Simplicity, Complicatedness, Complexity, Chaos – and Transformation

Situations that are simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic involve very different dynamics and thus very different forms of engagement. If we are familiar with these differences we can function appropriately and even use our understandings to instigate, support, and work with diverse forms of transformational energy. A model called the Cynefin framework can be a good starting point for that.

We can find joy and meaning in knowing what to do and doing it well.
We can find joy and meaning in figuring out what’s going on and how to address it.
We can find joy and meaning in dancing with evolving realities and partnering with life to make life better for all.
We can find joy and meaning in being creatively in the moment in the face of ultimate challenges.

Thanks to Tracy Kunkler and Steve Waddell, I have been enthralled to discover the Cynefin framework – a thinking tool developed at IBM over several years as our world entered its current century. The Cynefin framework has been adopted and applied by thousands of people since then, mostly to support corporate and institutional management.*

But I suggest that it applies as well to our global challenges and their associated civilizational transformations.


The Cynefin framework is a quadrant model addressing the nature of situations and how we can appropriately address different levels of uncertainty. (Check out the visuals at Wikipedia or look for images through Google.) Its four quadrants are:

  • SIMPLE – This situation is governed by straightforward A->B causality that we can get a grip on.
  • COMPLICATED – This situation has lots of pieces we can understand if we study and solve them well.
  • COMPLEX – This situation involves innumerable interacting factors and emergent phenomena we need to “dance” with.
  • CHAOTIC – Instead of order, this situation presents us with radical uncertainty, serious challenges, and real danger.

The Cynefin model also has a central realm (where the axes cross) labeled DISORDER, which refers to situations where we don’t yet know which of the four quadrants we should use to address it, so we need to sort that out as our first step. Once that’s done, here’s the sort of guidance the Cynefin framework offers us:


In a SIMPLE situation we need to develop, teach or learn the best practices that governs that situation. After all, if there’s direct, simple causality, we just have to get a handle on it so we can cause whatever’s called for. We’re dealing here with knowledge that is tried-and-true when applied to its particular kind of challenge. Bureaucracies, controlled experiments, and basic technologies are examples of approaches that flourish in this linear realm. As they cover more and more ground, such activities begin to move us into the complicated realm. But in the simple realm we can keep in mind that there can be real joy and meaning in knowing what to do together and doing it well.

Now, when a situation is COMPLICATED, it is both really big – with lots of moving parts and puzzles – and demonstrably manageable. In such situations, if we are discerning, we are usually aware of what we don’t know and we just need to figure it out. Our challenge is to clearly articulate and analyze the relevant problems and difficult questions, and then go about solving and answering them – which we can and ultimately do. Since there are many aspects and issues involved, though, we might develop or need a manual or a whole field of study to manage them all. So early on it is good to have lots of minds working on the situation and being in touch with each other, developing good answers. At a whole-society level, the global scientific research community is an excellent example of such an activity. Given all the facets involved in a complicated situation, we’ll probably end up with lots of good workable practices and proposed plans from various experts – and in this mode we should follow them, according to their expertise. We know when success is achieved in complex situations because it is clear and measurable. However, since there are usually still some variables at work around the edges – a factor that grows as we move into situations that are truly complex – it is possible to have some diverse and changing answers. So we function best here with a mix of exploration, confirmation, education, application and answerability. But in the complicated realm we can keep in mind that there is joy and meaning in together figuring out what’s going on and how to address it and then carrying out workable plans.

COMPLEX situations are different: everything has more than one cause – and many those factors only become clear in retrospect, if ever! This means we can’t dependably predict or control what happens. Natural systems and human systems are notoriously complex in this way. As we move around in them, we don’t necessarily know what we don’t know and anything we do could generate unexpected results. Emergent phenomena – surprises, both good and bad – are common in a complex scene. We need to dive in, of course, but we need to be very attentive as we do so. We have to build the road as we travel and often what we needed to know we only discover as we experience it. No moment or situation is quite like any other but there are usually some patterns we can find if we look for them, guided by the right kind of questions. So we feel our way, informed by our experience, of course, but not limited by it and acutely aware of its own limitations. There’s no one in charge and no central control actually possible here. But there is a lot of self-organization happening and a lot of possibilities showing up at each choice point. If we pay good attention and aren’t arrogant about our perspective, we can start to understand some of the (existing and potential) patterns of self-organization in which we can then productively participate. (Permaculture is an interesting example of this.) Context shapes what happens here, and so identifying and/or creating generative, evocative contexts can be a positive form of change agentry – especially when by doing so we help the situation self-organize in healthy ways. In our efforts to participate usefully in what matters, we may notice and engage with broader, deeper, or higher-level patterns and probabilities as guides, moderated by due humility so we can receive the messages evolving reality is sending us in the moment. Managing complexity well involves a lot of sense-and-respond dynamics, noticing outliers and emerging “instructive patterns” and experiments and testing prototypes that we think are “safe to fail” to see what would work here and now, while being ready to revise them on a moment’s notice. Having diverse people collaborating in such activities gives us a better chance of comprehending the various big, subtle, and shifting factors we need to take into account. Success here is about resilience and adaptation: It’s not about getting the right answer so much as constantly creating “good enough answers for now” and seeing what happens next so we can learn what our next step should probably be. In this realm we can keep in mind that there is joy and meaning in dancing together with evolving realities and partnering with life to make life better for all.

