Sunday, November 8, 2020

Problem Types – Clear to Chaotic

Cynefin (the Welsh word for habitat) is a conceptual framework developed out of IBM during the early 2000s and has been labelled a “sense-making device.”  This framework has continued to evolve through the work of David J. Snowden and colleagues of the Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity.

 “In the face of greater complexity today, however, intuition, intellect, and charisma are no longer enough.”  -  - David J. Snowden, HBR, Nov. 2007

Snowden’s typology of the Four Cs of problems – Clear, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic -- is intended to focus on disorder, complexity, and uncertainty in the assumptions that can be made about certainty, stability, and confidence in accepted best practices to frame the problem and arrive at solutions. 

Not all problems are created equal.  Any problem-solving venture should begin with the question “What type of challenge are we facing here?” In order to determine the level of difficulty—as well as how it can be framed for a solution—a problem typology defines the territory of the problem—smooth, rough, varied, or steep—as a way to force a kind of profiling to differentiate it from others.  

As a consultant to IBM Global Services in 1999, Snowden developed a typology of problems whose purpose was to impose a new perspective on problem-solving: one derived from complexity science.  Knowing that context drives problem perspective for decision-making, Snowden’s “Cynefin” framework (named for “habitat” in Welsh – don’t worry, this is noncritical) sets up a way to formulate problems of varying difficulty and urgency on a scale that points to the different needs for action and expertise among four types – including an outlier, “Disorder,” that informs each of them with a slightly different “unclear” “jagged” or “tangled” edge.


Clear Problems (also known as Simple or Obvious)- these contain no unknowns. You’ve seen them or similar problems frequently, so you understand how they are constructed. There are obvious answers and easy fixes available.

Domain: Best Practice.  A simple answer might be in calling your State Rep to take care of an insurance problem you can’t figure out your way around, under the rule, “If unsure, delegate to an authority with clout.” Request an extension if your taxes aren’t ready.  Ask your credit card to reset your credit limit.  This is the simple “fill in the blank with X” and you have the missing information—the information you already know you need. 

 Complicated problems - The cause of the problem is not obvious. You need to identify the key parts of the equation but you already understand the underlying system, which has multiple parts and a clear sequence. You need an expert solution to address this problem. 

Domain: Experts. Auto mechanic, health specialist, CPA, roofer.  Call your appliance brand to get a fix on the phone or internet.  There is a code or sequence you don’t understand. It must be clarified by a knowledgeable expert.  You are calling the wrong office for the right reason; find the system expert who knows that person or number is obsolete, then get the right one.  Alexa won’t connect to Amazon radio. You don’t know why. Get an expert fix simply by asking her, “How do I reset you?”  Unplug and replug.  Fix, case closed. 

 Complex Problems – Cause is not clear or there are multiple causes or relationships that are not apparent. They form a problem chain or linked system that’s not easy to separate in order to see how they are related, or find the gaps. Another job requiring expert solutions or, failing that, some form of elegant tweaking—involving analysis from outside the system. 

Domain: Emergence.  A multi-system problem, like medical procedures on one side and insurance on the other, yields conflicting advice from different entities (appeal/don’t appeal).  Multi-party, multi-issue spanning 2, 3, 4 or more systems.  Define the problem—search for an entry point to clarify that definition, then move forward while looking to see where the solution links might be. 

 Chaotic Problems – These are crises, requiring immediate action. Change one dynamic parameter and the crisis might be resolved in a ripple effect. The ideal goal is to first tweak them back to the Complex category, stabilize them, iterate the response, and define the new environment.

Domain: Rapid Response.  This is the domain of the ambulance, the fire brigade, security, police, Red Cross, the Marines.  Global response to the Covid pandemic works like this – but in slow motion, as social distancing is tried out worldwide on different schedules, then recalibrated when cases spike.