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Event report. Understand complexity, playing the Cynefin Playing Cards

Event report. Understand complexity, playing the Cynefin Playing Cards

Carlos Martinez Arteaga 100x100

Author: Carlos Martinez, PMP

Event Report –Understand complexity and how to navigate it: playing the Cynefin playing cards 


On the 24th of August, Bernhard Sterchi presented at the Stücki Hotel in Basel “Understand Complexity. Playing the Cynefin Playing Cards”.

Bernhard is a Management and Leadership expert at As trainer, consultant and coach he has been working with family businesses, corporations and government organizations. For over 13 years he has been accompanying leaders from middle managers to CEOs and owners in essential transformations of their personal and institutional maturity.

To start, he put the example of avocados and how this fruit (yes, avocados are classified as a fruit) came from being an unknown to the world, to becoming and highly desired fruit, with a sudden increase demand that affected the supply chain in ways never seen before, along with environmental issues such as the amount of water required to grow this fruit. The complexity related to this “discovery” could have been approached using the Cynefin framework.

Cynefin enables managers to identify how they perceive situations, and to make sense of their own and other people's behaviour.

We as humans can solve very complex situations, but to become more effective in dealing with these we have to learn how to manage them, Cynefin, pronounced kun-EV-in, is a methodology developed by Dave Snowden in 1999, when he worked at IBM, that enables managers to identify how they perceive situations, and to make sense of their own and other people's behaviour.

Cynefin offers five contexts or "domains" of decision-making: complex, complicated, chaotic, obvious and disorder (the center).


The obvious domain represents the "known knowns". With tight constraints, no degree of freedom whatsoever and solved with best practices. Obvious problems are first sensed, the categorized and finally responded. You typically do that when you apply a standard solution to a standard problem.

The complicated domain consists of the "known unknowns". With governing constraints tightly coupled, and with good practice. Complicated subjects are first sensed, then analyzed and finally responded. This is typically done when a project includes analysis, concept, and implementation.

The complex domain represents the "unknown unknowns". With enabling constraints loosely coupled and with an emergent practice. In complex situations you have to start by probing, or experimenting, then sensing what works and what doesn’t and finally responded to by amplifying what works, and dampening what doesn’t, until you meet the next shift of pattern.

In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are unclear, here the events are too confusing to wait for a knowledge based response. These lack any constraint, are de-coupled and require a novel practice. In chaotic situations you are forced to act immediately, then you may sense how successful you are, and hopefully respond by improving your action.

The dark disorder domain in the center represents situations where there is no clarity about which of the other domains apply.

The presentation was set up as a workshop, to get the full flavor of what Cynefin really was all about.

The attendants were grouped in tables, with a set of cards and a dashboard to work with, the dashboard is called “Complexity Manager’s Compass”

As it is usual in the PMI events, the pace was fast, very fast, as the groups rallied to the set of cards, discussing within the groups the answers to later write down in the compass the agreed answer/s.

The cards took the attendants through questions about common and day to day situations.

The cards were grouped into chapters, starting very simple, and becoming more complex over time.

The first chapter was about exploring the difference between complex and ordered environments.

Then we moved to understanding the need to keep order within an industrial production context, and different ways to bridge the gap towards the customer’s expectations, which are most often complex.

From there, we started exploring different concepts with which to describe complex systems, some of which were little familiar to most of us. But since we did so discussing a situation which each of us could imagine, we were able to apply the concepts quickly.

Next, we explored the use of the Cynefin framework, and its application, in this case, to shopping experiences.

To conclude our learning journey, we explored several principles of how to behave in complex environments, and applied them to all the situations we had discussed in the previous chapters.

The key take ways from the workshop were:

-We cannot control everything and should focus on what is really important to solve.

-When dealing with complexity we should try to see the complete picture

-Solutions should be thought through

-Understand and verify pre-assumptions

I must say I really enjoyed the event, and I think most of the attendants did. I found it very eye opening, and would strongly recommend others to try it and to dig deeper into the application of this framework in solving complex situations.




Carlos Martinez