A Cynefin Delegation Decision Framework

I’ve had people ask me, how do I make the Cynefin Framework useful? How do I apply it? I am going to walk through one way I use the framework, I’m not going to spend much time explaining technical terms here. 

To be clear this is a personal evolving model, it may or may not work for other people in other companies.

As a CTO I am required to manage a volume of problems presented to me.  As an executive my time is often too fragmented by non-negotiable commitments. I like to personally lead the efforts to resolve problems, however often times I am unable to . When this occurs I need to be able to delegate the resolution of the problem effectively. This post will show my framework for delegating work. 

Order or Un-Order

Let me start by the “triage” level of problem solving. First things first, Ordered or UnOrdered? 

Order and Un-Order look to the future in different ways. Order views the world in a traditional mechanistic, cause and effect way, making plans works. Un-Order on the other hand assumes that the future is unpredictable, cause and effect doesn’t hold, and previously observed patterns may not hold. Determining order vs un-order can quickly give me a sense of the potential responses.



  • Defined outcome. 
  • Inspection reveals quality of work.
  • Exploitation 


  • Complete an Invoice
  • Create HTML for an approved Design
  • Determine why a server isn’t running correctly
  • Load Test a system
  • Implement a intricate financial algorithm



  • Definable desirable traits / Multiple possible good results
  • Novel domains or concepts
  • Inspection reveals “fitness” for use.
  • Exploration


  • Create a new product
  • Find a new market
  • Create a valuable social presence
  • Train employees

If I have no more time to investigate the problem further, I’ll treat anything that falls in the Ordered side as Complicated and anything that falls in the un-ordered side as Chaotic.

Delegating and Managing the Problem



  • I know the Answer
  • Most people should be able to know the answer 
  • I can inspect and determine the quality of the work at any point. 


  • Delegate resolution to individual or team with appropriate knowledge of process
  • Investigate why Simple problem surfaced to Executive level
  • Determine if enough individuals are trained in appropriate solution



  • I know someone has a solution
  • I may not personally understand how to complete the detailed solution
  • I can inspect the results of the work and validate that it meets my needs
  • I may not be able to inspect the intermediate results to validate fitness


  • Assemble group of Experts with previous experience solving simular issues.
  • Define clear unambiguous resolution state
  • Initiate Discussion about possible solutions to resolve problem
  • Focus experts on resolution state not details
  • Assign an expert to own “goodest”/satisficing suggested solution
  • Frequent follow up with expert until problem is resolved



  • I know a group of people who would be interested in this problem
  • I have multiple possible good results in mind
  • I can’t define how I would validate the results ahead of time


  • Work with a group of teams to describe problem
  • Attempt to inspire a team to self engage the problem
  • Delegate to team that creates the most coherent explanation of forward movement
  • Frequent follow up to determine response remains coherent
  • Ensure appropriate access to new information and resources
  • Work with team to begin to explain novel solution to internal resources


  • I know individuals who would be interested in this problem
  • I’m unsure how to describe the problem or the solution clearly

  • Assemble a heterogeneous group of individuals with divergent skill-sets, view points and responsibilities
  • Present problem
  • Work to create a network of individuals with a shared vocabulary to minimally describe problem
  • Define multiple possible experiments to “find our way”
  • Delegate experiments to teams (ideally not from this group of individuals)
  • Periodically reform network to evaluate results and new suggestions (ritual dissent)
This assumes a chaotic problem that doesn’t require IMMEDIATE response. Emergencies should be immediately delegated or handled personally by attempting to find the “closest best practice” to temporarily stabilize the problem.


You may be thinking, what about the Disordered domain. My disordered heuristic is that I don’t know anyone who would know anything about the problem and I need to gather more information.

The first thing I do when I find myself unable to figure out which domain a problem is in is to seek peer advice. Peers include the other executives and personal contacts that can potentially add enough information to the problem to clarify it for me. 

If the problem remains disordered I treat it as chaotic, with an expectation that it will resolve itself into one of the domains quickly. The important difference I think is a heightened awareness of the likelihood of a rapid potentially disruptive transition.

