Cynefin Complexity and #sibsyd wrap up

On Saturday I attended the Social Innovation Sydney Barcamp, which was held at CoFA and organized by Kate Carruthers and Michelle Williams. It was a good event, with some great people in attendance to discuss all things social innovation.


One of the topics we discussed was the Cynefin theory of complexity, which was raised in the first session of the day and was a theme I picked up on in my talk later that morning. I really enjoyed engaging with David Snowden’s theories again, something that I myself was introduced to at the first Trampoline by Keith De La Rue.”


The whiteboard from my talk on ecosystem yesterday at #sibsyd


I wanted to post about the theory, because I find it useful to consider a great many other things in relation to complexity theory and emergence. it helps to realize that there are different ways to solve projects and sometime different methods to solve different projects in a very ‘horses for course.’ way.


So what is David Snowdens theory, and does does it relate to the ecosystem theory of David Kilcullen? Snowden essentially posits that there are 4 different types of problems; simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.




A simple problem is a problem which is quite basic and easily understood by most people. Imagine getting a flat tyre on your bike – that’s a simple problem. You know immediately what the problem is (you have a flat tyre) because you can no longer continue to use the bike in the way it was intended to be used. But, crucially, you can also fix the problem yourself with very little training. It is a classic example of a simple problem. My tyre is flat, so I will fix it.




Complicated problems are those kinds of problems which are much harder to understand, but solved with a fairly step by step process and some appropriate training. 


An example of a complicated problem might be a 747 engine which has broken down. Now, we know when a 747 engine has broken down. It might be smoking or it might be on fire or maybe it just doesn’t turn on. However, the average human being wouldn’t know the first thing about going and fixing a 747 engine.


It takes considerable time and effort to understand what is broken in the first place and then further skill and effort to fix it. However, this type of problem, once identified, is very simple to fix. Complicated problems have a very logical and ordered approach to fixing them…like a ten step checklist of things to do to make it work (eg – take part a and insert it in to part b). These problems ar complicated but logical.




Complex problems are problems which are hard to solve because they have a multiple variety of outcomes which may need to be catered for. A good example of this is software development.


Software development is not something that is inherently easy, yet most of the problems and diffifculties of programing and building working software are in understanding the needs and desires of the end user. What is it that they want to do with this software when it is finally launched? What is it that they will need to do? Whi will the various users be and how will their needs differ according to those differences? These kinds of problems are called complex probelsms, because figureing out how to cater and provide to all of htose different use cases is extremely complex.


As a response to that, people use fixed methodologies to solve complex problems. A good example, sticking with the computer software example above, is to use different project management methodologies to take to the task. An example of this might be using Lean or Agile Project management philosophies. These methodologies take in to account the fact that building software is a complex task up front and then include artifacts and techniques to deal with that. This typifys a complex problem – it is something with no apparent solution but one that can be solved with a determined and well used approach, in this case, agile programming.


Chaotic (or wicked) problems


The final problem is a chaotic, or wicked, type of problem. These are the problems that we don’t even know exist yet as they are the ones that just emerge. As such, these have no identified easy methodologies to be applied to solve them. Climate change, poverty, energy consumption and homelessness appear some of the many many different problems which appear to be wicked.


The only way to solve these chaotic problems is to start trying to solve them. You can only enter in to a quest to engage and prod the problem, constantly acting against it to test and see what the reponses are and what feedback you get from those actions. Once you get a feel for those problems then you can refine, iterate and the act again to get a better and different set of results.


If you’re interested in learning more about The cynefin theory of complexity, its well worth checking out Keith’s presentation on slideshare.


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