Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Cynefin Framework, Risks and Agile: Known-Knowns, Known-Unknowns, Unknown-Unknowns and Unknowable-Unknowns


The Cynefin framework is important to know for both aspiring Risk Management Professionals (RMP) and aspiring Project Management Professionals (PMP).

First, it’s a complexity model and it helps making decisions in a complex environment. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines complexity as noted below:

"Complexity is a characteristic of a program or project or its environment that is difficult to manage due to human behavior, system behavior, and ambiguity."

Simply put, a complex thing is difficult to manage. The sources of complexity can be human behavior, system behavior, ambiguity, uncertainty, among others. All of these sources and complexity itself can result in risks.

Before proceeding further, I’d suggest that you read the article related to risk classification to understand fundamentals of knowns and unknowns. 

Cynefin Framework and Five Contexts

The Cynefin Framework has five problem and decision-making contexts (or domains). This framework helps in detecting the cause and effect relationship, which in turn helps in decision-making. 

Now, let’s understand the five domains in this framework. The framework’s five contexts are shown in the below figure. Later, we will learn how to apply it in Risk Management.  

Obvious (Simple): 

  • The cause and effect relationship is obvious. You know the questions and know the answers. Hence, little to no expertise is needed. 
  • The approach used here is sense-categorize-respond. You sense the environment/context, categorize them and based on that you respond. 
  • Best practices are applied to make decisions.


  • The cause and effect relationship is not obvious. You know the questions, but don’t know the answers and hence, seek expert knowledge to analyze and get a range of answers. 
  • The approach used here is sense-analyze-respond. Unlike Obvious context, you use expert judgment to analyze after sensing. 
  • Good practices are applied to make decisions.


  • There is no apparent (visible/demonstrable) cause and effect relationship. You don’t know the questions and don’t know the answers! In such a case, no amount of analysis will help. You have to first probe or experiment.
  • One uses repeated cycles of probe-sense-respond as complex systems or environments change due to external stimulus. 
  • Emergent practices (practices which are not completely known, but emerging or taking shape) are applied to make decisions.


  • The cause and effect relationship is unclear. There is too much confusion. There is no point in searching for questions and answers, because the cause and effect relationship is impossible to determine and constantly shifting. The situation is too drastic or chaotic. 
  • Your immediate and first step is to act or contain and then stabilize the situation. Hence, the approach used here is act-sense-respond. As you can see, you are first acting here, not sensing or probing. You are acting to stabilize. 
  • Novel practices (completely new practice, never known to exist before) can be applied to make decisions.


  • This is the space in the middle as shown in the figure. In this case, you don’t even know where you are, hence disorder (not unordered).
  • To understand, you have to break the environment/system into smaller parts and move into one of the other four zones or have contextual links with one of the other four zones of Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaos.

Cynefin Framework and Risk Management

Now, let’s see how this framework can be used in the context of Risk Management. 

Obvious (Simple) [Known-Knowns]: 

  • In risk management parlance, this is the realm of known-knowns. You know the risk (known), and also the know the amount of work (known) needed. 
  • In other words, these are actually not “risks”, but documented requirements and addressed as part of the scope management. 
  • As noted before, best practices are applied here. Best practices by its very nature come from past practices.

Complicated [Known-Unknowns]: 

  • In risk management parlance, this is the realm of known-unknowns. You know the risk (known), but don’t know the rework (unknown).
  • These are classic risks or the “known risks” - the known risks with unknown or unforeseen work.
  • You predominantly apply good practices of risk management in this context. Usually good practices are either known to you or known to someone within the community. 
  •  The practices can be iterative processes for risk management, having contingency reserve, having contingency plans etc.

Complex [Unknown-Unknowns]: 

  • In risk management parlance, this is the realm of unknown-unknowns. You don’t know the risk (unknown), and don’t know the rework (unknown).
  • In other words, these are “unknown risks” - the unknown risks with unknown or unforeseen work. 
  • As noted earlier, you apply emergent practices. Emergent practices are neither known to you or others because it's emerging based on the context. 

Chaotic [Unknowable-Unknowns or Unknowables]: 

  • In risk management parlance, this is the realm of unknowable-unknowns or simply the unknowables. You don’t know the risk and exploration is also not possible (unknowable). And of course, you don’t know the rework (unknown).
  • As noted earlier, you apply novel practices here. Novel practices are completely unseen and no one actually knows till the situation occurs and actions are taken.

Slightly modifying our previous figure, one can have the below figure. 

Cynefin Framework and Agile

Agile concepts and approaches are now part of both RMP and PMP exams. The Cynefin framework can also be used in Adaptive (or Agile) environments. 

  • Obvious (or Simple) context: Go for a predictive or waterfall development approach.
  • Complicated context: One can go either for an iterative or incremental development approach.
  • Complex context: Here, one can use both iterative and incremental development. Agile is both iterative and incremental.
  • Chaos Context: Agile development approach can’t be used here. You have to first sense some stability and respond by taking steps to get into the Complex zone. 


[1] RMP Live Lessons - Guaranteed Pass or Your Money Back, by Satya Narayan Dash

[2] RMP 30 Contact Hours, with Full Money Back Guarantee, by Satya Narayan Dash

[3] Book - I Want To Be A RMP: The Plain and Simple Way To Be A RMP, by Satya Narayan Dash 

[4] A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone

[5] A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge, 7th edition, by Project Management Institute (PMI)

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