“It’s Complicated” – Decide differently

For different types of environments, different strategies are appropriate. Some are so complicated that you cannot predict them ahead of time, thus planning everything out ahead really does not work.

Credit: Dave Snowden

Different environments need different responses.


Dave Snowden has developed the Cynefin model to help differentiate between different types of environments and the appropriate responses to each. It is used in consulting, management and the field of Knowledge Management.

The Five Domains

Obvious Contexts – “The Domain of Best Practice”

In “obvious” contexts, your options are clear and cause-and-effect relationships are apparent to everyone involved.

Snowden argues that you need to “Sense – Categorize – Respond” too obvious decisions.

Sense – You look at the situation. e.g. There is a brown animal moving around.

Categorize – You place the situation in a known category. – The animal is your dog.

Respond – You take the appropriate action for the category. – Give your dog a treat.

There is the smell of smoke (sense) when you look you see that your food on fire(categorize). Then you take it off the stove and fill the pot with water(respond).

As humans, we find it almost impossible not categorize our experiences. It happens so fast that we frequently feel as if we are not categorizing our experiences, but that the category is out there. We don’t see a brown blob, then categorize it as a dog, we immediately ‘see’ a dog. We react instead of responding, which can lead to many problems if our instincts are inappropriate. Mindfulness can help us find the gap between the stimulus and the response so that we can choose our actions and not just live by habit.

Complicated Contexts – “The Domain of Experts”

“Complicated” problems might have several “correct” solutions. Here, there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, but it may not be visible to everyone because the problem is… complicated.

The decision-making approach here is to “Sense – Analyze – Respond.” In other words, you need to assess the situation, analyze what is known (often with the help of experts) and decide on the best response, using good practice.

Transportation systems, city development and career transitions are examples where it is very hard to disentangle all the knots of cause and effect. Is your boss mean and obnoxious because his subordinates slack off and do sloppy work? Or, do the workers slack off and do sloppy work because their superior is mean and obnoxious? Are you bad at making jokes because you have few friends to practice with? Or do you have few friends because you make inappropriate jokes? Many classic chicken-and-egg problems are complicated.

Complex Contexts – “The Domain of Emergence”

It might be impossible to identify one “correct” solution, or spot cause-and-effect relationships, in “complex” situations. According to Snowden and Boone, many business situations fall into this category. Group behavior such as stock markets is also Complex.

Complex contexts are often unpredictable, and the best approach here is to “Probe – Sense – Respond.” Rather than trying to control the situation or insisting on a plan of action, it’s often best to be patient, look for patterns, and encourage a solution to emerge.

Experimentation is key, and you may need quite a few failures to hit on a strategy that works. Using a few guidelines can help a lot, but rigid rules do not work. Creativity works well in Complex contexts. Forget about the old rules, re-examine your solutions and don’t be afraid to reason out again starting from first principles.


Complicated and complex situations are similar in some ways, and it can be challenging to tell which of them you’re experiencing. However, if you need to make a decision based on incomplete data, for example, you’re likely to be in a complex situation.

Chaotic Contexts – “The Domain of Rapid Response”

In “chaotic” situations, no relationship between cause and effect exists, so your primary goal is to establish order and stability. Crisis and emergency scenarios often fall into this domain.

The decision-making approach here is to “Act – Sense – Respond.” You need to act decisively to address the most pressing issues, sense where there is stability and where there isn’t, and then respond to move the situation from chaos to complexity. When the situation is stable, you can start addressing the long-term problems.

This is why doctors always try to ‘stabilize’ people in critical medical conditions. It allows them to then investigate for causes and decide on the best course of action with calm deliberation. “Chaos” is a worse medical condition than stability, even at a low level.

To navigate chaotic situations successfully, try to identify risks and plan ahead what you would do. It’s impossible to prepare for every situation, but planning for identifiable risks is often helpful.

Reliable information is critical in uncertain and chaotic situations. Communicate effectively and make sure to check your information for reliability. Wrong information can be disastrous.


This state is hard to identify. To decide which domain you are in, it is necessary to gather more information. Then you can take appropriate action.



Chefs have to contend with all these different domains in their daily work. Some obvious actions like defrosting meat or peeling a vegetable have best practices, and there is only one way to do it.

How the different ingredients combine to form a dish that is palatable contrasting with one that is not pleasant to eat, is complicated. Chefs follow certain good practices, such as making sure that there is a variety of colours and methods of preparation, but there is no absolute right answer.

Predicting which meals will be popular during the day and what people are likely to order is complex. To gain the good results many configurations and offering different dishes will be tested, and over time patterns will emerge, which can then be used to extrapolate or plan to some degree.

Some aspects can seem simple, leading to complacency. Then they cross over into chaos and everything falls apart. For chefs this can be that they make dishes, then a major development in the food industry puts them out of business. If you were a baker in the 1930’s you would have been thrown into disarray when sliced bread started becoming sold throughout the USA. You thought you were in the obvious domain, but gradually you moved to the domain of chaos.

Final thoughts

Analysis-paralysis happens to us all. One of the reasons is that we tend to assume that all situations are ‘obvious’ with clear causes and best practices. Then, when we cannot seem to separate cause from effect, we feel as if we just do not have enough information. “It needs more analysis,” we think. In reality, the situation may be complex. The only way you can move forward is to work with insufficient data and let patterns emerge as you go along.  Taking action is the solution, not more analysis.

What is one of the situations where you have been stuck analyzing? What action can you take right now to start gathering direct experience and gain tacit knowledge?

To happiness, and beyond!


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