This feels like the place to start when talking about #Cynefin. If I am wide of the mark here then more than happy to be corrected.


Natures Three Systems

In nature there are three types of systems.




These are ontological states, which refers to the basic categories of being.

We need to be careful here as it’s not about the systems themselves being Ordered, Complex or Chaotic, but it is our perception of them, with all of our in built biases that leads us to perceive them in this way.

So I may find something complex but somebody else with better knowledge or experience in a particular area may find it to be ordered, simpler than I, this is why we have experts.

Interestingly there is conformity on these states across physics, biology and chemistry.


Ordered systems are highly constrained to the point where everything is predictable. There is a direct link between cause and effect, so these types of system have causality, which means that the same things will happen again the same way twice, in other words we have repeatability.

As human’s we really like things being ordered as it gives us a sense of control and comfort, we simply don’t like to be surprised.

Consequently we have become very good at imposing order over things, no other animal does this, its our own little unique trick.

A good example of order is the checklist, we use them in all kinds of situations to try to drive order and conformity. The humble checklist is used all over the place, from the check list that the pilot uses before take off, to “Definitions of Done” (DoD)  in software development and the checklist that ensures that no surgical instruments are left in patients after operations.

The places that checklists work best are highly ritualised environments, so the surgical theatre or  air planes are good examples of their use. However there are real issues with using them in other environments.

Taking the DoD as an example these tend to work for about 10 minutes then people turn off from them and they can become downright dangerous, especially when people start to reply on then but they aren’t being used.

This gives us a problem, our love of order makes us take the use of it to excess. The consequences of over imposing rules however are high, as the level of constraints become excessive then the ability of people to do their job starts to diminish, we simply make it harder to deliver the value and outcomes we want to.

Ironically as we impose rules to take control of systems, informal networks form as we start to work around the rules, consequently meaning we have less and less control over the system we sought to constrain, as you can imagine this is massively inefficient.

Most large organisations are.guilty of heavy governance regimes that hinder rather than help employees to deliver, these tend to be from a risk management angle. but can actually make things riskier as we lose control without knowing it.



Chaos is simply randomness, a complete lack of connectivity, with no constraints.

Chaos is a temporary state and will tend to resolve itself quickly, however Chaos may not resolve itself in your favour.

If you are in chaos by accident then you have a disaster and here I am thinking about your house burning down or a trip to A&E.

If you entry Chaos deliberately then it can be a great innovation space, but to enter chaos “safely” is hard and takes energy to do it


In a complex system constraints are enabling, these tend to be captured as heuristics or habits.

Complex systems have dispositions and propensities, so they are inclined to work in a particular way, but there is no  certainty, what has gone before is not guaranteed to happen again.

They are probabilistic not deterministic, there is not no direct link between cause and effect, except in retrospect. This is enforced by evolutionary biology which teaches us that the same thing will not happen again the same way twice except by accident, species don’t unevolve, they only move forward.

They have agents, for example people, as the individuals interact with the system,  the system changes and in return the system changes the individuals. Agents (individuals) and constraints are constantly coevolving and constantly changing each other.

Any system that involves people is a complex adaptive system (CAS)

So Complex systems are modulated (steered) not driven, simply put the level of change is such that you cannot predict the future.

Unfortunately this high level of change means that approaches like systems thinking, where we seek to identify an ideal future state and close the gap between it and where we are now, fail.


Managing complex adaptive systems on the presumption of order is a fundamental mistake.