How to Make Decisions in the Face of Adversity: Part I

Use this framework to make all your decisions (big and small!) easy.

The military uses the acronym, VUCA to describe uncontrollable environments or situations. VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. You may have heard the phrases “VUCA world” or “Leadership in a VUCA world.”

While VUCA accurately describes the environment many leaders encounter in this modern world, it doesn’t address how leaders should respond to that environment or, more importantly, if they have the mental frame of mind needed to respond.

Therefore, in this article and the next one I will describe two concepts that I have found very helpful in my experience coaching senior and mid-level leaders. These concepts have helped them frame the VUCA issue they are being faced with and bring some clarity to the way forward. 

The first concept helps us understand the multiple contexts in which decision-making occurs. For this I use the Cynefin (a Welsh word pronounced kuh-NEV-in) framework developed by David Snowden and his colleagues. Although Snowden originally described five decision-making contexts, I am highlighting four that are particularly important for this discussion. 

The table below highlights the characteristics of each of these four decision-making contexts. 



In the Simple quadrant, leadership knows what the problem is and knows there are specific “best practices” that can guide decision-making and action. An example of a simple problem might be a 2nd grade teacher wakes up feeling ill. She knows there is a substitute teacher system in place and follows a pre-established procedure to call in for a substitute teacher for the day.


The Complicated quadrant presents a situation in which leadership doesn’t know the answer but can seek guidance from experts. In other words, the solutions are knowable. For instance, a school district wants to establish a digital inventory system for all textbooks to speed up the distribution and collection of books at the beginning and ending of the year. They do not have the in-house expertise to design and implement such a system, but they can hire experts with the ability and experience to assist them.


As we move into the Complex quadrant, there are no specific answers to be found, as was the case in the Simple and Complicated contexts. The Complex quadrant is the home of VUCA for most leaders. The context is constantly evolving so the leadership is searching for solutions to emerge through experimentation and constant learning. Bridging the achievement gap between low income students and those from wealthy families is an example of a complex problem. Each situation is different, and the problem is multifaceted. The problem is a mix of poverty, language acquisition, culture, resources, parent education levels to name just a few.  Often what works in one school doesn’t work in another.


Finally, in the Chaotic quadrant disorder and VUCA reign. Leadership in this quadrant must act decisively to stabilize the system, then move decision-making into the other appropriate quadrants. A school shooting is a perfect example of a problem that falls in this quadrant. The first move is to stabilize the system:  lock down the school, provide aide to the injured, contact law enforcement, and search for the shooter.  Once the system is stabilized leaders implement developed plans for coordinating with law enforcement, communicating with the media and parents and then planning to deal with security and mental health issues as they arise in the coming days and weeks.  These later actions fall into the simple, complicated, and complex quadrants.

If the leadership of the organization does not understand the context in which they are working, they tend to apply decision-making tools that are inappropriate. Drawing on the example above, if the school leader only acts to stabilize the system but fails to plan for the emotional fall out from the shooting (complex quadrant) the system can be thrown into the chaotic quadrant again.

The Cynefin Framework provides a model for helping leaders determine their decision-making process. Most leaders are comfortable in the Simple and Complicated quadrants.  As the world becomes more complex and as VUCA impacts more organizations, we must ask if today’s leaders are equipped to operate in the Complex quadrant. Harvard University professor, Robert Kegan, observes: “We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own (mental complexity) at this moment.” I will address that topic in Part II of this 2-part series.

We want to hear from YOU! What do you think of the Cynefin Framework? Do you find it helpful?



James W. Davis is the founder and President of The Davis Group Ltd., an international consulting firm specializing in leadership development and executive coaching.

Mr. Davis has nearly 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors. He also serves as a speaker and consultant to organizations on a variety of leadership related issues.

He is the founder of Sacred Leadership and the co-founder of the Institute for Educational Advancement.