“A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” by David Snowden and Mary Boone

I’ve seen leadership employed at a number of levels with varying levels of success. The most successful leaders I have encountered are the ones that are able to adapt to changing circumstances and that are receptive to innovative ideas from unlikely sources. Although the “wisdom of the crowd” is not great for making long-term decisions, it has it’s place in coming up with new solutions to old problems. In the military context, leadership is heavily hierarchal. That being the case, the military hierarchy is slow to react to quick changes wrought by the information age. Many senior leaders become stuck on “best practices”, confusing that approach with a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem the may encounter. As this article explains, the complex environments that are encountered in today’s technically advanced world, do not adhere to basic cause-and-effect relationships. The sum of all parts does not always equal the outcome, and a combination of simple, perhaps benign, interactions, can have unpredictable and wild results. Adept leaders must be able to operate in all environments, whether they be simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. More importantly, that same leader must be humble enough to know when they are not the best-equipped individual to make decisions in every one of these environments.

Following are some of the notes from the article published by the Harvard Business Review:

  1. Cynefin (the conceptual framework), pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.
  2. 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 to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth- disorder- applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.
  3. Leaders who understand that the world is often irrational and unpredictable will find the Cynefin framework particularly useful.
  4. Simple Contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. often, the right answer is self-evident and undisputed. In this realm of “known knowns,” decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an understanding.
  5. Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond. that is, they assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and then base their response on established practice.
  6. In simple contexts, issues may be incorrectly classified within this domain because they have been oversimplified. Leaders who constantly ask for condensed information, regardless of the complexity of the situation, particularly run this risk. Leaders are susceptible to “entrained thinking,” a conditioned response that occurs when people are blinded to new ways of thinking by the perspectives they acquired through past experience, training, and success. When things appear to be going smoothly, leaders often become complacent.
  7. The simple domain lies adjacent to the chaotic. The most frequent collapses into chaos occur because success has bred complacency.
  8. It’s important to remember that best practice is, by definition, past practice.
  9. Complicated context, unlike simple ones, may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. This is the realm of “known unknowns.” While leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize, and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond.
  10. Entrained thinking is a danger in complicated contexts, too, but it is the experts (rather than the leaders) who are prone to it, and they tend to dominate the domain. When this problem occurs, innovative suggestions by non-experts may be overlooked or dismissed, resulting in lost opportunities.
  11. Another potential obstacle is “analysis paralysis,” where a group of experts hits a stalemate, unable to agree on any answers because of each individual’s entrained thinking- or ego.
  12. Reaching decisions in the complicated domain can often take a lot of time, and there is always a trade-off between finding the right answer and simply making a decision.
  13. In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. In a complicated context, the whole is the sum of its parts. In a complex context, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. The is the realm of the “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.
  14. Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change introduces unpredictability and flux. Instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.
  15. Conditions of scarcity often produce more creative results than conditions of abundance.
  16. Leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles- to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.
  17. In a Chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist- only turbulence. This is the realm of the unknowables.
  18. In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch 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.
  19. One excellent technique is to manage chaos and innovation in parallel: The minute you encounter a crisis, appoint a reliable manager or crisis management team to resolve the issue.
  20. 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.
  21. Business schools and organizations equip leaders to operate in ordered domains (simple and complicated), but most leaders usually must rely on their natural capabilities when operating in unordered contexts (complex and chaotic).
  22. Leaders often will be called upon to act against their instincts. They will need to now when to share power and when to wield it alone, when to look to the wisdom of the group and when to take their own counsel. A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style will be required for leaders who want to make things happen in a time of increasing uncertainty.


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