The Cynefin ( //) framework is used to describe problems, situations and systems. It provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations and/or solutions may apply. Cynefin is a Welsh word, which is commonly translated into English as 'habitat' or 'place', although this fails to convey its full meaning. A more complete translation of the word would be that it conveys the sense that we all have multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. The term was chosen by the Welsh scholar Dave Snowden to illustrate the evolutionary nature of complex systems, including their inherent uncertainty. The name is a reminder that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by our experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience, and through collective experience, such as stories or music.
The Cynefin framework draws on research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, anthropology and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology. It "explores the relationship between man, experience and context" and proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making and knowledge management in complex social environments.
The Cynefin framework was originally developed in 1999 in the context of knowledge management and organisational strategy by Dave Snowden It was originally a modification of Max Boisot's I-Space combined with the study of actual, as opposed to stated management practice in IBM. By 2002 it had developed to include complex adaptive systems theory and had started to become a general strategy model. It was then further developed and elaborated with Cynthia Kurtz as a part of their work with the IBM Institute of Knowledge Management (IKM). Kurtz had worked with Snowden as a part of an IBM special interest group on narrative from 1999 before joining the IKM in 2001) Kurtz and others continued this work in Cognitive Edge formed by Snowden when he left IBM in 2005. This period included work to extend the model to Leadership with Mary E Boone which culminated in the HBR article referenced below.