The grunt work of business is solving problems.  Whether it is working out how to secure an opportunity, improving your operation, navigating an economic environment or growing past your current confines; it is just another problem to solve.  Knowing how to solve these problems has always been a great differentiator but as modern business becomes more complex, so too are the problems that emerge.

The key is that not all problems are the same.  Some problems are simple and require a straight forward approach focussing on their efficient resolution.  Others are complex, and these need something different to make sure you can capitalise on their potential as they shift and change.  The difference between simple and complex problems then, is how much we know and how much we can predict.

Recognising the difference isn’t always easy though. Both types can be very complicated and this can hide the true characteristics that set them apart.  This is what to look for –

Simple problems:

  1. Have clear boundaries with a finite number of elements
  2. Are predictable with sufficient analysis
  3. Have a right or wrong answer
  4. Don’t change while you are trying to solve them
  5. Can be solved in a similar way to other simple problems

Complex problems:

  1. Are typically unbounded and unstructured
  2. Don’t have a finite number of elements
  3. Are susceptible to outside influences,
  4. Adapt and change constantly
  5. Cross boundaries
  6. Are often multidimensional
  7. Have unfixed scopes that often expand as the problem evolves
  8. Have interdependent elements where any effort to solve one part, will have follow-on effects across the entire problem space
  9. Have autonomous components instigating change
  10. Have few standard approaches that can be universally applied
  11. Are very messy

The way we manage simple problems is well defined in our traditional approaches.  Problems are decomposed into manageable parts, linear cause and effects are determined, adjustments are made at the source to control the effect, the results are monitored, further adjustments are made if necessary and the problem is managed within a recognisable hierarchy.

Complex problems are different.  For complex problems with emergent properties, where the scope is undefined and boundaries unclear, we need a more adaptive approach.  This can be a daunting process – to step away from established techniques and derive your own methodology introduces risk from both a personal and process view.  Whatever ‘body of knowledge’ or industry experience base you are relying on, it sets the accepted standards for dealing with problems.  Following established process, even if it doesn’t quite fit the problem, can be more easily justified.

If you are going to be successful in solving complex problems though, you have to be willing to make this step. If you communicate the reasons and engage others in determining where to make that critical deviation, then you’ll improve your chances of success even further.

To make this work, you have to take value selectively.  Complex problems are unique and so by their very nature, require a unique response.  Some of these responses end up being embedded in developing methodology – Agile Project Management is a good example.  This approach can’t be applied universally as it deals with a specific issue – technology pace and emerging requirements – but it shows the power of selective deviation to solve specific complexity characteristics.

Any ‘body of knowledge’ or industry experience base then, needs to be treated as a guide when dealing with complex problems.  To do this effectively takes more expertise than just following the rules.  A thorough understanding of established methods will allow you to recognise each element and what it contributes to the solution. You’ll also be able to understand the shortcomings and restrictions for each element, and the risks involved in either following or deviating.  Once you have this picture, then your expertise helps you to determine if it needs to be changed to maximise value in your own problem space.

Adaptation for complex problems leads to success.  Understanding the complex characteristics of a given problem and matching it to methodology in a tailored way will give you a greater chance of delivering. It will also help you to capitalise on opportunities that arise as the problem changes.  This is the most exciting part of the whole space, looking for changes that with focus and appropriate control, can lift the deliverable higher than expectations.

Whether your problem is simple or complex, defining it helps to solve it.  It allows simple problems to be solved simply, and complex problems to be solved adaptively.  This means that the allocation of your scarce resources can be more effectively placed where needed, and your business can take advantage of the surprising opportunities that arise in this increasingly complex world.

Author: Jon Jordans

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