25th May 2020

The Cynefin Framework, marketing and you

Business wouldn’t be business without some plate spinning and juggling. We all know problems find their way into proceedings and those problems come in many different shapes and sizes. There is ‘no one size fits all’.

Still, how we respond to a problem is half the battle. Even if the appropriate response isn’t always clear (as in current circumstances) we still need a way to at least understand the shape of what we’re facing, otherwise everything that veers off-script could be deadly.

That’s where the Cynefin Framework comes in. At its simplest, it’s a tool that allows you to make better decisions by understanding the situation you’re in and how to plan in different degrees of uncertainity. In this article we’ll take a look at how it works, how it applies to marketing in a crisis and of course, how to pronounce it.

A quick history

Let’s get the basics out of the way. The Cynefin Framework has been around for almost two decades. It was developed by Dave Snowden and the reason you’re struggling to say it is that it’s a Welsh word, so to help you out it’s pronounced ‘Kih-neh-vihn’. Frustratingly there’s no direct English translation, but among the suggestions of other commentators is ‘habitat’ – and if we extend that to ‘environment’ we’re getting pretty close to what it’s all about.

The four ‘domains’ (and that shadowy bit in the middle)

The framework offers a way of understanding your environment, to give you the best possible chance of solving the problems that occur within in. It’s not always easy to see the best way forward, which can lead to underestimating a complicated problem, or over-engineering a simple one. It’s a bit like Christopher Brooker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ – the idea that no matter where it’s from or what it’s about, every story fits into one of a handful of broad categories.

1. Obvious (the domain of best practices).

Problems in this domain are pretty much routine. They’re the ‘known-knowns’, the things that crop up from day to day but are so commonplace and unremarkable that you’re entirely comfortable in dealing with them, almost without thinking. Solving these issues is so routine that you can ‘sense, categorise and respond’ – that’s important, because as we progress, we’ll see the ‘sense’ part taking a back seat. You can use your standard planning approaches here and they work.

2. Complicated (the domain of good practices).

Here we’re getting into known-unknowns – problems that require a bit more thought. These aren’t the real head-scratchers, but they’re not things you automatically have the answer to either. Problems in this domain need a bit of applied knowledge, but that’s fine, because they’re in your field of expertise. You can still ‘sense’ your way through to a degree, but you also need to ‘analyse’ before you ‘respond’. It’s a mix of knowledge and investigation. Planning in its traditional sense still works.

3. Complex (the domain of emergent solutions).

Now things get tricky. With ‘complex’ problems, the first step is to understand what you’re looking at, and it may well be that you’re not starting with the full picture. Complex problems need you to understand what’s happening and why, before you can go about finding the solution. At this stage ‘sense’ takes second billing and now ‘probe’ is the first step. Solutions may seem obvious in hindsight, but they’re anything but obvious at the time and solving one such problem doesn’t set you up for solving others in future. This is when traditional planning starts to become less effective – you need a more agile and adaptive way of working and small changes need to be made often.

4. Chaotic (the domain of novel solutions).

These are the real curve balls. In the chaotic domain there’s no clear relationship between cause and effect and the absolute priority is just to establish order and stability. It’s here that we hear people talking about ‘fire-fighting’ and ‘triage’. We’re in the realm of crisis and emergency now and even if the solution you land on isn’t right first time, you need to ‘act, sense, respond’ to find some kind of solution, just to put the brakes on. Normal planning with long term predictions goes out the window – those who can adapt to the environment quickly are the winners.

Finally, disorder – (the space in the middle).

We’ll only spend a moment here, because it’s not somewhere we’d ever really want to be. There’s a reason it’s a shadowy space in the middle of the diagram, because it sits outside the framework ­– it represents having no plan whatsoever – you need to act in the moment.

On to spring 2020

So what does all this mean for marketing planning, given what’s going on right now? It may feel that ‘Obvious’ problems and even those that sit in the ‘Complicated’ domain are now just fuzzy memories (like pubs and flour). It’s safe to say that the current pandemic has brought major challenges for every business, which can make it feel like we’re spending all our time in the ‘Complex’ and ‘Chaotic’ domains.

I’ve often blogged about the importance of routine and planning in giving you the mental bandwidth to deal with the unexpected, and if those are your strong suits, then you’ll be thanking yourself for having that foresight. The Cynefin Framework sits well with an organisation that has conducted a risk analysis, prioritised those risks and their likely impacts and put all of that into a crisis plan. The framework helps you to recognise a crisis as such, the plan tells you how to plan next. Short timescales are required and lots of revisiting based on what you are learning.

What if there is no plan?

If planning doesn’t come naturally and you now find yourself in a crisis without a plan, then all of the above may feel like things to promise yourself you’ll take care of once we’re through all this. But in the meantime, don’t panic – remember that the Cynefin Framework isn’t just there to point out where you are, it’s there to give you breathing space and instruct you on what to do.

At the moment, we’re seeing lots of rapid developments – the reinvention of the workplace, companies struggling to keep their footing, and other companies completely changing their business model. Because we’re in a rapidly unfolding situation, we’re all having to react a bit more quickly. With so much noise going on we need to practice tuning in to what’s important.

You’ll note that ‘Sense’ appears in every domain of the Cynefin Framework, it doesn’t always take first billing, but it’s always there and it’s always a key theme. As a professional, you’re already well acquainted with your audience and your industry, but whereas in business as usual we may have the time to conduct research and plan ahead, now we need to draw on the expertise we’ve built over the years, to start listening, spot trends, see gaps and respond to what people need.

Staying visible and relevant right now means being there with the information that your audience needs, when they need it. That will likely mean using a shorter, faster planning cycle and working to a quicker turnaround. It also means leaning toward a shorter-term focus, because we all need to deal with the right now, before we can take a breath and look further ahead.

As things begin to return to normal and people are able to think beyond their own complicated problems, to what they might do in the future, we can start to plan further ahead again with more proactive content and longer timeframes.

Normal 2.0

The current crisis won’t be the last we face as businesses. Hopefully future periods of uncertainty won’t be quite as severe as this one, but the fact is things don’t always go to plan. The Cynefin Framework is a way of saving time because it allows us to roll out an approach to a problem, and prevents us from rolling out the wrong one.

When we do find ourselves back to something approaching business as usual, it’s well worth taking the time to adopt the framework and planning out subsequent steps for each approach. It won’t solve your problems for you – as it keeps saying, that’s where your ability to sense comes in – but it will give you a head start by understanding the shape of each problem as it arises, your immediate next steps and ultimately, the level of time and resources you need to devote to it.