Simple Solutions and Complex Problems – A Lethal Combination

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” 

H.L. Mencken

We live in an age when, despite the increased level of complexity, there is little appetite for complex thinking and an overwhelming appetite for simple solutions. As Daniel Kahneman pondered in his marvellous book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, we are creatures that are designed to jump to conclusions. When faced with a complex question, we happily substitute a simpler question in its place.

Simple questions and solutions are seductively inviting to us as they require less time and effort. Simplification saves us a great deal of cognitive energy. Even though our brain represents only about 2% of our body weight, it consumes about 20% of our resting metabolic rate. We are “cognitive misers”, eager to spare our mental energy whenever possible.

So, how can we improve our decision-making and stop ourselves from jumping to conclusions? A good starting point is to examine the decision to get a sense of how complex it actually is.

Back in 1999, while he was working at IBM, Dave Snowden came up with a conceptual framework to help categorise different types of decision-making contexts, or domains, as a means of improving decision-making. He gave the framework the Welsh name Cynefin which means habitat. In essence, the Cynefin framework has four domains; Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic (Figure 1).

Problems in the right-hand domains, Simple and Complicated, are considered to be ordered. In other words, there is a cause-and-effect that allow us to predict outcomes if we know the input conditions. Those on the left hand side, Complex and Chaotic, are considered to disordered; we cannot predict a future outcome with accuracy.

In the Obvious domain, this cause-and-effect is relatively straightforward. There is a “right answer” to be found. The necessary facts can be assessed and a decision made. This is the equivalent of an IKEA flat-pack; once you have the instructions (and a certain amount of patience) you can achieve the desired outcome.

In the Complicated domain, there is still a cause-and-effect but there is more than one possible good solution. Expertise is required and experts may argue over which is the “best answer”. For example, deciding on the design features of a new product. I sometimes think of this as a chess game. Though highly complex, there is a means to get to a winning position.

In the Complex domain, all bets are off when it comes to being able to identify guaranteed solutions. Things can be understood in retrospect but, due to the amount of complex interactions between inputs, the outcomes are somewhat unpredictable. For example, take culture change in organisations; it is possible to analyse and understand how culture drives current behaviours, but difficult to predict future culture change and behaviours. Global markets are in the same boat (although they can also drift into chaos – see below).

Finally, in the Chaotic domain, searching for an answer is pointless as there is no pattern to the problem. Cause and effect are constantly shifting in relation to each other. At best we can strive to take action in order to bring things back into the Complex domain. The most often quoted example given is the conditions that pertained in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

So, how does this framework help our decision-making?

By stopping to consider which domain we are operating in, we stand a better chance of adopting the best decision-making approach up front. This helps us avoid pursuing strategies that are destined to fail.

One of the common pitfalls is to treat a complex or complicated problem as if it is a simple one. A good example is playing out at present in US politics. Incredibly complex problems (immigration, global trade, world conflict) are being presented as simple problems with simple solutions (build a wall, impose a tariff, withdraw from a treaty). When presented with a problem you need to ask yourself “is this problem or decision being framed in a way that makes it look simpler than it is?” You also need to examine the possible agenda of those who are framing the problem in simple terms. Most problems that include the interactions and emotions of human beings are likely to be in the Complex domain, due to the unpredictability of human behaviour patterns.

Another common pitfall can occur in organisations where expertise is highly valued (e.g. engineering, science, legal) – here there is a risk of treating a complex problem as if it is “merely” complicated. Experts may feel that the problem requires considerable expertise but they are confident that it is actually analysable. This leads to “analysis paralysis” as the search for a solution is elusive. The more analysis that takes place, the more the variables increase and change. Even attempting to analyse the problem may have an unexpected impact. Rather than analysing, it’s better to try things out and see the results, experiment a little to see what works. This is more iterative in nature, intended to identify potential patterns. Eventually clearer linkages between cause and effect can emerge and the problem may transition to a more ordered form.

If the problem is in the Chaotic domain, then the primary role of the leader is to act to establish order. That is her main task. Take for example a major safety incident. The immediate chaos has to be dealt with before any progress can be made.

So, to return to our decision-making domains, where do we begin? Before starting out to solve the problem, figure out what you’re dealing with. The overall intention is to try to shift the problem in a clockwise direction. If it’s chaotic, action is needed to move it towards the complex domain. From there it may be possible to shift it into the complicated domain and ultimately to break the problem into composite parts, some of which are in the obvious domain.

Leaders operate in all of these domains, sometime simultaneously, and need to be comfortable in all of them. Before setting out on the journey, pause to see where you’re starting from and what the territory looks like. You’ll increase your chances of heading in the right direction!