Complex problem solving: five don’ts

Richard Watkins
Sep 10, 2018 · 2 min read

Our lives are full of complex challenges. A complex problem is one where it’s not simply a case of predictable cause-and-effect. In complexity, the different parts of the system effect each other in ways you can’t perfectly model or predict. Not everything complicated or difficult is complex. So launching a spaceship might be very complicated, but raising a child is complex. Building an algorithm is complicated, but building an alliance is complex. David Snowden has a nice framework for differentiating types of problems.

“Launching a spaceship might be very complicated, but raising a child is complex”

But how do we navigate complex problems? Here are five things not to do.

  1. Don’t take on every thing — Our lives are full of complex/interdependent problems. Taking them on takes up time, energy and resources — and these are finite resources. So take a step back. Is this problem important? Is it urgent? Is it yours to take on? Are you personally committed to solving it? Some problems we should just leave well alone… or leave for someone else.
  2. Don’t plan precisely — If you want to face a complex problem you need a plan. But the nature of complexity means you cant perfectly predict how things will go. This is the heart of methodologies like agile, design thinking, lean start up — essentially frameworks that work in loops of learning rather than precisely drawn lines. These looser plans are best for navigating complexity.
  3. Don’t do it yourself — In a complex world “I alone can fix it” is a nonsense. This doesn’t mean you don’t own responsibility (in fact taking responsibility is vital for complexity) but that one of your responsibilities is knowing the limits of your experience/expertise, and knowing who you need to help you. What perspectives will illuminate this problem?
  4. Don’t be perfect— Complex problems are solved through a “try, learn, adapt” cycles. This means not waiting for solutions to be perfect, but hacking together early prototypes and trying them out. Seeing how imperfect things work/don’t work is a faster to learn and improve. Run experiments.
  5. Don’t avoid mess — There is no magic trick to taking on complex problems. And if its truly a tricky problem, you can expect ugly emotions and frustrating dead ends. So invest in your resilience, get some wise voices to support you, don’t expect everything to run smoothly. Another reason to only take on problems you really care about solving.

The work we do at Let’s Go is to help individuals and groups face complex challenges with confidence. By giving powerful frameworks (like the Let’s Go model) and practical tools (like the Collaboration Cards) that support leaders working in the ebb and flow of complex problem solving.

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Richard Watkins

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Lifelong collaborator — founder @letsgohq — creative stuff www.richwatkins.com — Camberwell

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