What are complex problems and why can’t you easily solve them?

complex problems: girl pondering

What are complex problems? In this post we define what complex problems are, explain why they can’t easily be solved, but give you a framework to help you solve complex problems.

The problem with complex problems

Are you struggling with an issue that you can’t seem to resolve?

Does it feel as if your normal problem solving skills have deserted you?

Do you have a sense that you can’t even to nail down the question, let alone come up with the answer?

If so, it could be because you’re coming at it with the wrong type of thinking.

Maybe the problem you are facing is complex, but you are thinking about it in a way that only really works on problems that are complicated.

Complicated? Complex? Aren’t these the just same thing?

In everyday language, they usually are.

But, there is a distinction between the two which can help us understand why some of the difficulties we face seem so intractable, no matter how much we try to think our way through them.

Complex problems: when it’s complicated

One of the things that we often do when we’re trying to resolve a difficult problem is to assume that an answer already exists and that we just need to use our powers of reasoning and analysis to find it.

We do this because we have often found it to be true.

And, if the problem is complicated, it is true.

Complicated problems are problems that have one or more solutions that can be worked out in advance.

They may not be easy to resolve, but with expert knowledge or assistance, it is possible to ascertain with a reasonable level of certainty what might happen if a given set of circumstances arises.

These are the kinds of problems that professionals routinely deal with. You examine the facts for patterns of cause and effect and apply your knowledge to determine, for example, what the next steps should be or what kinds of risks need to be managed.

In fact, these are the kinds of problems you would have routinely dealt with as technical or functional expert, before making the leap into management or leadership.

The trouble is, if a problem is complex, this way of thinking doesn’t help us at all.

What are complex problems?

This complicated/complex distinction comes from complexity theory which is concerned with the uncertainty and non-linearity present in complex systems.

You may not have thought about them in this way before, but we all operate within various complex systems on a daily basis.

Systems of this type are the sum of all of the people, processes, relationships, interactions and norms that exist and operate within the system. For example, our family is a complex system, the organisation we work for is a complex system and our industry is another complex system.

In complex systems, where there are large numbers of interactive elements, the webs of influence are so complex that the answers to some questions (e.g. “what would happen if…?”) are completely unpredictable. In fact, patterns of cause and effect are only really visible in hindsight.

These kinds of questions are complex problems and, because of the dynamic quality of complex systems, solutions to complex problems cannot be imposed upon the system.

Instead they emerge from the interactions that take place within the system.

The other important point about complex problems is that these are the problems that we face more often when in leadership roles, either in the workplace or as leaders at home or in the community.

Below is what complicated and complex problems look like side by side:

complex problems

In the light of this distinction, you might now be able to identify the problem you have been struggling with as a complex one.

And if you have been treating it like a complicated problem, that is it has felt so strange that that you can’t readily come up with the answer.

There is more on this distinction in this post about the Cynefin framework, which helps us understand complexity

The emergence of change

So, what you need to do is treat the question as a complex problem, not a complicated one.

In complex systems, all change is emergent – it reveals itself as a consequence of the interactions that occur within the system – and this is how solutions to complex problems are found.

This means you need try to create the circumstances that will allow your solutions to emerge for you.

You can do this by trying some ‘safe to fail experiments’.

This involves testing some possible solutions, step by step. You gain feedback from these experiments, adjusting your approach according to what you learn.

Safe to fail experiments

For example, in a health care setting, if a hospital is experiencing long wait times in the emergency department, a safe-to-fail experiment could involve trialing a new patient flow process or a new communication system between staff members.

The process is implemented for a limited period, and results are carefully tracked, probably with feedback obtained from patients and staff. Adjustments can be made, based on the feedback, and the adjusted process tracked again.

The goal is to test the solution on a small scale and observe the results to determine if it is effective before implementing it on a larger scale.

By conducting safe-to-fail experiments, the hospital can identify and implement solutions to complex problems in a low-risk manner.


Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, 2015 Stanford Business Books

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, Snowden, D. and Boone, M.E., 2007, HBR

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