Photography thru the Cynefin Lens

this is one of my more personal pieces, I am actually a little nervous about pressing publish… oh well what’s the worst that can happen… enjoy

Jabe 8X10 Albany NY 1996

That is me sitting next to the 2nd largest camera I own. The really big one is a 11×14 Deardorf, it takes two people just to move that one. The camera in the picture is an 8×10 Deardorf, it makes negatives the size of a 8×10 inch sheet of paper. Shooting images with a camera this large (and heavy) takes a unique way of seeing, requiring you to flip the image upside down in your mind, as there is no prism to correct the orientation for you. And yes… you have to get under a black sheet (a focusing cloth), just like the pictures of the old fashioned photographers with gun powder flashes. 

Digital cameras are changing the experience of photography radically, eliminating the phases of film development and print making, there by radically reducing the cycle time between capturing the image and evaluating it. Before digital cameras completely erase the cultural memory of the traditional photograph process I thought it would interesting to write down some thoughts on about it.

Often the Cynefin Framework is illustrated by listing different processes or forms of a single concept.  I’d like to present a view of the Cynefin framework through a single process or experience, photography, where different stages lead us through the framework.

A Mechanical Art Form

I discovered that this camera was the technical means in photography of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. And it’s that awareness of really looking at the everyday world with clear and focused attention that I’m interested in. 

-Stephen Shore
At Bard College, where I studied photography, I engaged in a passionate argument with a well known painter. She claimed painter sees while doing, the photographer only sees later. Painter’s brush is directly under control of her eye. Photography was a lesser art form.

The camera for me is filled with paradoxes, immediate gratification combines with delayed gratification, a machine that makes art, the mechanistic capturing the visceral. The interplay between the mechanical and the creative…

Anyway… making photograph is a multistep process, engaging individuals or groups of individuals in each stage. I’d like to present an argument that different stages of the creation of a photograph fall with in different domains of the Cynefin Framework (for an experienced photographer).

Dancing With a Camera

“the decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson

Larry Fink: Birthday Party, NYC, 3/2007

Larry Fink (my mentor and teacher) can capture music in still images like no one else, this image throbs with the rhythm of the music like an O. Winston Link train chugging thru the night. To make an image like this I suggest the following:

  • Listen to Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Listen to Live Jazz Music for 10 years…
  • Photograph the jazz musicians 
  • Play Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Make photos the entire time 

Now you have entrained your mind to be extremely sensitized by visual patterns and musical rhythms, this is important, because the image captured here only happens very very rarely, as the music, your relationship to the room and the people all coalesce… you almost need to have a moment of synesthesias, right before this moment the camera will rise to your eye and just then, perfectly, without thought, your fingers will make the image effortlessly. You will make many many images, probing with your strobe in the dark chaos, only later will you see which have worked.

In my work, which tends towards portraiture and landscapes, I feel a “hitch” in reality when I “see” an image. For me this is experienced as a skip in time, where everything slows down a bit and I feel my self momentarily ‘stuck’ in a view point that “should be” an image. If I have a camera with me I can usually find the image again. With the Large format this part of making the image is slow and methodical, but the image has already been found.

Emergent Connections 

Lee Friedlander: House, Trailer, Sign and Cloud – Knoxville, Tennessee, 1971.

In bring order to [a] situation, a photographer solves a picture more than composes ones

-Steven Shore – The Nature of Photographs


Did you notice the Ice Cream cone in the Frienlander image? 

Steven Shore (another mentor and professor) uses this image to explain the way that photographers compose images. 

A naive approach to composition proposes a formula, the Golden Ratio, or the rule of thirds is very common. However the image here is not composed by formula, it is created by managing the emergent connections and visual relationships in the image. The cloud and the yield sign combine to bring new meaning to the image, and in this way the photographer has composed the image by selecting his vantage point.

This is not a composition that could be created without exploring the environment. 

Developing Negatives

The development of negatives is based strictly on forumlas. So much so that the entire process can be automated. Most black and white development is done by hand, however color negative is almost always done by machine. With black and white film some previous experience can be useful for fine tuning the selection of process, but most of the time, anyone with access to the formulas, equipement and time can develop film. The key is rigorous adhesion to the defined process. The negatives can only be inspected after completion of the process, there is no option for iteration. If you screw up the steps, you’ve blown your roll (or rolls) of film.

Making Prints

There is something magic about watching an image float onto the paper in the darkroom. Making fine art prints is a highly iterative activity. The photographer prints, then observes the print under lighting matching that that the print will be displayed under. Carefully comparing multiple prints. There are many things to consider, contrast (is there enough light in the shadows), blacks (is there a TRUE black), and dodging (does the balance of the light in the image work?). Once the “formula” for exposing, dodging and developing has been found, it is possible to replicate the image within reason, but there will always be some subtle differences. Print making is the realm of experts, there are many methods and possible processes. Making a edition is extremely difficult. Many professional photographers hire individuals who specialize in simply producing the “best” possible image from their negatives repeatedly. These printers are highly trained to help the photographer FIND THEIR best possible print from the nearly infinite possibilities.

