A Leader's Framework for Decision Making

Article (PDF Available)inHarvard business review 85(11):68-76, 149 · December 2007with 25,001 Reads 
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Abstract
Many executives are surprised when previously successful leadership approaches fail in new situations, but different contexts call for different kinds of responses. Before addressing a situation, leaders need to recognize which context governs it -and tailor their actions accordingly. Snowden and Boone have formed a new perspective on leadership and decision making that's based on complexity science. The result is the Cynefin framework, which helps executives sort issues into five contexts: Simple contexts are characterized by stability and cause-and-effect relationships that are clear to everyone. Often, the right answer is self-evident. In this realm of "known knowns," leaders must first assess the facts of a situation -that is, "sense" it -then categorize and respond to it. Complicated contexts may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. This is the realm of "known unknowns." Here, leaders must sense, analyze, and respond. In a complex context, right answers can't be ferreted out at all; rather, instructive patterns emerge if the leader conducts experiments that can safely fail. This is the realm of "unknown unknowns," where much of contemporary business operates. Leaders in this context need to probe first, then sense, and then respond. In a chaotic context, searching for right answers is pointless. The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist. This is the realm of unknowables (the events of September 11, 2001, fall into this category). In this domain, a leader must first act to establish order, sense where stability is present, and then work to transform the situation from chaos to complexity. The fifth context, disorder, applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant. The way out is to break the situation into its constituent parts and assign each to one of the other four realms. Leaders can then make decisions and intervene in contextually appropriate ways.
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