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Solving Complex Problems

By Consuelo (Chit) E. Munar

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” – John Maeda

We are living in a world where there is so much ambiguity and it’s challenging and difficult to navigate. We are surrounded with complex problems. At a global or national level, many of these are new, very difficult to solve or control, and very threatening. How do you define a complex problem?

David Komlos, author of Cracking Complexity, characterizes complex problems as messy, unpredictable, unstable, confounding and don’t come with simple answers, only best attempts. At times, complex problems are problems that are beyond the scope of any single organization to understand and respond to; there is often disagreements about the cause of the problems and how to address them; and the problems can only be addressed, not completely solved. Complex problems require new solutions crafted specifically for the circumstances and you can only know you have found a good one in retrospect.

Complex problems share a number of characteristics, namely:
1. The “solution” to the problem depends on how the problem is understood.
2. The problem is not really understood until after it has been addressed.
3. The problem cannot be completely solved.
4. People involved can have very different world views and have radically different views about the causes
of the problem and the best way to respond.
5. Solutions to complex problems are not true or false, but good or bad, or better or worse.
6. Every complex problem is essentially unique.
7. Cause and effect is unknown and unknowable.
8. Every complex problem can be considered to be a symptom to another problem.

Step 1 in solving complex problems is acknowledging the complexity. Leaders of organizations often don’t see the difference between complicated and complex, so they can’t acknowledge it. What they know is that some challenges tend to get solved, and some don’t. This would lead to the wrong conclusion.

Frame the complexity in a great question and get all the right people involved in answering that question. A good question cracks complexity. “A really, really good question will launch a thousand really, really good conversations.” To look for a great dialogue, a leader needs to challenge his/her team to do better than they normally do in finding answers. A leader must not be afraid how people will react. Sometimes, it means angering a few people or even hurting a few feelings. You’re asking the question about what to do because you know what you’re doing when it comes to complexity.

During the process avoid unintended assumptions and bias. Don’t assume that prior communication has been effective and that people get it. It’s important to note that leaders need to be prepared for big change. People want to contribute, want to change things, want to make things happen. We strive to make our organizations and communities work decently in these difficult times. If we are to work more intelligently, we need to choose processes that evoke our curiosity, humility, generosity and wisdom. The ultimate benefit is that we learn that it’s good to work together.









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