Cynefin Sense-making framework (by Cognitive Edge): an introduction

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Cynefin Sense-making framework (by Cognitive Edge)

Cynefin is a sense-making framework? So, what does that mean?

Cynefin addresses social complexity science, it helps to understand human’s thought process when analysing things. It addresses and divides the “complexity space” into 4 domains: “obvious” and “complicated” (both “ordered” systems); and “complex” and “chaotic” (both “unordered” systems). What we can’t put into one of those 4 domains, falls into the “unknown” or pure “disorder”. The picture details the 4 domains and the way decisions are taken in each of the domains. When addressing a certain situation, depending on the outcome, one goes from the one domain to the other. Notice that moving from the “obvious” domain to “chaotic” or “complicated” domain is a huge leap. Residing in the simple domain is also very volatile, very fragile.

Cynefin Sense-making framework (by Cognitive Edge)

Cynefin Sense-making framework (by Cognitive Edge)

Cynefin is a Welsh word, it can be translated as “habitat” or “place”, the place of your multiple belongings. A person is shaped by a multitude of factors: background, studies, family, environment, culture, beliefs, religion, habits, what you know and what you don’t know, etc. All this determines how a person will react in a certain situation, how a person will address a problem, tackle an issue … . Different situations require different responses. Cynefin framework helps us to make sense in the world and how to act in it.

Cynefin has been used to analyse past decision making; it can also serve you to be more aware about the possible thought processes according to the situation; and help you acting/deciding in a better way.


One could ask if software development involves “simple”, “complicated”, “complex” or even “chaotic” activities? Based upon research, it turns out the majority of the activities are “complicated” and “complex”. The activities are in the rich domains, and are multi-level (activities composed out of several sub-activities). To understand what “complex” means, you can learn about the 7 characteristics of complexity (“Managing Complexity” by Rzevski). Looking at those characterics, it becomes apparent that software development can be regarded as “complex”.

Agile software / product development frameworks involve an apply-inspect-adapt cycle; this matches the probe-sense-respond cycle of the “complex” domain.

Cynefin framework has received quite some visibility the past years, with publications in HBR and Gartner.

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