Addressing complex problems: an enquiry
ADDRESSING COMPLEX PROBLEMS, such as climate heating or organisational behaviour, is itself a particularly knotty issue.
It’s because these systemic issues are fundamentally different to the kinds of ‘straight-line’ puzzles we are more used to solving. By their nature, complex problems are ‘messy’ and respond unpredictably when we try to intervene. Models developed in one setting are rarely transferable to another, even though the contexts may seem similar.
At Contented, we bring together a diverse range of skills for communication before and after decision-making — including critical thinking, facilitation and coaching, journalism and artistry, psychology and education. Our people have worked across business, policy-making and local communities in a number of countries and we’re bringing the experience of this network to explore the role that communications can play in addressing complex challenges. We’re taking an enquiring approach with the aim of helping discover and explore hidden connections.
We want to help local authorities and companies to generate insights and share their knowledge and learning: our company purpose is to shine a light on responsible innovation. These pages represent some of our insights from our enquiry; by nature they are a work in progress. We welcome any additional reflections and co-enquirers, so please do get in touch.
A curious hypothesis: exploring innovation
Our working hypothesis is that we need to approach complex problems and challenges from an entirely different paradigm to traditional engineering thought. In other words, a new underlying system of ideas, beliefs, rules and knowledge. “Many challenges are too large and complex for individuals to solve,” says communications specialist Gerard Davies. “There’s a wealth of scientific evidence that they require focus on the wider system and the relationships between all the elements within it.”
The Cynefin framework offers a series of decision-making domains to help identify how people perceive situations, and to make sense of behaviour. Welsh for habitat, Cynefin was designed by knowledge management researcher David Snowden in 1999 while at IBM. The illustration above by Edwin Stoop shows some of the characteristics of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic challenges.
An approach: action learning
Working within strange paradigms means taking ourselves outside our comfort zones. We need to stay acutely aware of, and challenge, our most basic assumptions about how things work. “As a physicist by training,” says Davies, “I know for example that in nano-technology, the laws of nature play out in unusual ways; under pressure, something may even expand. As a musician, I am familiar with the power of non-verbal ways of knowing; if we don’t pay attention with all our senses, we miss vital data.”
To test our hypothesis, we work together as a learning community. We design small change experiments in our own environments, generating and sharing data, reflections and learning. We repeat the cycle through a number of iterations. This process is known as action learning. We continually develop and refine questions, which we use to probe the system we are trying to change. To focus on the wider system, we need to participate within the environment, society and economy that make up the three ‘pillars’ of sustainable development.
Some big questions
How can we help individuals to understand their roles as change agents? This is not just about altering their own behaviours, but championing change within their organisations and communities to embed sustainable behaviours across a wider tapestry.
How should government and business teams react to the climate emergency? While international and central government have a huge role to play, it’s the local teams who, in practice, are saddled with the burden of coordinating responses on the ground. Where do they start? How can they identify and prioritise the real challenges?
How can business, public and third sector work together for prosperity of both planet and people around the world? For example, creating an environment to nurture disruptive networks of startups, invest with responsible finance and manage risk. Climate risks and resilience need to be at the heart of financial decision making. A key challenge for organisations in the developed world is to understand how they can identify and quantify the impact of their actions on the world. Why are organisations taking so long to reduce their carbon footprint?
How can companies tell the story of who they are, what they are doing and why they are making a difference? As well as marketing to increasingly conscious consumers, communications are critical in retaining and attracting staff — one of the highest business costs. As prospective employees question the credentials of companies they are considering applying to, existing staff are wondering what they can do each day to make the world a better place.
How can we deepen our participation in the wider system in order to really know it? What creative strategies can we design to facilitate emergence of new insights into our home. If eco-nomy is the management of the home, eco-logy is the knowledge of the home. How well must we know a place before we can manage it sustainably?