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Tackling complex problems

In our day-to-day jobs, we face problems every day. Sometimes these are relatively straightforward, like deciding when to schedule a certain piece of work in your calendar. Others are more challenging – like deciding on the cost of a service, how to structure a team, how to engage with more customers or the best way to create a product. 

Complex problems are increasingly drawing on leadership time and effort - the more difficult they are to solve, the more resources, time and money they cost the business. It is unsurprising then, that structured problem solving is one of the most sought-after skills by employers, and considered to be one of the top skills that will help people thrive in the future of work [1].

There are many different types of problems that we may encounter - but they can be broadly categorised as simple, complicated or complex problems:

  • Simple problems normally have one, obvious correct answer. The answer might be obvious to us, or we might need to use research or seek help, but there is only one answer to find. 
  • ‍Complicated problems might have multiple possible answers or solutions. We can come up with different possible answers, and then we need to find a way of choosing between them – identifying the pros and cons is one simple method of doing that. Although these are more difficult than simple problems, we can normally get to the best answer.
  • Complex problems are those problems that do not have a simple answer. Instead, there are lots of potential answers, and there are links or interdependencies between different things that mean that solving part of a problem might create new ones. Experts will often disagree about what the best solution to a particular problem is because they often have different information, and sometimes this leads them to different views on what to do.

The good news is that to solve complex problems, we can follow a tried-and-tested process:

  1. Understanding a complex problem by conducting research
  2. Analysing the potential causes and effects 
  3. Generating a wide range of solutions 
  4. Evaluating the potential solutions to choose the best approach 

In this article, we will explore each of these stages of problem solving, and some useful strategies that you can apply in your day-to-day work. 

1. Understanding a complex problem by conducting research

When tackling a complex problem, one of the first things we can think about is what we are trying to achieve – that is, what would a successful solution allow us to do? What are the things that we need to know to come up with the best answer that we can to the complex problem?

Research is working to increase our knowledge and understanding of a particular topic or idea. Broadly there are two types of research:

  • Primary research: This is using new information that you collect yourself. For example, you might carry out a survey, interview people, carry out an experiment, or observe what is going on and collect data. ‍
  • Secondary research: This is about using existing information that you find. For example, looking at existing books, articles or studies, or data that is published by different organisations like the government.

When looking at a complex problem, people normally start with secondary research because this is often easier and less expensive than primary research. It means that you can find out whether your question has already been answered and what is still unknown.

Imagine we were working with this complex problem: staff turnover at our business has risen since the pandemic. In building our understanding of this problem, we might be interested in whether there are similar trends like this across our industry or the country as a whole. We could first conduct secondary research by searching for existing Government data or independent research. If we couldn’t find an answer here, we could conduct primary research by collating data from recruitment agencies and looking for any potential industry- or country-wide trends.

Primary research can be helpful because it can use an experimental approach to answer the particular problem that you want to solve or give a more direct answer to your question. However, it is often more challenging to set up, takes longer and is more expensive – particularly for big, complex problems.

2. Analysing the potential causes and effects of a complex problem

One of the key things about complex problems is that they are not self-contained. Instead, there are links between those problems and other problems – that one thing might affect something else – sometimes quite unexpectedly. A key part of analysing complex problems is, therefore, to think about causes and effects:

  • Causes: This is the factor, or factors, that lead to something happening. ‍
  • Effects: This is the result of the causes – the thing that happened as a result.

For example, if our complex problem was how to make the park better for wildlife, we might see one of our goals as reducing litter in the park. One cause of litter in a park might be that the park has picnic benches that encourage people to eat their lunch in the park, but there are no litter bins available, so people leave their rubbish out. 

Part of the solution might be to have more litter bins, to remove the picnic benches, or to make people more aware of what the impact of littering was to discourage them from doing it. However, making the park better for wildlife might also be about providing habitats that wildlife can live in, reducing nuisances like too much noise, or providing more staff to look after the park. Each of these is likely also to have further causes and effects. 

Causes and effects can join together in a range of different ways. The main three are:

  • Static: One cause leads to one effect, which is self-contained. For example, more watering leads to the grass to grow faster. 
  • Linear: The causes and effects join together in a line – one thing causes something else which causes something else. In this way, we can follow one line of thinking all the way through. For example, more rainfall might lead to higher rivers which leads to flooding. 
  • Circular: The causes and effects are circular, and so become self-reinforcing. For example, cheaper technology leads more people to want to buy that technology which means that more of that technology is produced, which makes it cheaper for the manufacturer. This lowers the prices again so increases the demand further. Sometimes this circular cycle eventually reaches an equilibrium. 

To understand complex problems, we can think about what the causes and effects are that help to make sense of what we see. If we just fix one part of linear or circular causes and effects, we might have a different overall effect than we expected.

