October 7, 2022

Coaching and Cynefin

Hi there, it is Carlo speaking!

A few days ago, during a coach training session with a nice group of agile coaches, an interesting discussion emerged regarding the possibility of being able to identify the most functional coaching approach to a certain problem (specifically, we were engaged in identifying and addressing some complex situations in team coaching).

The request that initially emerged (What is the best approach in this situation?) stems from the constant pressure that we experience in business environments: constantly wanting to identify a solution as ‘the’ solution; to identify a procedure, a sequence, a specific question that is able to solve that specific situation, saving time.

This is an absolutely legitimate, though probably unfounded, request.

For further analysis, we can refer to the “Cynefin” framwork, a framework created in 1999 by Dave Snowden to understand how the type of response to a specific environment must somehow respect the typical characteristics of that specific environment. (Disclaimer: I will treat the framework in an extremely simplified manner… the more experienced will forgive me!



The environments or rather ‘domains’ that the framework reports are five in number and are divided into two main spaces:

  • The ‘ordered’ systems, i.e. those systems (simple and complicated) in which the cause and effect phenomena are known or at least can be defined.
  • The ‘unordered’ systems, i.e. those (complex and chaotic) systems in which cause and effect can only be deduced after they are discovered or are not there at all.
  • The ‘disorderly’, i.e. those systems in which there is no clarity.

Defining these different environments is useful because the possibility of defining solutions is linked to these definitions. This is what happens:

  • A problem that falls within the domain of ordered systems can be solved in two ways: through ‘best practices’ for simple environments (i.e. those in which there is an answer for every single problem, you just have to identify the problem), or through ‘best practices’ for complicated environments (i.e. those in which for every problem there are several equally valid solutions; to identify the right one you have to compare the ‘symptoms’, perhaps by consulting an expert, and apply the right solution). An example of the first type might be: my hand-wound watch has stopped, I will have to turn the crown on its side to restart it; an example of the second type might be: my car won’t start, and to restart it my mechanic will have to do a series of tests to find out whether it is a dead battery or a loose cable…
  • A problem that falls into the domain of unordered systems can be solved in two ways: in the case of a complex problem, an ’emergent practice’ is required, i.e. through open, patient and non-judgmental listening it is necessary to acquire the information to be able to start experimenting with the first steps towards a possible solution and through subsequent feedback acquire new knowledge to determine the next steps. When faced with a problem that falls into the domain of chaos, there is no cause-and-effect link, so it is necessary to break down the situation, prioritize and try to deal with each individual part as if it were a complex system. This is the moment of ‘innovative practice’.

What kind of support would then be useful in the different domains?

  • In the domain of ‘simple’ a collection of FAQs might suffice: a list of recurring problems for which a specific solution already exists; quick, effective and efficient.
  • In the domain of ‘complicated’ the manual is no longer enough… one probably needs an expert, a consultant, for example, who is able to put together the ‘symptoms’ to define the most appropriate response. The process is less rapid but equally efficient and effective (…depending on how experienced the expert is…).
  • In the domain of the ‘complex’, on the other hand, the figure of the expert may be risky insofar as, given his vast experience, he may ‘not see’ aspects that may be relevant but not known beforehand. The skills to look for are therefore non-judgmental listening, patience, the ability to ‘put oneself in the situation’ but to remain emotionally detached from it, trust in the possibilities of finding a solution by experimenting, and also the ability to support the effort the client is making… Does this remind you of anyone? (hint…. it could be a coach).
  • In order to deal with the domain of the ‘chaotic’ it seems instead important to have a figure who is able to quickly resolve what urgently needs to be dealt with and to act with speed by finding a solution that is ‘good enough’, rather than the perfect solution… The idea that comes to mind seems to be that of an emergency surgeon rather than an airline pilot dealing with an emergency situation (recall for instance the ditching in the Hudson River of US Airways Flight 1549 by Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger).


What emerges from this conversation? The best field of application of coaching seems to be in complex situations, precisely because of the need for certain soft skills that could be at their best there…

And in other cases?

Well, it probably seems useless (and expensive…) to turn to a coach if the answer is in a FAQ; equally useless would be to turn to a coach if a counsellor is already present: the latter will easily be able to ask the right questions without further external support.

And what happens in case of ‘chaos’? Can the work of a coach be useful alongside someone who is managing an emergency? Probably yes, both during the management ‘after’ the emergency, to fix the learnings, and during the emergency itself to make decisions… unless you are trying to save a person in an ambulance or ditching in a river with an airliner!

If you would like to explore these or other interesting topics, why not join one of our free coaching meetups and exchanges:

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