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Overview of the framework and a broad description of its use

A constraint based definition can be used understand the differences between order, complexity and chaos. Enabling constraints are a key aspect of a complex system.

  • Constraints - map to domains
  • Rigid - Clear
  • Governing- Complicated
  • Enabling - Complex
  • Absence - Choatic

There are

  • context free constraints
  • universal rules or principles
  • context specific constraints which cannot be universalised.
    • Context Free constraints act as catalysts

In general context free constraints tend to only work (ironically) within the context of order at a system level.

There is an assumption that constraints limit freedom and while this can be the case, it's not always true.

English text with a description and a picture, this section can be subdivided as necessary

With major methods parts of this section may link to other articles which describe aspects in more detail

Examples of Constraints

  • The internal skeleton of human provides a coherent structure, but also allows variety.
  • The gene proves a constraint, but not a determinant of organic life and so on.

Without constraints there is no evolution, true randomness is purely and simply chaos, nothing more, nothing less. There are also links here to Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints but it is far from an exact match.

Enabling and governing constraints help distinguish the complex from the complicated domain within Cynefin - see Cynefin Dynamics

Containing Constraints and Coupling Constraints

In any system there are containing constraints and coupling constrains, developing an earlier metaphor of exoskeletons and endoskeletons. The first defines the boundaries around something, the second defines the interactions between entities that form a part of the system.

Rigid Constraints

Here the coupling is rigid, rather like bolts and the boundaries are full on, they cannot be passed other than by their breaking which may well be catastrophic to the system as a whole. A system in which both coupling and containers were rigid would be at the extreme end of order, teetering (in the case of a human system) on the edge of catastrophic failure within Cynefin. Something that is rigid can also easily become brittle and break catastrophically. While appearing to be highly ordered these can easily become the least resilient.

Elastic Constraints

Here there is some give and take. The boundaries of the container can stretch and change form, accommodating flux without breaking. They provide less stability that a rigid boundary, but they have higher resilience, that is until they snap. The same principles apply to coupling, more flexibility, more resilience but at the extreme they may still result in catastrophic failure.

Dark Constraints

Now I don’t mean this is sense of the dark arts, but in the sense of dark matter. Something whose presence we impute by its effect but which we cannot see or directly manage. These are some of the more interesting aspects of a human complex system in that they seem to have a disproportionate impact on the system as a whole. Often they are understood within a community but cannot be articulated. They are simply the way we do things around here. This can include taboo and habits along with other social aspects.

Loose Constraints

In some ways they are similar to elastic, except that they are not elastic. Two entities connected by a steel cable with a lot of slack, but once the slack is taken up in full there is no elasticity. For the containing boundaries that means flexibility of shape but not of overall contained area. Stress the system and both the containers and the coupling with snap to its limits, so again resilience is limited.


This is important as it is probably the most resilient but the least manageable. Under conditions of stress any natural system increases its mutation rates to increase its adaptability. Here a rigid system may become elastic, then loose then rigid again and so on. In the mutation phase the nature of the mutation can be more easily managed and directed – if you are aware it is happening in the first place that is.

Scaffolding = Constraints - Body internal scaffolding cohesion - Insect external exoskeleton- less variety.

"You have to get used to the fact you don't know what is going to happen" Attributed to Russ Ackoff - But we can manage the constraints - \aside\ in politics patriarchal feudalism can cope with resource constraints...

Common misunderstands in abuse

Constraints in Cynefin(tm) are not the same as Constraints in Theory of Constraints (TOC). In TOC you remove constraints. In Cynefin(tm) you bias a system with constraints. There was an exploratory on that topic which Steve Holt we have held an exploratory on that topic which Steve Holt summarised here.

Core theory

Description of the scientific basis for the framework with links to appropriate articles

Supporting artefacts

Ay training material, posters and like with links to where they can be acquired


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.


Specific articles can be referenced here

Blog posts

Link with commentary

Related concepts

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Link to case articles here or third party material