Business Coaching Coaching Leadership Coaching Leadership Development

Coaching Leaders: Understanding Complex Environments

Sunny Stout RostronBy Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron

“The term complexity captures the greater levels of uncertainty, ambiguity, interdependences and interrelatedness that now characterize the environments in which organisations operate” (Clarke, 2013:135).

Business coaches need to think systemically, and this article briefly looks at the importance of leaders taking decisions in alignment with the context of their organizational environment. At an individual level, leadership development in complex environments involves moving away from focusing on the structures and processes within the organization, to the behaviors required of leaders individually within the organization’s social system (Clarke, 2013:141).

Cynefin: the decision-making framework

Snowden and Boone (2007) outline four different contexts in which managers operate as simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. The Cynefin decision-making framework helps leaders determine the prevailing context within which they are operating, and explores how they can make appropriate choices and decisions to intervene (Figure 1). “Cynefin, pronounced ‘ku-nev-in’, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand” (Snowden and Boone, 2007:70).

As coaches we need to help leaders learn to shift their decision-making styles according to the type of environment or context in which they are operating. The Cynefin framework can help to correctly identify the governing context, stay aware of danger signals, and avoid inappropriate actions, thereby helping managers to lead effectively in a variety of situations (Snowden and Boone, 2007:75).

Figure 1 The Cynefin decision-making framework

Cynefin Decision-making process

Source:        Snowden and Boone (2007:72)

The Cynefin framework has five domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disordered. Disorder is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, and people will revert to their own comfort zone when making a decision (Stout-Rostron, 2014:105). The following four practices are useful for the business coach to help the leader make appropriate choices and decisions within their prevailing context.

Four practices: best, good, emergent and novel

Best practice (simple environment)

When working with a client in a simple environment where patterns are repeated and events are consistent, and we are dealing with fact-based management, the leader’s job would be to use best practice, communicating clearly and delegating – but with an understanding of the need for extensive, interactive communication.

Good practice (complicated environment)

In a more complicated environment which is the domain of experts, the leader would need to diagnose the problems in consultation with a series of experts, trying to discover the cause-and-effect of the problem, identifying one or more answers that might resolve the issue. In this instance it is important for the leader to create panels of experts and listen to conflicting advice.

Working with one client in a more complicated scenario means that there are a possible range of right answers. Snowden and Boone call this the realm of “known unknowns”. Whereas leaders in a simple environment must sense, categorize and respond, leaders in a complicated environment must sense, analyze and respond. Here good practice is needed.

Emergent practice (complex environment)

In a complex environment, there would be a great deal of flux and unpredictability with no right answers. There would be competing ideas, emergent rather than predictable patterns, and a need for creative and innovative problem-solving approaches. The leader would need to create an environment that would allow patterns to emerge, and to increase levels of interaction and communication. More important would be the need to open up discussion, allowing large group methods and encouraging dissent and diversity.

Novel practice (chaotic environment)

In a chaotic environment, there will be high turbulence with no clear-cut cause-and-effect, many unknowable’s, and many decisions to make with possibly no time to think. Tension will be high. The leaders’ job will be to look for what works instead of seeking the “right” answer, and to take immediate action to re-establish order. This may require a “command and control” type of leadership to begin with, moving into another style of leadership as the context changes. Clear and direct communication will be essential.

The Cynefin model explores working in differing environments where adaptability and systemic thinking are needed to help leaders make decisions within contexts and systems which are continually changing.


Clarke, N. (2013). Model of complexity leadership development. Human Resource Development International, 16(2):135–150.

Snowden, D.J., and Boone, M.E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11):69–76.

Stout-Rostron, S. (2014). Leadership Coaching for Results: Cutting-edge practices for coach and client, Randburg, South Africa: Knowres.

This article first appeared in the WABC Blog (21st October 2014). Reprinted with permission of the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. 
You warrant and covenant that you have the full authority to grant the rights and provide the warranties set out above. No part of the WABC Blog may be reproduced by you or a third party in any material form without written permission from WABC Coaches Inc. Please contact WABC if you wish to reproduce any of the WABC Blog material.

By Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.

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