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Why Are Complex Problems Complex?

In my experience consulting and helping organisations solve problems, we inevitably come across complexity.

What makes complex problems complex?

There are 2 perspectives to this question

  • The nature of the problem

  • How we approach problem-solving

Nature of The Problem

“What makes your problem complex?” I often ask my workshop participants.

“People!” The answer comes back resoundingly, usually with a wry smile.

Indeed, people are responsible for creating systems, and as systems create problems, one can say people are responsible for the complexity.

Firstly, we create policies and processes to govern a system, knowing that such policies and processes do not cover all possibilities and circumstances. Otherwise, our policies and processes will be onerous and inefficient. Therefore, we rely on executives to interpret the intent of our policies and processes – and often, they interpret differently from us.

Secondly, when we create policies and processes, we cannot foresee the future – we rely on executives to feedback to us that policies and processes need updating. The delay in this happening causes friction.

Thirdly, especially if you work in multi-national companies, you want a standardised policy and process, whereas different countries usually have different laws. How do we fit our round pegs into the square hole?

Our Problem-Solving Approach

However, more interestingly, there are several features of what I noticed to be typical problem-solving approaches.

1. "Quick! Put out the fire."

When there is an issue, we are quick to deal with it.

What happens afterwards?
"Quick, there is another fire!"

In fact, our workplace culture celebrates the hero that puts out the fire, but we hardly notice the hero that prevented fires in the first place.

2. The fire is here. The cause must surely be here?

As a consequence of ‘Put Out The Fire’ mentality, we spend little time thinking about our problems. We are quick to jump onto what we think is the Silver Bullet, and the easiest one to find is usually where the symptoms lie.

3. Systemic Change?
In many cases, systemic changes are required. However, when you ask someone “What does ‘Systemic Change’ mean?”, you are most likely to be met with a blank look.
We are champions in Reductionist Thinking, yet what we need is exposure to Systems Thinking.

Put together, these 2 sets of features are like gunpowder meeting a spark. We struggle with the problems, we work hard not smart, and we are often managed by our complex problems.

We need a new set of Thinking Skills.

Be Smarter Than Your Problem

by Tan Hong Wee


When should you use the Systems Thinking approach?

  • The problem is important.

  • The problem is chronic, and is not a one-time event.

  • The problem is familiar and has a known history.

  • The problem has been unsuccessful to solve before.

How is this approach helpful for problem-solving skills?


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