A leaders framework for decision making

The Globe and Mail.

A leaders framework for decision making

The most successful leaders I have encountered are the ones that are able to adapt to changing circumstances and that are receptive to innovative ideas from unlikely sources.

In the military context, leadership is heavily hierarchal. That being the case, the military hierarchy is slow to react to quick changes wrought by the information age.

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The sum of all parts does not always equal the outcome, and a combination of simple, perhaps benign, interactions, can have unpredictable and wild results. Adept leaders must be able to operate in all environments, whether they be simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. More importantly, that same leader must be humble enough to know when they are not the best-equipped individual to make decisions in every one of these environments.

Following are some of the notes from the article published by the Harvard Business Review: Cynefin the conceptual frameworkpronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand. The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect.

A leaders framework for decision making

Four of these- simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic- require leaders to diagnose situations to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth- disorder- applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.

Leaders who understand that the world is often irrational and unpredictable will find the Cynefin framework particularly useful. Simple Contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring.

Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond. In simple contexts, issues may be incorrectly classified within this domain because they have been oversimplified. Leaders who constantly ask for condensed information, regardless of the complexity of the situation, particularly run this risk.

When things appear to be going smoothly, leaders often become complacent. The simple domain lies adjacent to the chaotic. The most frequent collapses into chaos occur because success has bred complacency.

Complicated context, unlike simple ones, may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. Entrained thinking is a danger in complicated contexts, too, but it is the experts rather than the leaders who are prone to it, and they tend to dominate the domain.

When this problem occurs, innovative suggestions by non-experts may be overlooked or dismissed, resulting in lost opportunities. Reaching decisions in the complicated domain can often take a lot of time, and there is always a trade-off between finding the right answer and simply making a decision.

In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complicated context, the whole is the sum of its parts.

In a complex context, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.


Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change introduces unpredictability and flux. Instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself.

They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond. Conditions of scarcity often produce more creative results than conditions of abundance. Leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles- to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes.

They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge.

Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.

In a Chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist- only turbulence.

This is the realm of the unknowables. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making harvard business review • november page 2 concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities.

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Leader's Framework for Decision Making magazine article. David J. Snowden; The result is the Cynefin framework, which helps executives sort issues into .

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A leaders framework for decision making

Simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic contexts each call for different managerial responses.

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