Kumu Blog

Tools and practices for tackling complex systems.

What is complexity?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

We talk about complexity a lot. With how hard it is to make an impact, it's easy to think everything is complex. But do we really know how to identify complexity?

The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

Bringing a complexity frame to every situation we face is dangerous and counterproductive. So how can we know when we're facing a complex situation and when we aren't? How can we know which tools to use on our current challenges?

The Cynefin Framework

One of the best frameworks we've found for classifying the different environments is Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework (cynefin is Welsh for "place of multiple belongings"):

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden

The framework helps you make better choices about which approach to use and when. Rather than taking a one size fits all approach, you're encouraged to think and act differently based on the space you're in.

Obvious

Also referred to as "simple", this is where cause and effect exists, is predictable, and can be determined in advance. Not only does cause and effect exist, but it is obvious to all involved.

This is the land of checklists: determine the problem you're facing, apply known best practices, and move on.

Complicated

In complicated spaces, there is a relationship between cause and effect that is knowable (there is a right answer), but it's not self evident. The solution may be to involve experts or complete detailed analysis.

This is the land of gantt charts: find the right expert, do the number crunching, create a plan, and execute.

Complex

In complex spaces, cause and effect are often only obvious in hindsight. Outcomes are unpredictable and emergent. Here your focus is on creating safe-fail experiments, not fail-safe design.

This is the land of the system map: use collective knowledge to identify possible levers, design experiments, listen and iterate to effective practice.

Chaotic

In chaotic spaces, no cause and effect relationships exists and any approach will be completely novel.

This is the land of the bull horn: do whatever you can to stabilize quickly.

Disorder

This area isn't named on the chart, but it's the red color between the spaces. Snowden defines disorder as not knowing which space you are in. The danger here is that we end up ignoring the context we're working in and default to our own personal preference for action.

Dave Snowden introducing the Cynefin frame.

Senge and Scharmer on Types of Complexity

The Cynefin framework is great for making sense of the environments you're facing and which approach makes sense in each space. There's a danger though in jumping too quickly to a conclusion that your problem is "complicated" (or any other space) and missing a broader solution space because of it.

To keep you focused on the big picture, Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer describe problems as embodying three types of complexity:

  • Dynamic Complexity. Where cause and effect are distant in time and space. When it is high, you need to take a systems approach that deals with all the interdependencies. When it is low, you can do a piece by piece approach.
  • Social Complexity. Where the problem involves many different stakeholders with different agendas and mental models. When it is low, expert solutions can work. When it's high, you need to engage stakeholders in both the problem definition and solution generation.
  • Generative complexity. Where the problem hasn't occurred often before and is still evolving. When it is high, you may not even know what the problem is or who the key players are to involve.

Complexity can be introduced by any combination of the above types. These categories are helpful in thinking about ways a "simple" or "complicated" problem might actually move more towards the "complex" space.


We're surrounded by complexity on a daily basis, yet we have an incredibly hard time wrapping our heads around it. Hopefully these frameworks help you think about and discuss complexity a little more clearly.

It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

The quotes in this article are taken from David Foster Wallace's "This is Water." The full text is available here.

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