Wise executives tailor their approach to fit the complexity of the circumstances they face.

I'm not a wise executive, actually, I'm not an executive at all; but David Snowden and Mary Boone celebrated Harvard Business Review article caught definitely my attention. 

I could immediately relate with the Cynefin Framework, yet in a very different context than it was intended for! 

I came across Dave Snowden and his Cynefin Framework as part of my Master of Business and Technology course at the University of Technology Sydney. The framework is not only helping leaders to identify the context they're working in but also to change their behavior and decision making in order to match the context.

Although the framework was clearly created with business leaders in mind, I found that I can apply the exact same concepts to my greatest hobby, which is sailing. Just as business leaders, as a skipper of a sailboat I can be confronted with simple, complicated, complex and chaotic situations and each will require different leadership responses. I explain how the four contexts crystallise on a sailing boat and how the skipper can make better decisions by following the Cynefin Framework.

  • SIMPLE - Repeating patterns and consistent events - A typical simple context is where we face clear cause-and-effect relationships and the right answer is evident to everyone. On a sailboat that would be comparable to a simple change in course, a so called tacking or jibing maneuver. This is fairly straight forward and crew members usually know what to do. My job as a skipper is to ensure that proper processes are in place, I use best practices and delegate responsibilities by communicating in clear and direct ways. 


  • COMPLICATED - Expert diagnosis required - The characteristics of a complicated situation is when cause-and-effect relationships are discoverable but not immediately apparent to everyone, more than one right answer is possible. For example, if you sail at night into Sydney Harbour you will require expert knowledge to deal with a complicated sailing environment. A skipper is required to sense hazards, listen to other crew members and analyze potential responses. Overconfident skippers tend to neglect the opinion of less experienced crew members in complicated situations, which is often a missed opportunity to innovate and foster a better team spirit. Instead, the skipper should encourage crew members to challenge expert opinions to combat entrained thinking.


  • COMPLEX - Flux and unpredictability - Complexity is typically not what we want to see in business environments, yet most situations and decisions in organisations are complex because some major change introduces unpredictability and flux. In complex contexts there is often no right answer, you are faced with many competing ideas which raises the need for creative and innovative approaches. This is no different on a sailing boat, we try to stay out of complex situations, but that's not always possible, especially when external factors, such as changing weather systems, other ships, flotsam, etc. change the circumstances you are operating in. During the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2009/2010Brendan Hall and his crew faced several complex situations. He managed to leverage the collective wisdom of a diverse group of amateur sailors, which enabled him to learn and innovate faster than his competitors. Because of the great variety of skillsets in his team, every member had opportunities to contribute to the overall success; shared responsibility was the single most important factor in creating a winning Team Spirit. The Cynefin Framework suggests, in a complex context, to create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge; to increase levels of interaction and communication and to use methods that can help generate ideas.


  • CHAOTIC - High turbulence - Snowden and Boone describe the Chaotic context as domain of rapid response where searching for right answers would be pointless. The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine and no manageable patterns exist. In the context of a sailing boat we talk about disastrous events, such as a capsized boat, being caught in a storm with a broken mast and a flooded engine, etc. Events as they happened during the tragic Sydney to Hobart yacht race of 1998. In a chaotic situation the skipper of a boat as well as an organisation needs to adopt a "act, sense, respond" leadership approach. Leaders need to take immediate action to reestablish order, they should look for what works instead of seeking the right answers. Clear and direct communication will help to shift the context from chaotic to complex. 

  1. Frameworks, principles, concepts and methods are often created with a rather specific application in mind, but that doesn't mean they are limited to that application. The Cynefin Framework is as useful for skippers as it is for CEOs, or take the Blue Ocean Strategy to stand out from the crowd in your job search; or take the Apple & Nike Principle and apply it to your personal endeavours. Tell us your experiences of successfully using a framework in a completely different context than it was intended for.
  2. Sailing is very much about leadership and if you need further proof of that then read Brendan Hall's fantastic book "Team Spirit: Life and leadership on one of the world's toughest yacht races" which is as much a team management manual as it is an exciting and well-written account of a great ocean adventure.  Or take Dennis Perkins' book "Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race" in which the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler reflects on teamwork, and a captain’s leadership, during Australia’s most treacherous and prestigious sailing race.