Complex problems, CURVED solutions Cynefin in Practice!.

Is Scrum better than other Agile framework? What do you think about SAFE? Is Kanban Agile? This are sensitive questions frequently heard in the Agile community with yet unclear answers.

In my experience, most of the times those topics frequently lead to both demanding and interesting conversations. I’ve been part of this kind of conversations a fairly big amount of times and I frequently follow the same thinking pattern to properly structure my thoughts and share my opinion in a consistent manner.

For that I will use as foundations the Cynefin framework (by Dave Snowden) and the CURVED filter.

When discussing such topics, we could say we are involved in a complex discussion as “there are competing hypothesis about whats the nature of the problem” (Cynefin). Some examples of this topics are product development frameworks, portfolio management strategies, employee engagement and motivation techniques among others.

That’s the moment to put CURVED in action.

CURVED is a filter, that can be useful to understand if a problem solving approach is appropriate for problems in the complex doman. If the method applied is compliant with the six governing constrains of CURVED we could say is a good candidate to move a complex problem towards the complicated domain. That’s the blue dynamic in the Cynefin framework


What is CURVED?

CURVED is a filter to test if problem solving strategies are complexity-compatible and is described as follows:

Complex to complicated: Establish boundaries and governing constraints.

Unique: Assume dependence on context and non replicability.

Rich: Use a diversity of perspectives to get the context of the known unknowns.

Varied: Develop models in collaboration reusing sets of good practices.

Experimental: Run set of experiments (Probe, sense, response)

Dynamic: Anticipate that experiments (serial or parallel) will influence each other.

The 6 governing constraints of the CURVED filter 

Let’s therefore describe CURVED in more detail:

Complex to complicated: Is compliant if the problem can be understood as Complex under the current conditions. And the method creates boundaries so that the problem is now in a container that isolates it in an unambiguous domain variables.

Unique: The approach taken must assume that the obtained results are not replicable in different environments and/or situations.

Rich: A diversity of perspectives will be used to understand the disposition of the problem and the variables and inputs that can affect the system.

Varied: The method needs to allow and reinforce the appearance of novel practices based on abstraction of know practices

Experimental: Understand your method as a mean to probe, which involve keeping the experiment safe, small and isolated. Experiments could be run in parallel so that the results can be compared and used to make conclusions. This results can be used to decide wether to dismiss o amplify the experiment.

Dynamic: The chosen practice needs to be in constant change and evolution and continuously adapting itself, following the nature of the problem and adapting itself to the emerging constrains.

An example

Pretty academy right? Let’s use a real example to understand how to use the CURVED filter. In the following example I will use CURVED to analice Scrum.

Is Scrum addressing problems as Complex? Yes, Scrum moves problems from Complex towards complicated as it’s a framework and not a methodology. Stating a set of governing constraints over enabling constraints to encapsulate the problem of turning a product backlog into delivering a set of shippable increments.

Is Scrum assuming Uniqueness? Yes, an example of this is that all estimations/work division is done by the team that will build the product. And both estimations are splitting are entirely subjective to the team. Same happens with DoD, DoR, planning, reviews and retrospectives. Each team has his own way to instantiate each component of Scrum. Outcomes and time boxes are well defined as governing constraints.

Is Scrum Rich? Yes, One of the key elements of Scrum is the need of a cross-functional team to work on the product increment that allows to analyze product backlog items under a diversity of perspectives to have a more clear understanding of what is to be done and how can it be done.

Does Scrum re-uses a Varied range of good practices? Yes, many teams combine XP practices with Scrum and Scrum itself is based in a number of Lean, coaching, facilitation and project management practices.

Is Scrum meant for Experimentation? We have to be very careful here. Because even though Scrum can be absolutely used to delight customers under an experimental approach. That  involves frequent inspection and adaptation towards the hypothesis under study. Which in this case is to delight a customer. If instead we inspect and adapt towards the completion of a plan, which in my opinion is a limited use of Scrum, we are not using Scrum for experimentation (Complex domain) but for de-composition (Complicated domain). Several experiments could be performed in parallel for results to be compared and analyzed.

Is Scrum Dynamic? Yes, Scrum in in constant change a key part of scrum is the continuous inspection and adaptation of the process itself that happens at least as a result of each retrospective.


A CURVED analysis is also useful to ensure that you, your team and your organization understands “Why” are you using a specific framework. And if you are a methods in a way that could lead you to their ultimate goal.

Is your Scrum still CURVED? If not, I’d suggest to re-explore “why” do you decided to use Scrum.

Cynefin explained by Dave Snowden.

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