It’s always been the case that some problems are simple, some are more complicated and some are super complex.

Now, in a world of accelerating change, more and more problems facing leaders are in the complex category as the number of interconnections both internal and external starts to grow.

Most leaders however have been conditioned to focus on approaches that are appropriate to simple or complicated challenges and as a result they understandably create cultures, processes and structures suited to solving that type of problem. But today’s complexity needs a different approach.

Simple Complicated ComplexSo what do I mean by our approaches to simple, complicated and complex challenges?

Let’s start with the simple

Some problems clearly have a simple cause and effect type relationship which is obvious to everyone. They have a ‘right’ answer and once you know how to deal with them, you will always get repeatable results. Examples of these simple problems might be calculating a safe working load for some piece of equipment or calculating the effect of an interest rate on a sum of money over time. There will be a known standard way of working these things out and when you do, everyone will get the same answer. True ‘best practice’ approaches nearly alway fit in this pattern.

As leaders we simply need the appropriate knowledge so we can identify the problem and know how to solve it. We can then tell (in a command and control way if necessary) our people what to do in order to deal with the challenge.

Getting Complicated

Complicated problems by contrast also have cause-effect relationships that can be worked out, but they are not immediately apparent. To work things out, we often need to bring in experts who strive to devise an optimum solution. Often there are several solutions to the problem which are similarly valid. Examples of a complicated problem might be creating a commercial legal contract. You often meet with others, work out what needs to be covered in creating some heads of terms, and then work with a lawyer to draft a solution. If you give the same problem to three different lawyers, you’d probably get three different solutions, but all equally valid. The solutions created can often be categorised as ‘good practice’.

From a leadership behaviour point of view, we need to work with our teams, often including experts (consultants, lawyers, software developers) to work out a valid solution. Collaborative, coordinating behaviour, together with clear decision making, are key for these types of problems.

Dealing with the complex

With really complex problems( which many of today’s problems are), cause and effect relationships are often only known in retrospect and it’s hard to predict what the best solution is going to be at the onset. Even when a solution is uncovered the complex situation is seldom static and so repeatable solutions are hard to come by. Solutions emerge over time when we try something out, gather data and feedback and then apply what we learnt.

Take launching a new product. With constant change in expectations, technology, disruptive entrants and economic and social conditioning, there is no way of really knowing how the customer will respond to your offer. Instead you have to make a best guess of what they want in the form of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), rapidly test it, and then gather and act on feedback.

How we improve our people’s engagement scores or productivity is equally complex and would benefit from the same approach. All too often we apply the ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’ approach of working with our experts and come up with a solution such as (another) restructure. And all too often this fails.

Leaders faced with complex problems need to focus on being enablers and facilitators of nimble, agile teams who experiment with small, focused interventions, gather lots of feedback, rapidly learn and adapt and build and test out the the next iteration.

Are we taking the right approach?

How many of the challenges leaders tackle now fall into the complex category? Looking at options for growth, improving customer or employee experience, reducing costs or innovating new services are all complex and highly interconnected problems.

Given this, why do we still approach these challenges as if they were simple or complicated problems? It’s largely a result of our previous conditioning, as well as the existing cultures, systems and cultures within our organisations

The good news is that we can change this and I believe that the leaders with the mindset, skills and behaviours that support agile approaches to these complex problems are the ones who will thrive and survive.

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