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Home / Services / The conceptual framework Cynefin

Cynefin: a valuable framework to classify, communicate and respond to tasks in digital projects

Cynefin is a conceptual framework that can be used to aid decision-making. The word itself is Welsh and means ‘habitat’ and was conceived by an IBM engineer in 1999.

At Angry Creative, we think it’s a vital part of digital projects. It helps us to understand the task we’re looking at, communicate the nature of that task (both internally and with our clients) and recommend an approach (and estimate) that is appropriate to that task.

There is a very wide range of tasks that we are asked to undertake. Sometimes the task is a simple change, one that any trainee developer would know how to do and is therefore straightforward for us to estimate based on our experience. Sometimes the task is brand new, or so complex that there’s simply no way for us to know how to proceed without experimentation that has a high risk of failure.

Why this matters is that it means that some things can be estimated but others are simply impossible to estimate. It all comes down to the nature of the task itself.

In Cynefin (and therefore within Angry Creative, tasks are therefore divided into 4 different categories (called ‘Domains’ within Cynefin):

Chaotic

These we can not estimate; they often include obscure troubleshooting such as problems with many dependencies or integrations. What we do here is to proceed on a best-efforts basis and then give feedback to you on a regular basis. Normally we troubleshoot and feedback every 4 or 8 hours depending on what makes sense in that particular situation (e.g. whether it is an urgent task or not).

Complex

These we can not estimate, but here we will ask for examination time, normally 4 or 8 hours. Most of the time we are able to figure out what the problem is and how we can solve it at this time, and sometimes we are even able to actually solve it during the examination period.

Complicated

We have a pretty good sense of what these tasks are and how we can solve them but there are often multiple possible solutions and we need to do some work to identify the best solution. We therefore normally give an estimate within a wide range, eg 20-40h for these sorts of tasks.

Clear (sometimes called ‘Simple’)

These are tasks that we have solved many times before, and the solution is obvious for us. Here we usually give estimates within a narrow range, eg 6-8h or even sometimes a fixed cost.

Whenever we assess a new task, we will categorise it according to these rules and act accordingly – each Cynefin domain comes with its own process:

We have seen a lot of benefits from using this framework and encourage all new clients to dedicate a little time to reading and understanding it because it is something that very clearly defines our everyday life and will be widespread in how we tackle and communicate about tasks you ask us to work on. You might even find yourself using the framework outside of our relationship to help you assess and respond to your own tasks.

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