In CHAOTIC situations we really can’t tell what’s going to happen next. Causes and effects are radically uncertain and novelty is the name of the game. Ideally we are (or can follow the lead of) people who have managed to survive or do well in chaotic, unpredictable environments before – people who have the right kinds of instinct for that. Top-down leadership is invaluable here if it operates from that kind of sensibility. Action is more important than knowledge in the face of chaos, because knowledge is based on past experience that’s probably irrelevant in the crazy here-and-now. There’s a vivid immediacy in chaotic situations: the situation demands that we be fully present with it – and to BE novel, ourselves. It helps to have a hyper-flexible, centered awareness of what’s going on in the moment right around us so we can deal courageously and creatively with – or move quickly to avoid – immediate dangers and fears and move on, perhaps into a safer place where we can recover or create bits and pieces of order in the midst of it all, hopefully reducing the chance of future catastrophe as we go, but always alert. It is clear that chaos is not a zone for big plans, relaxed satisfaction, or obliviousness. Nevertheless, at any point we are not in immediate danger, we can look for deeper or broader patterns that might help us shift the situation from chaos into a more complex mode of engagement where we can sustain flexible partnerships with the world around us. And immersed in this realm of chaos we also can keep in mind that there is joy and meaning in being creatively in the moment together in the face of ultimate challenges.


Some Cynefin practitioners say that if we treat complex situations as if they are simple – or when our formulaic successes make us complacent and blind us to emerging complexity and change – we will end up with chaos because we generate numerous messy side effects with all our oversimplified linear interventions. Furthermore, in our efforts to preserve our certainties, we fail to take into account that things are changing. This is a good description of the conditions generated by societies, organizations, and civilizations that pride themselves on getting what they want, no matter what. We’re living now in exactly this sort of mess, rich with unfortunate side effects and emerging chaos.

Cynefin practitioners also recommend that a manager or leader try to shift elements of a situation – or entire situations – from chaotic to complex (as patterns emerge), or (as things settle down) from complex to complicated, or (as events become predictable and actions routine) from complicated to simple. We face what’s there and – whenever possible – increase our knowledge so we can understand the reality we face in ways that truly make it more manageable so we can downshift the situation towards simplicity. But we mustn’t fake it or assume we know too much. Our awareness and knowledge have to be real for this movement back around the quadrants to actually work. And in this effort, I think there needs to be an overriding understanding that behind ALL our simplicities and merely complicated systems and solutions lies the profound complexity of human and natural systems – a complexity that demands a good measure of humility and ongoing alertness and learning. Without that awareness, we make ourselves prone to disaster. But with and through that awareness, we can keep ourselves awake and vibrantly alive.

Recently I explored the quadrants for some kind of developmental directionality. I found myself wondering if we start out (individually and/or collectively) in surroundings (a) that seem to us chaotic – or at least capricious – but where (b) we can control certain things in our immediate surroundings if we learn how. So we undertake the required learning, more and more, and with our growing knowledge of linear dynamics, we develop powers with which we create ever-more-complicated things – tools, methods, systems, situations, environments. This seems to have happened as a developmental line in human history. As we divided up our collective labors and developed ever more specialized roles and knowledge, we generated an ever-more-unmanageable world where the larger environmental complexities that always existed – that once seemed chaotic but within which we could do small controllable things – merged and interacted with the complicated artifacts and systems we were so busy creating… to make the profoundly messy world of complexity in which we live today. And not only is that complexity messy, but it won’t stay still. Our messy, rapidly changing world – which we still insist on impacting with our over-simple or merely complicated worldviews and interventions – is beginning to generate ever-more-chaos, with real dangers growing at every level of life. And we see this rising chaos driving some people towards ever-more-simple ideologies, solutions and leaders – a dynamic which only exacerbates the chaotic complexity that is unfolding in and around us….

In the midst of this, it seems to me that our primary challenge and opportunity lies in learning to deal better and better with complexity through creatively and humbly sensing, exploring, experimenting, and responding together while meeting our increasingly chaotic environments with big-picture perspectives, equanimity, courage, mutual aid, and practiced resilience – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social and with prudently stewarded capital of all kinds – with “capital” referring not to money but to any resource which we can engage to bring forth more of what we want – to cushion impacts and build a good future regardless, starting with our next small steps.

The Wise Democracy Pattern Language provides guidance for generating the kind of wisdom we need to live well in truly complex conditions and to prepare for making it through chaos-shocks that are on the horizon everywhere and emerging in scattered locations and headlines every day. In addition, I find the vision of inclusive multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale networks as an emerging form of governance compelling because it involves seriously diverse people and groups in all aspects of every situation at last working together (instead of at cross purposes) to address each situation’s evolving complexity well, on an ongoing basis. Both of these approaches are resources for cultivating the emerging sprouts of the world we want.

There is a lot of work to do to live into the insights provided by the Cynefin framework in every aspect of our evolving civilization. It is good work, with substantial roles awaiting each of us. We can find joy and meaning in exploring all these realms together in ever new ways.

Blessings on our Immense Journey!

We are All.
In This.


* I was fascinated and somewhat saddened to discover how this framework was applied to policing the Occupy Movement protests. There are so many more vital uses for it to transform our dysfunctional status quo than to preserve the institutions and forces that are trying to control our world. But its institutional support and universal applicability have preserved it until this time, and for that I am grateful.

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