How Cynefin can Boost your Sustainability Career
20 May 2023

Once sustainability practitioners get over that pervasive view of three interlocking circles (society, environment, economy), many of us settle in to see our territory as three complex adaptive systems (business, society, nature) nested one within the other. Our field is inherently complex. That does not mean that all decisions taken at our organisation’s intersect with society and nature are complex decisions. It doesn’t mean that the tools we use help us make sense of complexity. My practice took a step forward when I got clear on these points and why they matter. How we approach any decision will differ depending on the context. Is it clear, complicated, complex or chaotic? This simple question changes everything.

The Cynefin framework of five domains was developed in 2007 by Dave Snowden to support anyone grappling with this uncomfortable truth. This means most of us because virtually every field is grappling with complexity right now. Snowden has refined it significantly (the most recent version is pictured below) and I doubt you’ll find a better overarching framework to inform any sustainability related decision. I’m gently exposing my seven-year-old to the idea, but it’s never too late for any practitioner to embrace a new tool. If Cynefin was more widely appreciated within our field, it may have lifted the tenor of some of the more exasperating debates, such as Creating Shared Value vs Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability vs ESG, and other protracted debacles.



Let’s take your carbon footprint as an example. That’s an issue at the complex intersect with nature, though of course it has social implications. (Complex = highly interconnected, though you’d never know it from the ease with which some investors champion carbon reduction over its social implications.)

Imagine you want to know your personal carbon footprint. It is clear. You Google a footprint calculator, type in your details and voilà. There’s no easier way.

Now imagine you want to calculate the footprint of a large organisation. This is likely to get complicated. You will definitely need a good practice guideline such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and it might be wise to engage a consultant to help you. With a little analysis and rational thought, you will have a good enough approximation.

Now imagine your board discovers that TCFD carries a fiduciary duty and they may be personally liable if the organisation can’t show they are taking this footprint seriously. The union was just informed of a proposal to mechanise an aspect of your operation to reduce said footprint, with possible job losses along the way. They simultaneously put pressure on Exco who send a directive to your boss. Your boss (who knows sweet nothing about carbon footprints though you wouldn’t think so by the way he talks) calls you in. The situation just got complex. Make a move in one direction and the union will react in the other. Slow things down and some individual on the board will start squeezing your boss. Your boss fears being shown up for his ignorance and ups the ante. On you. Maybe. We never know quite what they’re going to do. And that’s the point. That’s complexity. Make a small careful move. Watch what happens. Then decide your next step.

Now imagine that it’s a month before the TCFD report is due to be published and the Head of IT informs you that the carbon data you’ve collated over four painful months has been terminally corrupted. That’s chaos. Act immediately and decisively. Do whatever is needed to restore a modicum of sanity to yourself and the situation. If it works, you’ve taken things back into one of the other domains and you can proceed accordingly.

And the fifth domain? That’s when you don’t know what domain you’re in. Confusion. Make a cup of tea, breathe. Becoming aware that you don’t know might help it to become clearer soon.

Since discovering Cynefin belatedly during lockdown, it’s changed how I think about almost everything. Once we start using it, the framework makes more and more sense and, happily, so do we. As a complexity aware practitioner, I wouldn’t get up in the morning without it.


Banner pic adapted from Future Fit Methodology Guide (2019) available at:

Cynefin® is Welsh for a “Place of Your Multiple Belongings” and if you’re interested in African philosophy its logic is easy to grasp. Find out more at If its breakthrough implications are not obvious to you, the best starting place is the Cynefin Basecamp.

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