About two years ago, while reading Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Simple Habits for Complex Times, I was introduced to the distinction between complex and complicated. This distinction, more than anything I had previously learned, helped me to understand why we often get stuck and frustrated by the challenges we face. What was most liberating for me was realizing that being stuck is not, in most cases, a result of not being smart enough to “know” the answer—it is a function of being faced with a challenge that is truly complex and unknowable. Like just about everyone I knew and worked with, I was treating complex challenges as if they were complicated problems. Complicated problems might require expertise and might have lots of parts and pieces—but ultimately the answers could be known and plans could be formulated. In complexity, the solution was unknowable, except backwards.

Once I was introduced to this distinction, I began to try out the idea of safe-to-fail experiments (one of THE tools for working in complexity) and increasingly adopted the metaphor of “navigation” when I identified something as complex. I found myself able to relax into certain things that I had been afraid of and, for the first time in my life, genuinely embrace failure.

What I didn’t know at the time was just how much more there was to learn about complexity. A few months ago I was introduced to the Cynefin (Ky-ne-vin) framework (thanks, once again, to Jennifer Garvey Berger.) Cynefin was developed by Dave Snowden and draws on the study of Complex Adaptive Systems. (If that intrigues you, I encourage you to explore The Human Current podcast. Hosted by Angie Cross and Haley Campbell Gross, it brings together a myriad of voices exploring the landscape of complexity—and it’s fun!)

Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning habitat and is comprised of five domains. Complex and complicated, along with simple and chaotic, form a map that take us from the most to the least predictable. Naming whether the challenge or problem we are facing lives in the simple (or obvious), complicated, complex or chaotic domain helps us to identify how to work with that challenge. The fifth domain is disorder—which is the result of not having clarity about which domains apply. “Here, multiple perspectives jostle for prominence, factional leaders argue with one another, and cacophony rules”, write Snowden and his co-author Mary Boone in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article that beautifully introduces the framework .

And, unlike all those 4-square models that create neat pictures and easy classification systems, Cynefin suggests that things are more dynamic than that—and messier. Something that seems simple today could, if conditions change and we don’t recognize that it’s no longer simple, lead us directly off a cliff into chaos. Something can exist across more than one domain—these are not absolute lines. None of the domains of Cynefin are inherently good or bad. Most of  the time we want to avoid consciously creating chaos (though nature will spring it on us) and often we can peel off the complicated and simple from the complex, making things more manageable and workable. Each domain requires different capacities as well as different decision-making approaches.

For a brief introduction to Cynefin, I recommend this four-minute video.  Note that, as we move from most predictable to least predictable, the relationships between cause and effect shift, what is known and knowable changes, and the types of practices that are required shift significantly. The Cynefin framework moves through 4 domains: Simple/Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic.

I was so excited by the Cynefin framework that I started reading as much as I could about it, watching videos and listening to podcasts. I talked about it with clients and colleagues (and strangers on the street.) I introduced it in a workshop with a group of Senior Leaders at a tech company I’d been working with for several years. I watched it do for those in the room what it had done for me. Which is, to shift thinking about how we can approach the thorniest, most challenging problems we deal with—embracing what we can know and recognizing what we cannot. Learning about Cynefin also helped my clients recognize that if they are going to lead an organization that faces complex challenges (I would argue that any organization in 2018 does!) they must come to terms with not knowing, which requires new capacities. Working with complexity, among other things, requires that we tap into diverse perspectives and rely far less than we are used to on being experts. In complexity, expertise is no longer sufficient. Collaboration and multiple perspectives are required.

So, while there’s a lot more that sits behind the Cynefin framework, and more to this whole topic of complexity, I’d like to suggest six practical and actionable ways to begin to use the insights that this framework offers.

Name the Domain(s)

When I introduced Cynefin to my client, I asked them to examine a challenge that they had faced and consider it through the lens of these different domains. This turned into a powerful conversation about one of the most challenging and ultimately least successful projects the company had ever taken on. The leaders in the room realized that the default mode for the organization was to assume that everything was simple or perhaps complicated. The result was often chaos. Considering the nature of the challenge—and recognizing where there was complexity—created the possibility of making different choices and allowing different ways of operating to emerge. In this case, had the scale of the unknown and unknowable been named, the relationship with the client would have been managed in a radically different way. It would have allowed for evolution of the project, not presentation of a defined budget and work plan that was, from day one, doomed to failure.

Slow Down

Working with complexity requires that we slow down. Only when we slow down can we play closer attention to what is happening in our environments, take the time to ask questions, listen and observe carefully. When we slow down, it’s easier to identify what needs to emerge. One of the compelling ideas in Cynefin—and in complexity theory more generally—is the idea of “weak signal detection.” This involves being attuned to the little things (Snowden calls this “trivia”) in the environment that are potentially important—even vital—sources of information. If we move quickly and don’t pay close attention, we are inevitably going to miss those small, but important things in the environment that can help us navigate complexity better.

Accept Messy

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot about complexity lately. What’s increasingly evident to me is that embracing complexity requires acknowledging that when things are hard to decipher and solutions seem out of easy reach, they probably are. Rather than attempting to impose order, we can follow Snowden’s advice from a recent blog post: “Learn to live with dissent and with a lot of mess. The higher you get, the more challenges you face, the less you will be able to impose order, so learn to live with its absence as early as possible in your career.”

Adopt an Attitude of Experimentation

Key to working with complexity is getting comfortable with experimentation. Designing and implementing and, perhaps most importantly, learning from safe-to-fail experiments lies at the heart of working with complexity. As you consider the complex challenge you’re dealing with, ask yourself “What’s one small thing I could try?” Remember that there is no one answer to a complex challenge and that you are navigating your way through it. If you can come up with a few small things, try them all.

Don’t Go It Alone

A key to complexity is that expertise in not enough. Top-down decision making won’t work.  Multiple perspectives are needed. Per Snowden: “In the complex domain clear lines of control, structured authority and a need to avoid challenge or informal conversations…are contraindicated.” At the end of our exploration of their complex challenge, I asked my clients to list out what they would do in complexity, and what they wouldn’t. Topping the “would do” list was “engage others” and topping the “wouldn’t do” list was “fall back into command and control.” Exactly what they were most likely to do, they began to realize was least effective.


We crave certainty. We are wired to perceive stimuli as needing quick responses. That’s our biology.  Perhaps the hardest part of working with complexity, and the barrier to adopting any of the strategies or practices described above, is that we need to build an internal capacity to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and not knowing. For most of us that this will require practice and practices that may include new habits or routines. My morning meditation has helped me develop my own, internal, capacity for appreciating, accepting and even embracing complexity.

There are a multitude of practices one can explore and new habits one can adopt. In my experience, a powerful practice or habit is one that allows us to pause and breathe. One thing I do a lot in my coaching is support my clients in learning use the stimulus (the very thing that we typically perceive as requiring a reactive response) as a cue to pause and breathe. Trying this in less stressful and high-stakes situation is a great safe-to-fail experiment.

Start Experimenting

Consider a challenge you are currently facing. Are you treating it as complex or complicated? Is your assessment accurate? If it contains at least a component that is complex, what might you consider doing differently? Just as important—what’s one experiment that you can begin that will allow you to slow down, to pause, to breathe?

For me, this shift to the language of experimentation has helped me tackle both professional and personal challenges with greater ease and less fear. While I know I’ve got a long path ahead of me, I am getting better at relaxing in the face of complexity, embracing the messiness and even enjoying the ride. I wish the same for you!