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Using Wardley Maps and Cynefin together - Long Version

In the vast sea of management and strategy tools, both the Cynefin framework and Wardley Maps stand out, each offering unique insights into organizational challenges. While they may seem distinct, a deeper dive reveals interesting parallels between Cynefin's problem domains and the evolution phases of Wardley Maps. This post seeks to explore these intersections.

Foundational Understanding

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden, is a decision-making tool that helps individuals and organizations determine how they should approach different types of problems. Here's how you can use the Cynefin domains:

  • Clear: These are problems with known solutions and a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Apply best practices. The process is typically Sense - Categorize - Respond.

  • Complicated: In this domain, problems have multiple potential solutions that might require expert analysis to determine the best approach. Seek expert advice. The process is Sense - Analyze - Respond.

  • Complex: Problems here have no immediately apparent solutions, and outcomes are unpredictable. Solutions emerge over time by recognizing patterns and probing with experiments. Conduct experiments to understand the problem and how to address it. The process is Probe - Sense - Respond.

  • Chaotic: In this domain, there's no clear cause-and-effect relationship. Novel practices are devised on the spot. Act immediately to stabilize the situation and then determine how to address the root cause. The process is Act - Sense - Respond.

  • Aporetic (or Disorder): This is when it's unclear which of the above domains applies. It's a state of not knowing the nature of the problem. Break down the problem or use different perspectives to determine its true nature and then decide on the best approach.

Wardley Mapping

Wardley Mapping, devised by Simon Wardley, is a strategy tool that aids businesses in understanding their environment, making better strategic decisions, and visualizing the movement of value within their ecosystem.

Wardley Maps Evolution Phases:

  • Genesis: Something entirely new, previously undiscovered or not yet introduced to the public domain.

  • Custom-built: Solutions built specifically for a particular purpose or use-case, often tailored to a specific need.

  • Product/rental: Matured solutions available as off-the-shelf products or services that cater to a broad audience.

  • Commodity/Utility: Highly standardized, interchangeable offerings, often undifferentiated in the market and delivered as services.

Initial take

Upon an initial examination of the Cynefin framework juxtaposed with Wardley Mapping's evolution phases, one might be drawn to intuitive, yet oversimplified, parallels. Starting with Wardley's "Genesis" phase, characterized by its novel and unpredictable nature, it seems to align with Cynefin's "Chaotic" domain, where there's no discernible pattern and rapid responses are paramount.

Then, as we progress to the "Custom-built" phase in Wardley's model, it mirrors the "Complex" domain of Cynefin, given both involve emergent practices and the navigation of intricate, less predictable challenges.

Moving forward, the "Product/rental" phase, with its broad accessibility and established solutions, could be likened to the "Complicated" domain, where expert analysis deciphers the problem. Lastly, the standardized and widely accepted offerings in Wardley's "Commodity/utility" phase seemingly resonate with the "Clear" domain in Cynefin, where best practices are well-defined and widely understood. While these initial correlations may appear logical, diving deeper into each framework underscores the importance of avoiding reductionist mappings and appreciating their individual complexities.

Embedding Mapping in Cynefin

The Cynefin framework and Wardley Maps are both powerful tools in the realm of strategic decision-making, and their integration can be quite revealing. Maps, as described by Wardley, can indeed be embedded within the Cynefin domains, but with some caveats. For instance, mapping within the "Chaotic" domain of Cynefin is not feasible. The unpredictability and urgency inherent to this space mean there's no time or adequate knowledge to delineate the dependencies or value chains that a Wardley Map requires.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the "Clear" domain of Cynefin, there's a contrasting challenge. Since problems in this domain have well-understood solutions and known cause-and-effect relationships, the utility of creating a Wardley Map might be questioned. Given that the knowledge is already present and actions to be taken are well-defined, the map might be seen as redundant. However, even here, a map could be beneficial for training, communication, or to visualize the landscape for stakeholders unfamiliar with the domain.

The distinction between the "Complicated" and "Complex" domains in the Cynefin framework has a significant impact on the quality and accuracy of the resulting Wardley Maps.

In the "Complicated" domain, problems have multiple potential solutions and can be deconstructed and understood through expert analysis. When creating a Wardley Map in this domain, the dependencies and value chains are more likely to be well-defined, since the intricacies of the environment can be discerned with the application of expertise. This means that the map will generally provide a good representation of reality, capturing most, if not all, key components and their relationships.

Contrastingly, the "Complex" domain is characterized by emergent patterns and unpredictable interactions. Problems in this domain don't have fixed solutions, and cause-and-effect relationships can only be perceived in retrospect. Mapping within the "Complex" domain is inherently challenging. Despite one's best efforts, a Wardley Map developed here might miss certain dependencies or fail to capture the nuances of emergent behaviour. The dynamic and ever-shifting nature of the "Complex" domain means that the map might only capture a snapshot of a continuously evolving landscape, and certain dependencies could either be overlooked or misinterpreted.

In essence, while Wardley Maps in the "Complicated" domain tend to be detailed and accurate reflections of the landscape, those in the "Complex" domain are more provisional, serving as approximations that might need regular revision and adaptation as new patterns emerge and understanding deepens.

Hypothesis on Using Wardley Mapping to Transition from Complex to Complicated Domains:

The dynamic and intricate nature of problems within the "Complex" domain of the Cynefin framework means that solutions and patterns emerge unpredictably and can only be understood retrospectively. However, using Wardley Mapping, it might be possible to effectively shift a problem from the "Complex" domain to the "Complicated" domain. Here's a proposed hypothesis:

By visualizing the value chain and identifying existing components within the landscape, an organization can anchor multiple experiments to these known components. These experiments, grounded in the current state of the landscape, can provide structured probes into the complex problem space. Over time, as results from these experiments are analyzed and patterns begin to emerge, the problem may shift from being perceived as complex (with emergent solutions) to complicated (where the solutions, while not immediately obvious, can be discerned through expert analysis). The act of continuously mapping, experimenting, and updating based on emergent patterns, in essence, serves to unravel the complexities, eventually bringing clarity and structure to the problem.

