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Managing project crises using the Cynefin framework

Credentialed, experienced and competent project portfolio management professionals know that projects rarely go according to plan. This is why planning to the horizon or to what you can see is so important. Planning should ideally only be done to a level of detail that is manageable and foreseeable. So when responding to a project crisis, regardless of severity and impact, it’s important to pause and take heed of the environment. Typically, not all project leaders achieve the expected measurable benefits and/or value from their programmes and projects when they face situations that require a variety of decisions and responses. The Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden, as a sense making model is primarily used to inform decision making and to help people understand the level of complexity potentially facing an organisation.

Cynefin, pronounced "ku-nev-in," is a Welsh word that translates as "place" or "habitat." It is used to describe the elements of our situation and personal history that influence our thoughts and decisions. It allows decision makers to see things from new perspectives, assimilate complex concepts and redress business problems and opportunities. The Cynefin framework can help project leaders sense which context they are in so that they can not only make informed decisions but also potentially avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes.

How the Cynefin?

The Cynefin framework identifies five domains that describe the relationship between cause and effect of events (crisis) and interactions, and determines how complex an environment is including how to respond to the delta. The five relationships are:

  1. Simple– This is realm of “known knowns”, where the relationship between cause and effect (crisis) is obvious, predictable and repeatable. Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. In a simple context, project leaders sense, categorize, and respond. That is, to assess the facts of the situation, to categorize them, and then base their response on industry best practices.  
  2. Complicated– This is the realm of “known unknowns”, where the relationship between cause and effect is not self-evident and where some form of analysis or expertise is required to understand the relationship. In a complicated context, project leaders must instead sense, analyze, and respond. It is usually redressed by “good practice” where there may be several different viable options to consider before deciding how to respond to the crisis. That is, either to continue, discontinue or vary the scope for project implementation based on value for money parameters in terms of impact to cost, risk and benefits.
  3. Complex– This is the realm of “unknown knowns”, where the relationship is unpredictable and can only be understood in hindsight or retrospect. It is redressed by “emergent practice” which may lead to a better ways of working. That is, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, project leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense and then respond to the crisis.
  4. Chaotic– This is the realm of “unknown unknowns”, where there is no apparent relationship, and any way of working is described as novel. In a chaotic context, a project leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present. From where it is absent, project leaders respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complex. It is where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.
  5. Disorder– This is the realm of unknowables, the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state organisations tend to revert to their own comfort zone in making a continued investment decision. This is characteristic of a “black swan event”, described as a totally unexpected and unpredictable event that has a major impact on the organisation that contributes to disruption. Yet while the particulars of a true black swan event cannot be forecast, organisations can prepare themselves for the possibility. The Cynefin framework also has sub-domains, and the boundary between simple and chaotic is seen as catastrophic: where project complacency leads to failure. However, recovery from catastrophic is extremely expensive. As such, organisations should manage in the complicated and complex domains and only consider small events in simple which are often subject to rapid change.

This sense making model is a significant change over the more traditional approaches which try to reduce a crisis to a set of rational actions and acknowledges that in some instances we cannot predict the outcomes. So an effort to clearly define the delta i.e. the gap in organisational performance must be made, in order to identify a corrective response. Instead of obsessing about predicting the future and possible disruption, organisations can move to a position of controlling the future, therefore, project leaders do not need to predict everything. This is the value of Cynefin and efficacious crisis management.

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Milvio DiBartolomeo

About author

OGC Gateway Assurance Expert | Author | Agile, Project, Programme & Portfolio Management and Better Business Cases Specialist

Milvio DiBartolomeo has a proven track record in ICT project, programme and portfolio management in the Queensland public sector, Australia. He has worked on a number of transformational change initiatives across the programme and project lifecycle as a business and process analyst, software tester and project manager. He practices what he preaches having successfully implemented staged funding release by gated review technique to protect public sector investment and redesigned the project governance structure to minimise senior management time commitment for a Queensland Government department. He has extensive PMO experience as a Portfolio Manager, Capability Support Manager and now as a Workforce Delivery Manager. With a lifelong passion for learning his credentials include practitioner level knowledge in Better Business Cases, Managing Benefits, MoP, P3O, MSP, PRINCE2, PRINCE2 Agile, AgileSHIFT, ICAgile, ISTQB software testing and ITIL. He also released his first white paper called ā€œProject Optimism Bias in Capital Investment Decision Makingā€ through APMG-International.
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