The Photograph

With the print in hand, the photograph is made. Now it is in its’ most tenuous state. On the physical level the photograph is incredibly simple, fully realized and stable. On the social level it is a completely different experience. Photographs are stimuli for various stories, alone without support they can be assigned novel narratives from different viewers. In this way, for the Photographer, the image floats between his intend meaning and the audiences potential meaning. Drifting between Simple and Chaotic. Most photographers turn towards a portfolio, a series of images, to stabilize their intended meaning. 

The Americans

Robert Frank ‘The Americans‘ Exhibit Credit:takkejong

In 1955 Robert Frank shot some 28,000 images, on a series of cross country trips in the United States. Eventually he selected only 83 for his book ‘The Americans.’ 

Photographs of Frank’s editing process reveal him thumb tacking images, overlapping down the walls. One imagines him hunting for connections, conjuring forth a narrative, the story of the Americans, from a dizzying array of images. This isn’t the work of a man who “saw” the book and went out to find the images to fill the preconceptions. It is, as most great work, emergent from the visceral experience of life itself, immediately captured, lovingly processed, printed with expertise and structured/codified/re-enforced to sustain the photographers message. Simply amazing… 


Of course I have simplified the entire process of taking a photograph to tell a story here, but I hope that you can see, the process of making photographs is multi-layer and the photograph, its creation and its meaning evolve over time. As the photograph passes through time on a journey to its place, it and the photographer move through various parts of the Cynefin Framework, from Order to Un-Order the chaotic to the simple. 

It is my belief that most creative processes, either individual or social, also fluidly flow through the various Cynefin regions. Rarely will an entire project be in a single domain at once, often the multiple layers of understanding required for a project, will find themselves in dispirit regions. The trick is using the right techniques at the right time, for the right regions.

There are no recipes for seeing good photographs, there are some good compositional hints I can give however… There is also no checklist that will get you a work of art like ‘The Americans’, you have to go out and find not only those images, you have to find the connections between them by experiencing them visually, together, until they balance.

Exploring “A work in progress”

Let’s start by seeing if I can get in trouble…

I’ve spent some time thinking about David Snowden’s “A work in progress” model for the complex domain. It took me awhile to get my head around it… I’m not convinced that I haven’t actually missed some significant bits of it.  In fact when David (and Steve Holt) start talking about a 3D dimension, I am sure I am missing something.

As a visual person after I pondered the graph for a little while I decided to redraw the graph, so that I could see it “my way”, I think I may have gained a couple insights for myself on the way (your milage may vary).

In this post I’ll do my best to explain what I “see”.

Coherence, Convergence and Coalescence

The “WIP” model refines Cynefin’s domain of complexity by adding 3 dimensions, 4 “danger areas” which are contrasted against a “valid range”.

David Snowden’s “WIP” Model – Copyright © 2007 Cognitive Edge

Here is where my confusion started, the post containing the “A work in progress” model (referred to as the “WIP model” in the remainder of this post) defines Coherence and Convergence but skips Coalescence. I vaguely remembered the terms being defined before and sure enough they are, on the previous post. I’ve reposted David’s definitions here, they are critical to understanding the WIP model.

  • Coherence: the degree to which any need or requirement is structured/defined/understood
  • Coalescence: the level of fragmentation of the requirement and connectivity between fragments.
  • Convergence: the degree to which different interest groups agree on the needs and nature of what is needed

The Cynefin Framework’s dissection of the difference between complexity and complicated was rewarding, similarly this model enriches my understanding by illuminating the subtle difference between terms that at first blush seem so close as to be colloquially synonymous.

Until seeing this model, Coherence has been, for me, the main measure of “valid” structure in narrative. Here the model yields it’s first insight for me, “full” coherence by itself is not only not “enough”, it is outside of the “valid range”. We need to have an additional measure of validity on our pursuit of actionable knowledge, Convergence. Convergence by itself, leads to Pattern Entrainment, where we agree on the way to do things without understanding the structure of the problems we are solving. An additional final validity measure is added by coalescence. Here information becomes more interconnected and pieces start to “fit together” defragementing into a whole.

Valid knowledge in this model emerges as teams bring fragmented “pieces” of knowledge, from disprit viewpoints, together and agree on ways of making that knowledge actionable.

As I examined the model, I realized that “to complicated” hinted that the “Ordered” area in this graph contains both Complicated and Simple areas of the Cynefin model. Which makes sense and is probably obvious to Cynefinites but maybe hidden from the uninitiated. The Cynefin model is often broken down into two domains; Ordered (Cynefin; Complicated and Simple (Labeled ORDERED in the top right here)) and Un-Ordered (Cynefin; Complex and Chaotic, (Both labeled in the mid to lower left here)).

Continuing to carefully review the diagram, in my case by recreating it, left me with some questions.

“complexity and its three boundaries (to chaos, to complicated and to disorder)”

I see two clearly defined boundaries… to chaos (lower left, towards LOW Convergence, Coalescence, and Coherence) and to complicated (upper right, moving FROM High Convergence, Coalescence, and Coherence). I’m unsure of where Disorder lies on this diagram?

Jabe’s Inverted WIP Model

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.   

-Albert Einstein

Jabe’s Inverted WIP model

So… here is my attempt to make some sense of David’s WIP model for myself. As Einstein notes above, I ain’t exactly a genius for making it more complex, but I hope to elicit some conversation that will clarify the model further.

The first major difference between David’s WIP Model and mine… I’ve placed Lows (and added ∞) at the extremes of the graph and HIGHs (with a limit of 1 not 0) at the origin. This shifts the perspective of the graph, as constraints on the system increase, a (theoretically) perfectly Coherent, Convergent, Coalesced problem moves towards a singularity. As constraints (as well as knowledge and connections) are removed from the system the possible answer space broadens and expands. This feels more like my experience of problem solving, where Order moves towards a limit but Disorder is nearly infinite. In the past I’ve thought of this movement of information from Chaotic through Complex, toward an Ordered state as a “Cone of Certainty.” The trade off here is that as we move towards Order the decisions we have made constrain our system more and more, forcing us toward potentially suboptimal solutions. Complexity theorist will recognize this as a form of bifurcation, where previous decisions alter the possible solution space.

I’ve added two “danger areas”:

  • CE: Cognitive Ease; Lower Left: As Coalescence, Coherence and Convergence move towards 1, teams risk the chance of believing they understand the problem so completely they don’t need to think about it anymore. This is the realm of oversimplification and myth. Concepts that make their way here can be VERY DIFFICULT to dislodge. With a complete lack of conflict, teams will all agree that they are talking about the same thing, they will claim they all “understand” it and will all agree there is a clear process to solve the problem. Delegation will work well, until the context of the problem changes, leaving teams hurtling towards chaos with little understanding of the “why” of the original solution. This is the domain of “The Bananananananana Principle”. This danger area is in some contention with David’s Pattern Entrainment. I’m somewhat confident that my “danger area” is worth differentiating. 
  • UM: Unmodeled; Upper Right: Moving towards disorder we find ourselves beyond the realm of probability, where teams have no language or models to begin to describe the problems they are attempting to solve. Lacking models to describe the problems, teams maybe either, unable to clearly identify a route towards order OR be completely unaware that parts of their systems are in a state of disorder. This is the domain of being blindsided. This is the domain of Zombie computers, and PEBKAC, where experienced users have difficulty helping inexperienced users, due to a complete lack of a reasonable shared model. 

I’ve labelled the two borders that (I think) are shared by David’s and my inverted model. I’ve indicated with arrows the direction of movement across domains. Again it is important to note that the WIP Model’s ORDERED area contains both of the Complicated and Simple domains of the Cynefin model. In the top right I have added a border “to disorder”, I am pretty unsure… does it belong there? Is the shape correct?

Finally I’ve added a new “valid area”, in yellow just beyond the border of “to chaotic.” This area is valid in a different way than the green area. Probability is valid in this area. We have effective models for describing and examining the performance of a system in this area. Given a large enough amount of input statistical models can be very effective in this area, in order to probe the chaos and “find” interesting patterns. This area is the area of Experimental Mathematics and “The Lean Startup.” Economies change here… many small measurable safe-fail probes become significantly more cost efficient than attempt to bring order to the domain before taking action. Action can be taken quickly with expectation of high rates of failure. Team’s focus on recoverability instead of continuity and stability.

As usual, creating this model and writing this post has given me more clarity around my thoughts… I look forward to hearing yours.