3 min read

What kind of problem do you have?

When faced with a problem, it's often useful to figure out what kind of problem you've got. From there, you can narrow your solution space to something more manageable.
What kind of problem do you have?
Photo by Timo Volz / Unsplash

When faced with a problem, it's often useful to figure out what kind of problem you've got. From there, you can narrow your solution space to something more manageable.

Many times I've had a problem, applied a solution, and found the solution didn't work. Why didn't the solution work? I was using a solution that worked for a different kind of problem than the one I had.

One useful way to organize problems is the Cynefin Framework (say 'kuh-nev-in'). It splits the world into 5 domains:

  1. Clear
  2. Complicated
  3. Complex
  4. Chaotic
  5. Confusion

Depending on what domain you're working in, your strategies for solving problems may look very different.

Confusion Domain, "🤷‍♂️"

In confusion, the only goal is to figure out where you are. If you're having difficulty figuring out what domain you're in, try breaking the problem down into smaller parts. Once you've figured out where you are, you can look for a solution.

Clear Domain, "known knowns"

If you're in the clear domain, you're in the clear. haha.

There exist simple rules and procedures to follow that will solve your problem. If I do x then y will happen. If the filter light on the refrigerator is blinking, replace the filter.

Categorize the problem and solve it.

Complicated Domain, "known unknowns"

In the complicated domain, cause and effect are understandable, but difficult to parse by non-experts.

If your refrigerator stops refrigerating, you might need to call an expert. They will take a look at your refrigerator, test a few things, and apply a solution. The refrigerator is complicated, but ultimately understandable with enough training.

Means-ends strategies work well in Clear and Complicated domains

Both clear and complicated problems can be solved with means-ends strategies.

Even if the name is unfamiliar, you're probably familiar with means-ends strategies. You've got a goal--an end--and you figure out the solution--the means--to achieve the end. Means-ends. Consider the problem to be resolved, plan an approach, and execute the plan.

Means-ends is how most of us are used to solving problems, and it works well in certain domains. School, where we learn a lot of our problem solving skills, is largely comprised of clear and complicated domain problems.

Complex Domain, "unknown unknowns"

In the complex domain, cause and effect are only clear in retrospect. There are so many variables and interdependencies that even experts struggle to get it right.

If you're the CEO of a refrigerator company, most of your problems are in the complex domain. Market forces, supply chain risks, technological innovations, etc. all impact your business. There's no playbook for running a refrigerator company.

Means-ends strategies are unreliable in complexity

A common mistake is to apply means-ends problem solving to a complex domain.

Because we are used to solving problems using means-ends, we often try to apply means-ends solutions to complex problems, with mixed results.

In complexity there is no 'correct answer', only a range of outcomes which are favorable. Because there is no clear 'ends', we might shoehorn a metric to aim for, ignoring the complexity of the situation.

Use conditions-consequences strategies in complex domains

A better strategy for handling complex problems is conditions-consequences. Rather than aiming for a specific metric, aim to create the consequences that will make success inevitable.

A refrigerator CEO might focus on creating high quality refrigerators, or finding ways to improve their customer service. The condition of satisfied customers creates the consequence of a successful company. Focusing directly on profits or number of units sold (both means-ends solutions) might work in the short term, but may encourage corner cutting in quality, leading to unsatisfied customers.

Complex problems are more common than you think. Companies, relationships, and your health are all complex. Frustratingly, most self-development advice fails by trying to apply complicated solutions to the complex domain called your life.

As the pace of technological change accelerates, we are already seeing an increase in complex problems. Even if you're not a CEO, practicing conditions-consequences strategies will be of great benefit.

Chaotic Domain, "&$!#%"

In Chaos, cause and effect are unclear, even in retrospect. Think catastrophic failures or unexpected battles.

Let's say you're the CEO again. If your most popular refrigerator model starts poisoning people with a faulty filter, you're likely in chaos.

Here, the move is to take action, any action, to head towards complexity. Recall the refrigerators, have PR put out a notice, then re-evaluate the situation.


  • The Cynefin Framework divides the problem solving world into 5 domains: Clear, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, Confusion.
  • Means-ends strategies work well in Clear and Complicated domains.
  • Conditions-Consequences strategies work well in Complex domains.
  • Increasingly we will have to deal with complex problems
  • A Common mistake is to apply means-ends solutions to Complex problems.

Further Reading

†: Is your refrigerator running? Well you better go catch it!