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What should I do? Making sense of chaos.

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Person entering a maze

In recent times, I've been presented with many coaching sessions where the client has been managing an incredibly challenging situation. It seems that Covid-19 has been an event that has far exceeded many of our well-established business continuity plans.

I was recently working with my colleagues at Mezzana Partners (an awesome bunch of performance psychologists and coaches - check them out) and they mentioned the Cynefin Framework in the context of the current situation, and I realised how applicable it was to a number of the coaching sessions I had delivered.

Nearly all of my clients were delivering complex organisational change and I've never heard VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) mentioned so often in coaching and action learning sessions.

The Cynefin Framework

Cynefin Framework Drawing by Gary Buxton


The six actions recommended by the Cynefin Framework. Sense, Categorise, Respond, Analyse, Probe & Act

The principle of the Cynefin Framework is that we are often faced with challenging situations, but they can be categorised into any one of five domains and in making this categorisation, it gives you some actions and the chance to make sense of what is going on. The fifth domain, Disorder, sits in the centre of the model where it is not yet clear which domain is at play. When presented with this domain, it may be important to divide the problem into its constituent elements and assign these to the relevant domain.

There are six potential actions you can take in response to a situation, each of which support you to either make the situation more manageable, or to resolve it completely.

During this chaotic/complex time when many people have experienced decisional paralysis, knowing to trust your instinct and do something, is most likely better than doing nothing at all. Just offering this as a simple model can be a way to gain perspective and unlock thinking.


In this domain, cause and effect are unclear. When things are chaotic, they're all happening too quickly for you to apply a knowledge-based response. You have to act quickly and decisively. This domain requires you to act to establish order, sense where stability lies and then respond to turn the chaotic into complex.


This domain is the unknown unknowns. Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect and it is likely that there are no right answers. In this domain, experiments are the key to success. Initiating a few different 'experiments' to test out how the situation responds can help you to navigate a path to resolution.


We've now moved into the space of known unknowns. The relationship between cause and effect are there to be discovered, but will often require analysis and expertise. Assessing the facts of the situation before exploring options will help you to respond based on established practice.

Simple (or Obvious)

Wouldn't our lives be dull if every challenge we faced was simple?! These are the known knowns. It is likely that we already know what to do in response to these challenges and have done it so often that we're quite good at it. The relationship between cause and effect is clear and there is a shared understanding of what is required.


In my operational career, I've often been presented with situations which at first seemed impossible, but with small steps, often led by instinct and values, I've been able to pull through each of them and I will always appreciate the learning they have offered.

I take my hats off to everyone that I've been coaching over the last few weeks, especially those who are making sure that essential services continue to keep us all going! 👏

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