Making Decisions with Cynefin

A friend tweeted recently about how it isn’t always possible to decide late on which product to use for data storage as different products often force an application to use different patterns. This got me thinking about making other decisions in software design. In general it’s accepted that deciding as late as possible is usually a good thing but I think people often miss-interpret ‘as late as possible’ to mean ‘make it an after-thought’.

‘As late as possible’ is a wonderfully subjective term. It suggests that although we want to wait longer before make a decision, we might not be able to. We might need to make a decision to support the design of the rest of the system. Or perhaps in some cases, making the decision early might be more important than making the ‘perfect’ decision.

I started thinking about how to decide whether a decision should be put off and I was reminded of the work of Roy Osherove. He suggests that development teams transition through different states and should be managed differently in each state. There is a similar methodology which relates the approach to software design with different categories of problem space. It’s called Cynefin (pronounced like ‘Kevin’ but with a ‘n’ straight after the ‘K’).

To quote Wikipedia:

The framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply.

There’s a diagram that goes with this and helps give some context (thanks Wikipedia):


I don’t want to do a deep dive into Cynefin in this article (maybe another day) but to summarise:

  • Obvious – these solutions are easy to see, easy to build, and probably available off the peg. They’re very low complexity and shouldn’t require a lot of attention from subject matter experts.
  • Complicated – these solutions are easier to get wrong. Maybe no-one on the team has implemented anything similar before, but experience and direction is available possibly from another team.
  • Complex – these solutions have lots of possible answers but it’s unclear which will be best. While this is new to your company, other companies have managed to build something similar so you know it is possible.
  • Chaotic – these solutions are totally new and you have no point of reference as to what would be the best way to implement. You may not even know if it’s possible.

In general, an enterprises core domain will sit in both Complicated and Complex. Chaotic might be something you do for a while but the focus is to move the solution back into one of the other categories.

So what does this have to do with making decisions?

Well, I suggest that the decision making process might change depending on what category your solution falls into.

  • Obvious – obvious solutions probably don’t have many difficult decisions to make. This is not your core domain (unless you work in a really boring sector) so throwing money and resources at obvious solutions is not sensible. The driver for choosing tech stack might well be just “what’s already available” and might be a constraint right up front. You may want to buy an off the shelf product, in which case a lot of decisions are already made for you. If SQL Server is the quickest path to delivery then it might well be the right thing to use here, even if you’re longing to try a NoSQL approach.
  • Complicated – complicated solutions are often solved by taking advice from an expert. “We found a separate read concern solved half our problems.” and “A relational database just doesn’t work for this.” are both great nuggets of advice someone who’s done this before might put forward. These solutions are in your core domain, you want to avoid code rot and inflexible architectures – deciding late seems generally sensible, but the advice from your experts can help scope those decisions. Focus on finding the abstractions on which to base the solution. You might know that you’ll need the elasticity that only the cloud can provide, but you might leave the decision on which provider until as late as possible.
  • Complex – complex solutions are where experts are harder to get involved. They might be in different teams or hired from a consultancy. The focus should still be on finding the right abstractions to allow critical decisions to be delayed. Running multiple possible solutions in parallel to see what works best is a great approach which will give your team confidence in the chosen option. A subject matter expert might be more useful in explaining how they approached defining a solution rather than just what the solution was.
  • Chaotic – it might seem a terrible idea to try and make decisions in this situation but there are advantages. Chaotic can become Complex if you can find an anchor for the solution. “How do we solve this with ‘x’?” is a lot easier for a team to decide than a more general approach. You’ll almost certainly want to run with two or three possible options in parallel. Keep in mind that whatever decision you make may well eventually be proved incorrect.

I think this shows how the approach to decision making can be affected by what category of solution you’re working on. By picking the right strategy for the right kind of problem, you can focus resources more cost effectively.

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