Distinguishing the Boundaries: Where Agile Delivery Meets Groundbreaking Ideation in the Cynefin Landscape

Innovation, by its very nature, often thrusts teams into unfamiliar territories. Drawing from the Cynefin framework, these realms of ambiguity and unpredictability can best be described as residing within the “chaotic” and “complex” zones.

  1. Innovation: Complex or Chaotic?

While a compelling argument can be made that innovation truly belongs to the complex domain of the Cynefin framework, in practice, there’s a blurring of boundaries. In the complex zone, cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect, demanding a probe-sense-respond approach. This is typically where emergent practices take place and where innovation largely thrives.

However, there are scenarios, especially when brainstorming groundbreaking products or solutions, where the path forward is far from clear, and teams find themselves grappling in the chaotic zone. Here, they have to act first to establish order, which is characteristic of the chaotic domain.

  1. Distinguishing Agile Ready Products from Future Products

In my experience working with teams, a significant distinction arises between products that are primed for agile delivery and the process of defining and articulating prospective products. Products ready for agile delivery often have clearer parameters, stakeholders have a shared understanding of outcomes, and teams can iterate based on feedback. These products, more often than not, fit well within the complex domain.

Conversely, the very act of defining future products, especially those that are disruptive or unprecedented, can push teams into the chaotic realm. Here, the unknowns outweigh the knowns, and there isn’t an established playbook to follow. It becomes essential to act decisively to make sense of the chaos and then respond to stabilise the situation.

  1. Skill Acquisition in the Chaotic Zone: Drawing Insights from the Dreyfus Model

In navigating the unpredictable waters of the chaotic zone, one approach to consider is the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. While it’s just one of many frameworks available, it offers valuable insights into how individuals progress in their understanding and mastery of skills.

The Dreyfus model, developed by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus, delineates the journey of learners through five distinct stages:

Novice: At this stage, learners heavily rely on rules and guidelines. They lack the bigger picture and operate in a restricted, rule-bound manner.

Advanced Beginner: Learners start to recognise patterns and can prioritise tasks. They begin to move beyond strict rules but still need guidance.

Competent: Individuals at this stage can make decisions based on their understanding of situations. They begin to form a holistic view of their tasks and can plan their actions.

Proficient: Proficient individuals can see situations as wholes and are able to recognise deviations from the norm or expected. They draw from their experience to make decisions.

Expert: At the pinnacle of this model, experts operate largely on intuition. They have a deep understanding, can discern patterns quickly, and often don’t rely on analytical processes for routine tasks.

Applying the Dreyfus model to the chaotic zone, it becomes evident that for organisations to thrive amidst uncertainty, there’s a need to move their personnel towards the higher stages of this model. As individuals transition from novice to expert, they become better equipped to handle the unpredictability and ambiguity inherent in the chaotic domain. Instead of adhering strictly to predefined rules, they can leverage their intuition and expertise to make informed decisions amidst chaos.

Crucially, when maneuvering through the chaotic zone, there’s a need to emphasise a “focus on the process and let the outcome emerge.” This mindset shift ensures that, rather than becoming fixated on a predefined outcome, individuals and organisations place trust in the processes they’ve established. By doing so, they remain adaptable and agile, ready to respond to whatever emerges from the complexities of chaos.

  1. Glimpses into the Military: A Television-Inspired Insight

While my direct knowledge of the military is admittedly limited, a recent television program I watched offered some intriguing insights into its workings, especially in relation to the special forces. Contrary to the widespread perception of the military being strictly about command and control, these elite units showcased a different side.

The special forces seem to train for mastery. Their regimen isn’t just about obeying orders in a rigid manner, but deeply understanding the core essence of their mission and the broader objectives. They operate on a principle that could be described as ‘autonomy with alignment’. Rather than simply waiting for directives, they comprehend the larger goals and are entrusted with the autonomy to make ground decisions in real-time.

This brief televised glimpse into their operations illuminated a valuable lesson about operating in the chaotic zone. It’s about combining intense preparation with the flexibility to adapt, innovate, and improvise based on the situation at hand.


The chaotic domain of the Cynefin framework, though challenging, offers incredible potential for growth and innovation. By establishing a strong framework, focusing on skill acquisition, and drawing inspiration from models like the special forces, organisations can not only navigate this zone but also harness its potential to drive forward-thinking solutions.