Most influential people in Agile. Dave Snowden


Embracing Complexity in Agile: Insights from Dave Snowden

When it comes to critical thinkers and intellectuals in the agile space, one name that stands out is Dave Snowden. Known for his intellectual rigor, robust thinking, and clarity of communication, Snowden is a beacon of insight and guidance in the realm of complexity and agility. His disdain for fluffy thinking and insistence on clear, grounded explanations have made him a formidable figure in the field. This blog post will delve into Snowden’s contributions, particularly his work with the Cynefin framework, and explore how his principles can be applied to enhance agile practices.

The Intellectual Rigor of Dave Snowden

A Clear Communicator in a Complex World

Dave Snowden’s approach to agile and complexity is marked by his ability to distill complex concepts into understandable, actionable insights. He has little patience for vague or poorly thought-out ideas and is known for his almost visible contempt for what he terms “woolly-headed nonsense.” His focus is on cutting through the noise to get to the heart of the matter.

Key Attributes of Snowden’s Approach:

  • Intellectual Rigor: A strong emphasis on deep, critical thinking.
  • Robustness of Thought: Ensuring ideas are well-formed and defensible.
  • Clarity of Communication: Making complex ideas accessible and understandable.

Personal Experiences with Snowden’s Methodology

Having worked with Snowden, I can attest to the transformative impact of his methods. In one particular project, his application of the Cynefin framework helped our team navigate a highly complex environment with remarkable success. By categorizing our challenges into the appropriate domains, we were able to tailor our agile practices to fit the specific context, leading to more effective solutions.

Understanding the Cynefin Framework

What is Cynefin?

The Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden, is a decision-making tool that helps organizations understand and navigate complexity. It categorizes situations into five domains: Obvious, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, and Disorder. Each domain requires a different approach to problem-solving.

The Five Domains of Cynefin

  1. Obvious: Clear cause-and-effect relationships, best practices apply.
  2. Complicated: Requires expert analysis, multiple right answers exist.
  3. Complex: No clear cause-and-effect, patterns emerge retrospectively.
  4. Chaotic: No patterns, immediate action needed to restore order.
  5. Disorder: Unclear which domain applies, requires breaking down into manageable parts.

Applying Cynefin in Agile

The Cynefin framework is particularly valuable in agile environments, where teams often face varying degrees of complexity. By identifying the nature of the problem, teams can choose the most appropriate agile practices.

Practical Tips for Using Cynefin in Agile:

  • Identify the Domain: Start by categorizing the problem or situation.
  • Tailor Your Approach: Use best practices for Obvious problems, expert analysis for Complicated issues, probe-sense-respond for Complex challenges, act-sense-respond for Chaotic situations, and break down Disorder into its constituent parts.
  • Iterate and Adapt: Continuously reassess and adjust your approach as the situation evolves.

The Importance of Estimating and Mapping

Snowden’s Work with Estimating and Mapping

In addition to Cynefin, Snowden has contributed significantly to the field of estimating and mapping in agile. His work emphasizes the importance of understanding the context and complexity of tasks to make more accurate and meaningful estimates.

Key Principles of Effective Estimating and Mapping

  1. Context Matters: Estimates should reflect the complexity and uncertainty of the task.
  2. Continuous Learning: Use feedback and retrospective insights to refine estimates.
  3. Collaboration: Engage the entire team in the estimation process to leverage diverse perspectives.

Personal Advice on Estimating in Agile

From my experience, applying Snowden’s principles to estimating has greatly improved our accuracy and predictability. By considering the complexity of tasks and involving the whole team in the process, we have been able to create more reliable estimates and better manage stakeholder expectations.

Embracing Complexity for Greater Agility

Agility as a Solution to Complexity

One of Snowden’s most compelling insights is the idea that agility is a natural response to complexity. In complex environments, traditional linear approaches often fall short. Agile methodologies, with their focus on iterative development, feedback loops, and adaptability, are uniquely suited to navigating such landscapes.

Benefits of Agile in Complex Environments:

  • Flexibility: Ability to pivot and adjust as new information emerges.
  • Resilience: Enhanced capacity to absorb and respond to unexpected changes.
  • Innovation: Encouragement of experimentation and learning from failure.

Recommendations for Agile Practitioners

To fully leverage the benefits of agility in complex environments, consider the following recommendations:

  1. Embrace Uncertainty: Accept that not all variables can be controlled or predicted.
  2. Foster a Learning Culture: Encourage continuous learning and knowledge sharing within the team.
  3. Use Frameworks Like Cynefin: Apply decision-making tools to better understand and navigate complexity.
  4. Iterate Frequently: Regularly review and adapt your processes and practices based on feedback and new insights.
  5. Engage Stakeholders: Keep stakeholders informed and involved to ensure alignment and support.


Dave Snowden’s contributions to the field of agile, particularly his work with the Cynefin framework and his emphasis on rigorous thinking, provide invaluable guidance for navigating complexity. By applying his principles and insights, agile practitioners can enhance their ability to manage uncertainty, innovate, and deliver value in complex environments.

Incorporating Snowden’s methods into your agile practice is not just about adopting new tools and techniques; it’s about fostering a mindset of intellectual rigor, clarity, and adaptability. As we continue to face increasingly complex challenges, these principles will be crucial for achieving success and driving sustainable growth.

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