3. Generating a wide range of solutions for a complex problem

To build on this, we can create a range of possible solutions to evaluate. This is particularly helpful when working with complex problems because often solving these problems is about a combination of different actions or activities. In essence, no one thing answers or solves the problem. 

It is useful to take the attitude of trying to create lots of possible alternatives. It is easy to fall into the trap that whatever idea it first came up with is good enough and, therefore, to stop trying to create more. To help overcome that, we can set ourselves a goal – for example, coming up with at least ten or twenty possible solutions to the problem.

If our complex problem was to rectify a budget deficit, we could explore two categories of solutions: increasing income and reducing outgoings. Some ways to increase income might include increasing the prices of our products and services, altering our products or services to appeal to a wider market and therefore increase uptake, or seeking fundraised income. Some ways to reduce outgoings might include reducing our travel expenditure by moving certain services online, seeking more cost effective software and technology solutions, or making staff redundancies. Each of these solutions would have a different level of feasibility.

Feasibility is about whether something is possible and at what cost or level of difficulty. When generating a range of solutions, we can check that they are feasible by considering these key questions:

  • Does the solution have the potential to answer part of the complex problem we have explored?
  • Does the research that we have carried out suggest that the solution might work in solving part of the complex problem? 
  • Thinking about the causes and effects, would the solution have further effects that might be problematic?
  • If relevant, does the solution have the potential to be delivered within the required time, or would it take far too long to be considered?
  • If relevant, would the cost of putting the solution into practice be far too high? 

By generating lots of ideas and possible solutions, we are giving ourselves the best possible chance of successfully solving a complex problem. However, once we’ve done this, we should focus our energies on those with the highest likelihood of success.

4. Evaluating the potential solutions to choose the best approach to solving a complex problem

When evaluating complex problems, we can start by thinking about our primary goal, but also what some of the secondary goals are:

  • The primary goal is the main thing that you are trying to achieve. For example, how to increase the user base on a digital learning platform. This is usually posed as the main problem or question.
  • The secondary goals are those things that also matter. These are things that our solution also has to be able to do. For example, while we want to increase the platform’s user base, our secondary goals might be that we do not want to exceed a set budget, or that we also want to ensure that these users are engaging regularly with the platform’s content. These secondary goals, therefore, also act as constraints on what the solution will do.

One of the things that make complex problems challenging to deal with is that sometimes the secondary goals are not always known at the outset. Instead, they emerge as the complex problem is explored, and some of the trade-offs between different choices become apparent. 

Remember that not everyone will see the strengths and weaknesses in the same way, depending on their diverse perspectives and whether they have other goals that they are trying to achieve from the solution. Something which is an advantage to one person might be a disadvantage to another – for example, more parking might make it easier for someone to travel to a shopping mall. Still, for the local resident, the additional pollution and traffic from more people driving to the mall is a significant disadvantage.

When we think about complex problems, we have probably already done some research, and thought about causes and effects and how those link together. Another challenge of complex problems is that solving part of them might lead to negative secondary effects. For example, trying to increase footfall in the local mall through increasing car parking spaces would cost the council money, so they then reduce spending on something else like street cleaning. This might make the town dirtier and more polluted and reduce wildlife across the town.

Therefore, it is a good idea to evaluate potential solutions not just in terms of whether they help to achieve the primary and secondary goals, but also whether they will have any secondary effects that could be damaging.

Applying complex problem solving skills in the workplace

When complex problems occur in the workplace you may need to work with others, either internally with colleagues, or externally with those from other organisations to increase your knowledge and understanding before you seek to come up with any solution to the problem. When seeking to build your understanding on a complex issue, try to pay close attention to any source of information and seek to use what you have found to good effect. 

Whether the organisation is big or small, decisions can affect many people and their daily responsibilities. By fully exploring the causes and effects of a problem in the workplace, you might see a number of positive outcomes for you, your colleagues and the wider organisation.  

Employees could be given the task of coming up with a range of possible options to solve a complex problem they have. Once a range of options have been noted, the organisation may ask those individuals to look at how feasible different options. Try to keep in mind what is important to the company when considering the range of solutions.

At work, you may find as you solve one part of a complex problem, secondary effects are revealed, causing issues that were not expected. In any business or organisation these effects will need to be considered in advance and dealt with promptly so as to not have any negative consequences. Being able to respond in a calm, measured way to evaluate the situation, and adapt plans as appropriate will mean the primary goal can still be achieved.

To learn more about complex problems and how to solve them, visit our Universal Framework pages for problem solving skills.

To start building problem solving skills across your team or business, explore our Employer Programme

  1. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/defining-the-skills-citizens-will-need-in-the-future-world-of-work