“All problems aren’t created equal”. How to DEAL WITH “complex” problems.

“All problems aren’t created equal”.  

Someone posted that on Linkedin, and I agree.  In fact, there’s a model that distinguishes between different types of problems called Cynefin, based on complexity theory (created by David Snowden).  The 4 quadrants are:

  • Simple –          We know how to solve this.
  • Complicated – We can ask the experts because they know how to solve this.
  • Complex –      We don’t know how to address this challenge, and we need to experiment to discover possible solutions.  The good news is that you don’t have to solve complex challenges by yourself.
  • Chaotic –         This requires us to act immediately; we don’t have time to analyze the situation, and nobody knows how to solve this problem.

On the right hand side, in simple and complicated problems, there’s a clear connection between cause and effect.  For “complicated problems”, we just need to ask the experts or to do some research.  For example, if you find that you have diabetes, the doctor will recommend appropriate treatment.  If you need to hold your meetings virtually, the technical staff can show you how to do that.

The problems on the left hand side, on the other hand, are unpredictable, meaning we don’t know the relationship between cause and effect.  Neither we nor the experts know how to solve them. The way to approach “Complex problems” is to experiment and learn, sense and respond.   We have to design some “safe to fail” experiments, make sense of the results and develop an appropriate response.  The quadrant of Complex problems is a space of learning, i.e. having conversations to identify what we know and don’t know, where we are truly curious and open to hearing diverse perspectives. 

In response to the pandemic, state officials are engaged in an ongoing experiment, opening the economy in stages and assessing the results to see if they can open further, or stay put (or even move back a stage).  School administrators are also experimenting – changing the configuration of the classroom, creating hybrid models of schooling, inviting back selected categories of students, like special needs, and allowing different students to attend on different days.  They are carefully watching the results based on the number of infections.

The fourth quadrant represents chaotic problems, which require you to act before you can do any experiments.  Speaking about the pandemic, Helen Jenkins, a Boston University epidemiologist said, “In the spring, we just didn’t know what was going on (in the pandemic).  You really have no other option at that point other than to shut everything down.  You then use that time… to learn more about how a new virus spreads and then get to work tracking and containing it.”  (Boston Globe Oct. 18, 2020)

Your leadership skills are needed to diagnose the challenge and to figure out what type of problem it is.  In order to address a Complex problem, you have to convene people with different perspectives for a “learning conversation”, in which everyone can acknowledge that “we don’t know” the answer, which can actually be freeing.  Your role is to hold the space for people who are worried about not knowing the solution or the future.  Working together, you can harness the collective wisdom, and create experiments, that will give you more data to design more innovative and effective solutions. 

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