On Leadership, Complexity and Achieving Simplicty

 [slideshare id=826022&doc=keithdelaruecynefin03-1228653571270108-8]

Dealing with complexity is one of the key leadership challenges that any leader needs to successfully face.

And ignoring this fact is the quickest way to last place in the leadership lunch line.

Framing Complexity

In this post I want to elaborate on a common framework that leaders can use in order to clearly map the complexity they need to deal with and the implications that this mapping will have on their response to it.

The framework I would use for this discussion is called Cynefin (pronounced cenevin).

Keeping It Simple

The Cynefin framework is a ‘sense-making’ model, not a categorization one.

What this means is that while in categorization models the classification method is established first (for instance, organizations between 100-500 employees are classified as ‘medium’ and organizations with 501-1000 are classified as ‘large’) and then data is used and mapped against this classification model.

In a ‘sense-making’ model, no prior classification is made and the nature of the data (or the data patterns) emerge as part of an exploration process made within a social context.

The Cynefin Model

The Cynefin model recognizes the existence of five types of ‘situations’ or domains:

  • The ‘Simple‘ Domain – characterized by clear cause-and-effect relationships, with well-defined rules of engagement that call for the use of best practice approaches.
  • The ‘Complicated’ domain – where the relationships between cause-and-effect are not straight forward but are discernible, subject to some level of analysis or investigation with the application of expert knowledge.
  •  The ‘Complex‘ domain – where the relationship between cause-and-effect can only be perceived in retrospect
  • The ‘Chaos‘ domain – where uncertainty is abound and no discernible cause-and-effect relationships are known to exist.
  • Disorder‘ – when no clear realization exists regarding the state at which the situation is and where no clear action can be taken due to conflicting views and complete lack of leadership.

From a leader’s perspective, the situations referred to above, can relate to the Organization as a whole, to sub areas within the organization or the Environment within which the organization operates.

Tailoring Your Leadership Style

When tying the concept of Leadership with the Cynefin framework, one has to consider (or rather ‘sense’) in which domain the organization and/or the environment are and, based on that assessment, tailor the leadership style to account to that situation.

The situations most likely to be present at the outset of that process are as follows:

Cynefin Combinations

Click to Enlarge

On Perception and Reality

At the core of the Cynefin thinking framework lies the realization that circumstances and the perception of circumstances are not always what they seem to be.

A leader whose experience has evolved primarily in domains characterized by simplicity, where a known action resulted in the expected result, might approach their new environment with an expectation that similar cause-and-effect will similarly work here.

In the same vein, leaders whose experience has evolved primarily in domains characterized as being complicated, where the relationships between cause-and-effect require analysis or some other form of investigation (or the application of expert knowledge), might approach their new environment in a similar manner, not suspecting that the situation they are facing is complex and needs to be handled completely differently.

Avoiding Your Leadership Traps

For leaders, the point to be avoided here is falling into the entrained thinking trap.

It can be easy to fall back and rely on one’s practices, policies, techniques and rationale that was found to be successful in the past. But leaders must be on guard so this doesn’t happen.

They must be vigilant not to slip, slide, or just sit back into habits that may have worked in the past because this can be a recipe for dissater

Leaders must think in terms of context and act appropriately. The lazy leader doesn’t lead for long!

Leaders must understand that conditions and circumstances are not always the same, thus requiring a totally different approach.

Think about it!

When was the last time you got caught in leading in the wrong way because you simply tried the wrong approach? How did this impact your results? And when was the last time you took cognitive steps to migrate to another quadrant because conditions where different and needed a different approach? How did that work out for you? I would love to hear you stories!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Shim Marom PMP, MSP, ICAgile ICP

Shim Marom is a Melbourne, Australia based Project Management Consultant
He blogs and engages in Public, Forums and Online Discussions
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Image Sources: ts2.mm.bing.net, slideshare.net

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Tina Crouse on May 20, 2014 at 9:13 am

    I’d gladly spend a week going over case studies to help me move the complexity of most situations into a simpler form. Very helpful for leaders.