solution Allows other members to communicate or report on new situations and conditions that arise. It could be anonymous to encourage members to warn us in case we are stuck with old practices. Open up to new ideas and always search for alternative practices.

2. Complicated Context is a situation where causes and effects are apparent and information is ready at hand. There are several “good practices” but stakeholders may not be able to understand the whole aspects of the problems so they do not know where to start. It is the Domain of Experts where expertise is needed. Just like when the hotel elevator broke down and the guests are not able to use it, we do not know exactly where it is broken so we need to call a repairman to help.

  • Steps: Sense-Analyze-Respond: Assess the situation. With the help of experts, analyze what we know and what could be done. Then respond with the good practices that we can come up with.
  • Be Mindful: that experts’ opinions and approaches may dominate the solution. We might overlook opportunities or innovative approaches from non-experts. Plus, when several experts hold on tight to their ideas, the process may be stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • Solution: Try bringing in together people with various backgrounds, worldviews, age etc. to work on the solution. Create a new environment or creative condition to gain various perspectives.

3. Complex Context is a situation where causes and effects cannot yet be pinpointed and future scenarios are difficult to predict. We do not have enough information on the matter and we could not find the “right” practice right away. (Which is different from the Complicated Context where there is no instant solution but you are equipped with information.) This is the Domain of Emergence where we would look for patterns and encourage solutions to emerge.

This is similar to a hotel kitchen being burned to ashes but the chefs need to prepare an urgent breakfast for special guests. Those experts did not anticipate the fire and therefore were unprepared with the ingredients or utility. They need to make do with what they have to cook and create a solution out of this situation.

  • Steps: Probe-Sense-Respond: Probe and search for patterns, collect more information. We should be patient rather than jumping in and trying to control it (because, it is hard to take control in this situation!). Wait for the solution to emerge.
  • Be Mindful: Solution might fail due to insufficient information. Be prepared and get ready for the situation or future scenarios.
  • Solution: Incorporate thinking process or simple rules into the team. Work with people of various backgrounds to gain new ideas. Communicate and discuss to find a solution. Experiment on solutions that are safe to fail.

4. Chaos Context is a situation where there is no relationship between causes and effects (or it is hard to identify). Our first priority is to establish stability and order. Critical situations or emergencies etc. usually fall into these domains. An example could be a fire in the hotel building. This is the Domain of Rapid Response where extinguishing the fire is the first priority. Investigation on the causes of fire and finding a solution comes after this.

  • Steps: Act-Sense-Respond We need to act on the most pressing issue–addressing where there is stability and where it requires urgent response. Then, respond to elevate the situation from chaos to complex context.
  • Be Mindful: that you might misidentify problems and collect unreliable information as you are doing it in a rush.
  • Solution: Assess the problem, prioritize solutions, create a comprehensible and easy-to-follow plan and make sure to communicate clearly in a crisis

5. Disorder Context is a situation where you cannot identify anything. It does not resemble any of the four domains mentioned. When you are in a disorder, gather as much information as possible. When we have some information and are able to address the situation then we can respond to the problem.

Cynefin Framework will not only help us solve problems in life or in an organization but it could help policy makers to better understand the context of an organization, a system etc. in which they exist. This framework allows us to make the most appropriate and on-point decisions, saves resources and time and enables us to be more flexible by adapting our approaches to changing situations.

The framework can be used for current policy making just like how the Canadian provincial government encourages their employees to participate in policy making. Moreover, it could be used to assess future scenarios so we can prepare solutions in advance just like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who used it for counterterrorism measures or how pharmaceutical companies use it to develop sale strategies for their new product.

Trivia facts: Cynefin is pronounced “ku-ne-vin” which is a Welsh word for “Place” or “habitat”. The framework was developed from a knowledge management for organization strategy by scholars named David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone. It was first published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2007.


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