Addressing complex challenges
October 25, 2019
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Four ways to solve complex challenges

FOUR WAYS TO ADDRESS complex business challenges.

Organisations need to create time and space for senior managers and leaders to consider the type of problems faced today. Read more.

  • Simple problems are clear to us and we know what’s required. Solutions approach: categorising issues.
  • Complicated problems are understood by most, but we rely on experts to show us what to do. Solutions approach: analysing issues.
  • Chaotic problems are not immediately obvious, nor is what to do. Solutions approach: trying to steady the ship.
  • Complex problems and their solutions are unknown to anyone in the system. Solutions approach: feeling our way through a continual process of prototyping, testing and learning, experimenting and discovering.

Why managers struggle to address complex challenges

Complex challenges do not conform to traditional analysis of cause and effect. They exhibit two characteristics that businesses hate: ambiguity and uncertainty. The people who struggle most to address complex challenges are those who have developed within the system. Usually, leaders have earned their stripes by solving problems categorised as complicated. They tend to hire technical experts like themselves to help. But solutions to complicated issues do not work in the complex space. Organisations need someone from outside the system — or someone inside with the capacity to think outside the system.

Techniques to address complex challenges

A number of approaches can have a dramatic and positive impact on addressing complex business challenges. Some of these include:

  • Generating Story;
  • Managing State of Mind;
  • Exploring Synergy;
  • Thinking in Systems.

1. Generating story

When you and your team think about a complex problem, observe what metaphors you are using. These stories are windows into the mental models that we hold, which can often be limiting and emotionally draining. