Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic?

Paul Oldfield |


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Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic?

Wishful thinking might tempt you to classify your work as one of the more ordered categories. Yet such wishful thinking is doing your organization a disservice if it leads you to categorize your work incorrectly and thus respond in an inappropriate manner. You will end up getting the wrong people for the work and have problems retaining the right ones; you will lead your companies in the wrong way.

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). In the face of greater complexity today, however, intuition, intellect, and charisma are no longer enough. - David J. Snowden, Mary E. Boone; Harvard Business Review

What follows is a brief introduction to the “Cynefin Framework” – if you like it you can find out more on the web. (Cynefin is a Welsh word, pronounced, more or less, coon-e-vin). This will give you a starting point in classifying the work your organization does, and how to organize yourselves to do such work. Not all the work you do will fit into the one category, which implies a need for flexibility and tailoring toward individual contexts. In later blogs I will consider how to respond; today I talk about identification and classification.

Simple – The Domain of Best Practice

Characterised by having a right answer, the cause and effect relationships are simple, we deal with repeating patterns, “Known knowns”. Management is based on facts. People can be low-skilled and trained to deal with the repeating patterns. Much factory and other production work falls into this category, and a simple hierarchy is an adequate form of management structure.

It is particularly of note that, as I spoke of in my last article, much of HR and Management practice was built up when this form of work was predominant. One of the risks of “Simple” contexts is that there is no challenge of received wisdom; another meaning that might be attributed to the term “Best Practice” is, “Just do it, you don’t need to think about it”. So we have been taught not to think about why we do what we do.

Complicated – The Domain of Experts

Here there may be multiple right answers, and though cause and effect relationships are still clear it takes a degree of analytical ability to see them. The work deals with “Known unknowns”, and is usually performed by having a small number of experts who analyze and diagnose, design and guide the majority of people who are of lesser skill. The simple hierarchy of management structure can be quite strained if the domain experts aren’t also the managers; people now have two sources of directives, and there arises the question of how to ‘manage’ the experts.

Complex – The Domain of Emergence

Many of today’s businesses find themselves working in this domain – knowingly or otherwise. Here things are in a constant state of flux. What might be a right answer today could no longer be right tomorrow. To survive we must respond to change. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns” – as we progress we discover that there are important things that we don’t know. Here there will be many competing ideas, and the key to success is to harness, evaluate, choose and enact, rapidly and smoothly. Hierarchical management will stifle the flow of creative ideas; empowerment and self-organizing teams are potential components of a good solution. Fact-based management is not effective, one need s to look toward emergent solutions. Many of the things you would want to suppress in a Simple context are now very valuable in a Complex context – for example you encourage constructive dissent for the different viewpoints it makes available, and the good ideas that can emerge as a result.

Chaotic – The Domain of Rapid Response

Suppose the unexpected happens all the time? You need to respond, but no matter how much analysis and planning you do, what actually happens is not what you could have planned for. Things are not just unknown but unknowable. Here a good set of values and principles will help, with in-depth understanding and experience at applying them, so people can give a timely response by gut-feel rather than taking the time to do analysis and missing the moment to respond.


Though the Cynefin Framework talks about 4 contexts it mentions a 5th – “Disorder”. This is characterised by not knowing which context your work fits into. The anecdote I recounted in my last article gives a classic example of Disorder. The organization concerned was predominantly doing work in a Complex context. They were staffing their teams as if they were working in a Complicated context. Their performance and reward systems were structured as if they were working in a Simple context. In effect, people were getting punished for doing what was the right thing in the actual context. It is small wonder that their best people started leaving.

So, this framework is one of the tools that might help you toward a better understanding and a more appropriate response, in the way your organization approaches the work it does and the people it needs in order to get that work done.

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