Complex vs complicated problems

The role of leadership and co-learning when faced with complex problems

The Anthropocene, the geological era of humankind, is characterized by great acceleration (Steffen et al. 2015, see image at the end of the article) and the dramatic growth rate across a range of domains such as the human population, the increase of GDP, technological advancements, resource extraction, climate change, and species decline to mention just a few examples. To say that things are changing fast on our planet right now would be to state the obvious. Another characteristic of our time is the level of connectivity. The Anthropocene is hyperconnected. Social, economic, and environmental change processes interact through feedbacks and give rise to cascading effects across geographical sectors, often with unexpected outcomes.

In a fast-changing and hyperconnected world, we find ourselves having to tackle new types of problems. They are complex, rather than (just) complicated, and this is an important distinction to make as different approaches are needed to successfully address and solve the different types of problems.

The types of problems that we are most familiar with dealing with are complicated problems as they’re embedded in a fair amount of certainty. Those problems might still involve a lot of stakeholders and chains of cause and effect but aren’t as changeable and unpredictable as complex problems. Our efficiency-focused ways of working, fine-tuned since the dawn of industrialization, are fit for solving complicated problems, where it works having someone that leads at the front, a division of labour, establishment of standards, processes, and automatization, and steering the business through policies and regulations.

Given this long thought-tradition it’s not surprising that when faced with new business problems, such as climate change-induced shifts in commodity prices, or customer demands for radical transparency, or pandemic-related supply chain shifts, we grab the solutioning we’re most used to, solutioning suited to complicated problems. It’s what we know, it’s what’s being asked of us, and it has in the past given results. However, more and more we find that this is just not enough. Established ways of addressing problems do not help us move forward in any significant way. So the first step when approaching a problem is taking the time and analyzing what kind of problem it is that you’re faced with, otherwise you might be doing more harm than good as complex problem-solving needs a different approach.

The type of questions Prosperous Planet work with, focused on creating business futures fit for the Anthropocene backed up by the necessary leadership and team development that this requires, can be classified as complex problems. These are situations where the goals are fuzzy and involve difficult trade-offs, and where there are many unknowns and interrelated factors that do not fit into the type of solving which rules and processes provide. Complex problems do not follow a simple chain of cause and effect, and therefore the predictability of outcomes is low.

The first conundrum when dealing with complex problems is that you don’t have full control as you’re faced with so many uncertainties. Another aspect is that the clearest answers will only be visible with hindsight. To manage or lead through complex problems requires a different approach and tools such as detailed strategies and plans are no longer important. The activity of planning supports in envisioning the future and the desired outcomes, but exactly where you will end up or what turns that journey will take will not be clear. Alternative scenarios, futures, and actions have to be explored. This is where experiential co-learning and reflection becomes a way of working with complex problems.

Focus on learning is important to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of the Anthropocene.

Co-learning gives valuable insights when addressing the complexity of a task. We know that the more complex the task is the more important collaboration is, as we all need to contribute with different perspectives, competencies, values, and experiences. We need different perspectives as it provides a richness of solutions, approaches, and uncovering of biases.

In this rapidly changing world solutions are not final, they are instead very short-lived. Therefore we need to be speedy in trying and testing things out, evaluating, and iterating. Every iteration is a step in a movement forward, and to be able to learn from those steps we need to dare (and possibly fail) to be able to harvest the maximum amount of learnings.

By focusing the reflection on the concrete experience and how the different members of the group reacted to what happened, the interpretations, intentions, and choices behind everyone’s behaviour and actions, will help clarify the situation. This form of learning, experiential co-learning, uncovers information valuable to use when looking at the opportunities for individuals and systems to adapt or transform.

As managers and leaders of businesses dealing with complex problems, we must dare to let go of a bit of our reliance on facts, standards, and best practices (which are great for complicated problem solving) and instead start thinking creatively. Thinking is a creative process while knowing is an information-retrieval process. A complexity mindset focuses on what can be, rather than what is and it recognizes that complexity creates both challenges and opportunities. This is also the mindset that creates an avenue for competitive advantage in the Anthropocene, imagining and identifying trajectories towards a re-generative business future, beyond break-even sustainability, where companies can grow their business and expand their customer base by helping solve the global grand challenges of today.

As Eric Hoffer observed, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

Here are a couple of statements that could help identify if you are facing complex problems in your organization and context:

  • Strategies are less detailed, stretch shorter time spans, and are updated more frequently
  • Values are a basis for recruitment, so not recruiting for a position/role but for a cultural fit as skills can always be learned
  • The work done needs cross-team collaboration
  • The type of leadership is facilitative, coaching and self-driven

The great acceleration

Liene Leimanis Bartlett
COO, People & Change

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