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Explaining Scrum using the Cynefin Framework

Last month I completed the Scrum Master course, run by Simon Bennett from LASTing Benefits. At the beginning of the course, I had Scrum explained to me in a completely different way than I was accustomed to and whilst it was a bit complex at first, I think it sums up the need for Agile control frameworks (such as Scrum) in a very intelligent way.

So what is the Cynefin Framework? The Cynefin Framework was originally developed in 1999 in the context of knowledge management and organisational strategy by Dave Snowden. It describes a “perspective on the evolutionary nature of complex systems, including their inherent uncertainty”. The framework allows us to understand the nature of problems & work, thus applying the most appropriate method of knowledge management & decision making.


The Cynefin Framework (or Matrix) is made up of 5 domains, they are as follows:

Simple (aka “The Known”)
The relationship between cause and effect is obvious & known to all. The approach is to Sense, Categorise, Respond. An example of this is an assembly line where standard operating procedures or best practice are adhered to.

Complicated (aka “The Knowable”)
The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis and/or the application of expert knowledge. The approach is to Sense, Analyse, Respond. An example of this is systems thinking where good practice is adhered to.

Complex (aka “The Unknowable”)
The relationship between cause and effect can only be fully perceived in retrospect, but not in advance. The approach is to Probe, Sense, Respond. An example of this is adaptive systems, where emergent practices are used.

Chaotic (aka “The Incoherent”)
There is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level. The approach is to Act, Sense, Respond. An example of this is Crisis Management, where rapid response / stabilisation is employed.

Disorder (Causality Unknown)
This is the middle domain, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will have a tendency to revert to their own comfort zone (domain) in making a decision.

So what does this have to do with Scrum? Scrum is an Agile Control Framework that is inherently emergent, it aims to solve complex problems by using the Probe, Sense, Respond method. It assumes that the world as we know it is subject to change, therefore we can only explain the relationship between cause and effect in retrospect. It allows you to identify patterns in software development, amplify what is working & dampen what isn’t working.

Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that all software projects are complex, we can assume that most new projects, particularly product development projects, will have many uncertainties that can only be explained in retrospect.

The reality is that software projects have a mix of simple, complicated and complex problems and that whilst Scrum is emergent, carries a low cost of change and very capable of handling complex issues, this does come at the cost of staff utilisation (or efficiency). Waterfall is great at solving Complicated problems & has a high level of staff efficiency, but this comes at a huge cost of change & inability to effectively manage complex issues.

Do you think that this is an effective means of explaining the reason for Scrum and other Agile control frameworks? Tell me your 2c in the comments below.


  1. Simon Bennett Simon Bennett

    too many buzzwords

  2. Altug Altug

    Scrum can not respond to Complex domain

  3. Peter Jetter Peter Jetter

    A long time ago i was a biologist and into modeling Complex Adaptive Systems (eco systems etc). Evolutionary Strategies are able to cope with the situation of being a complex adaptive system in a higher order complex system and among other complex adaptive systems. Scrum practices emulate some of the known evolutionary strategies. Makes sense to me.

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