Embedding Cynefin in Mapping

In the early stages of development or discovery, represented by the "Genesis" phase in Wardley Mapping, there is a significant overlap with the characteristics of the "Chaotic" domain in the Cynefin framework. The "Genesis" phase typically encompasses innovations, novel products, or unique processes that are not yet well understood, mirroring the unpredictability and lack of discernible patterns in the "Chaotic" domain.

Given this alignment, it can be suggested that during the "Genesis" phase, the emphasis should be primarily on action and experimentation. Just as in the "Chaotic" domain where rapid responses are paramount and there's a need to act first to stabilize the situation, in the "Genesis" phase, immediate exploratory actions, prototypes, and iterative experiments become essential. This proactive approach not only aids in understanding the new entity better but also in transitioning it to a more structured and comprehensible phase.

Hence, for entities in the "Genesis" phase, instead of seeking immediate clarity or attempting to impose structured solutions, organizations should foster a culture of experimentation, rapid feedback, and adaptability. This will pave the way for innovations to evolve, mature, and eventually transition from the chaotic uncertainties of their genesis to a more structured and predictable state.

The "Custom-built" or "Custom" phase in Wardley Mapping corresponds to a stage where activities, practices, or products are developed or tailored for specific needs. They are no longer novel or unique, as in the "Genesis" phase, but they are not yet standardized or commoditized. Given this context, when an entity enters the "Custom" phase, it often exhibits characteristics that resonate with both the "Complicated" and "Complex" domains of the Cynefin framework.

When an entity is in the "Custom" phase:

  • Alignment with the "Complicated" Domain: The problems and challenges associated with custom-built solutions can often be deconstructed. There are multiple possible solutions, and understanding them usually requires expert analysis. The environment may consist of multiple interacting components, but with the application of expertise, these can be understood, analyzed, and optimized. This resonates with the "Complicated" domain of Cynefin, where expert knowledge can discern cause-and-effect relationships, albeit not immediately obvious to the untrained observer.

  • Overlap with the "Complex" Domain: On the other hand, because custom-built solutions are tailored for specific needs and contexts, they might still involve a level of unpredictability and emergent behavior. For instance, when custom solutions are integrated into broader systems or when they interact with other tailored components, unforeseen challenges or behaviors might emerge. This aligns with the "Complex" domain in Cynefin, where cause-and-effect can only be understood in retrospect and solutions emerge from understanding patterns.

In essence, as we delve into the "Custom" evolution phase in Wardley Mapping, the associated Cynefin domain isn't fixed but rather seems to oscillate between "Complicated" and "Complex." The exact positioning within these domains depends on the specific context, the nature of the custom solution, and the environment in which it operates. As the entity continues to evolve, the balance between these domains may shift, reflecting the changing nature of challenges and solutions.

When transitioning to the "Product/rental" and "Commodity/utility" phases in Wardley Mapping, the nature of entities undergoes significant standardization and optimization, which in turn influences their positioning within the Cynefin framework.

  • The dominance of the "Complicated" Domain in Product Space: As entities become products, they align strongly with the "Complicated" domain of Cynefin. These products, while standardized, may require expert understanding for optimization, integration, or customization. They have known patterns and principles governing them, making their behavior predictable to those with the right knowledge. In the "Product" space, challenges arise from the need to continuously improve, adapt, and integrate these products to cater to evolving customer needs and market dynamics.

  • Transition to the "Clear" Domain in Commodity Space: As entities evolve further into "Commodity/utility", they increasingly resonate with the "Clear" domain. At this stage, solutions are well-understood, standardized, and widely adopted. The entity's characteristics, applications, and limitations become commonly known. Best practices are established, and there's a general consensus on how to deal with most challenges related to these commodities or utilities.

  • Intermittent "Chaotic" Disruptions: Even in the well-defined realms of "Product" and "Commodity", chaos can abruptly emerge, especially during rapid product-to-product replacements or when disruptive innovations challenge the status quo. This is particularly pronounced in industries where technological advancements can render existing products obsolete overnight. In such "Chaotic" situations, immediate action, swift decision-making, and rapid adaptation become crucial. Organizations must act quickly to stabilize the situation, adapt to the new reality, or risk obsolescence.

  • Occasional Complexities: Despite the dominance of the "Complicated" and "Clear" domains in these phases, complexities can still arise. For instance, in the "Product" space, as different products interact within larger ecosystems or as market dynamics shift, unpredictable patterns can emerge. Similarly, in the "Commodity/utility" phase, large-scale infrastructural changes, regulatory shifts, or global market dynamics can introduce complexities that make behaviors less predictable.

Conclusion: Integrating Wardley Mapping and Cynefin for Strategic Insight and Action

Wardley Mapping and the Cynefin framework, when combined, offer a potent toolkit for modern businesses. Wardley Mapping excels in visualizing environments, especially in "Complex" and "Complicated" domains, enabling organizations to discern patterns and anticipate shifts. Meanwhile, the Cynefin framework guides the right action mode based on the current scenario, ensuring responses are contextually apt.

Together, they provide a comprehensive approach: Wardley Maps illuminate the strategic landscape, and Cynefin ensures navigation with context-aware actions. In a rapidly changing business world, this synergy equips organizations with both clarity and agility.


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