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How to solve complex problems

How to solve complex problems
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Scott Rose is general manager of Impact UK

Where to start?

Sometimes, you just know it’s not working. The problem is you don't know why.

The clues on the surface can be very clear: disengagement, poor financial results, customer complaints, challenging relationships, HR issues. However, the root cause is often much more complex, and what’s even more difficult is knowing what to do about it.

Many of the problems that we are looking to solve now are complicated and, in some cases, complex. In these situations, solving one thing can often lead to unintended impacts on another. So, how can you know what the right approach to take is?

Beware of quick fixes

Gathering data and noting down lists of the ‘symptoms’ experienced across the organisation is a great start. It's then tempting to immediately address the challenges by quickly generating solutions. However, this is exactly where we have seen organisational efforts fail.

There are many ways to describe the global context that we are living in, including VUCA and the more recent BANI framework. Regardless of the exact language used, the nature of these organisational challenges means they can rarely be solved with a quick fix or pre-existing solution. Such short-term interventions may solve one or two of the symptoms, but they are unlikely to address the root cause, which is almost always complex and interdependent on other factors across the system.

So, how do you go about identifying root causes and determining which approach to take? There is no quick or easy solution for this, but there are things you can do to help you get there: 

Five suggested practices for solving complex problems

1.     Context is everything. Understanding the micro and macro context that you’re experiencing informs the actions needed. The Cynefin framework is a great example of a way to define whether a problem is clear, chaotic, complicated or complex. Determining the nature of the challenge helps create the beginning of the approach needed. One of our most recent clients had a clear capability problem to solve for a senior leadership population. However, through mutual exploration we were able to determine that the problem was much more complex and therefore required an emergent approach.

2.     Sensing across the system. Noticing, or sensing, is a core leadership skill. When it comes to complex problems, it’s vital to sense across diverse perspectives. This allows for the surfacing of assumptions and limiting beliefs. It also ensures a deep level of listening to all voices, which should include stakeholder groups outside of the organisation, such as shareholders and customers. Absorbing these perspectives is essential to avoid the echo chamber and help the organisation see itself. We help our clients with this by running focus groups and interviews. Immersing ourselves in the culture of an organisation enables us to generate a solution that gets results.

3.     Creating a hypothesis. With complex problems there is a real risk of impatience and jumping to conclusions before stress testing ideas. I recently worked with an organisation that had surfaced a number of symptoms that needed addressing. A phase of sensing across their system yielded some great data and information to collate into themes, which, through a facilitated process, were then clustered, debated and prioritised. This gave us an opportunity to create several working hypotheses, and to test them with prototype solutions. This process involves remembering that you and other leaders in the organisation may be a part of the problem as well as the solution.

4.     Prototyping. When we are working with clients who don’t know or aren’t able to articulate what they want, we like to take an iterative approach. This means designing the first engagement, and then developing the next phases using the knowledge gained, before completing a more detailed design. This requires the ability to suspend assumptions and test thinking. However, testing and piloting must be real – in the past, we have witnessed people ‘putting on a hat’ or pretending that they are a certain population. True prototypes are learning experiences that meet people where they are at in their own development journey and provide opportunities to gather real information to inform next steps.

5.     Resilience. Hang in there! This process is rarely straightforward or easy. Many academics have labelled these kinds of problems as ‘messy’ for that exact reason. Yet this approach always reaps more rewards than an overly simplistic fix that just addresses symptoms. Creating opportunities to be vulnerable and share frustrations is important, as is carving out space for leaders to reflect on and prioritise this work – away from everyday demands. Finally, working through this process successfully requires building the muscle of leadership agility and the ability to continuously learn from experience.

An opportunity to become future-fit

No organisation can escape the ‘wicked problems’ that define our world today, and working through these challenges is no easy process. But leaders with the courage to look past quick fixes or sticking plaster solutions, and invest time in attending to context, sensing, creating hypotheses, and prototyping, will be more likely to thrive in the decades ahead. The global landscape isn’t getting any less volatile, and complex problems offer opportunities for leaders to assess their operations at every level, gain a new depth and breadth of understanding, change behaviours and mindsets, and reimagine the future of their organisation.

Read more about a BANI world and the skills, behaviour and mindsets required to get your organisation future fit. 

Or get in touch to find out how we can help you with your challenges.