In a complex context, right answers can't be ferreted out at all; rather, instructive patterns emerge if the leader conducts experiments that can safely fail. This is the realm of "unknown unknowns," where much of contemporary business operates. Leaders in this context need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.
The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these--simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic--require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth--disorder--applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.
Using the Cynefin framework can help executives sense which context they are in so that they can not only make better decisions but also avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes. In this article, we focus on the first four contexts, offering examples and suggestions about how to lead and make appropriate decisions in each of them. Since the complex domain is much more prevalent in the business world than most leaders realize--and requires different, often counterintuitive, responses--we concentrate particularly on that context. Leaders who understand that the world is often irrational and unpredictable will find the Cynefin framework particularly useful.
The Cynefin framework helps leaders determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices. Each domain requires different actions. Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on the facts. Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered--there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns. The ordered world is the world of fact-based management; the unordered world represents pattern-based management.
Good leadership requires openness to change on an individual level. Truly adept leaders will know not only how to identify the context they're working in at any given time but also how to change their behavior and their decisions to match that context. They also prepare their organization to understand the different contexts and the conditions for transition between them. Many leaders lead effectively--though usually in only one or two domains (not in all of them) and few, if any, prepare their organizations for diverse contexts.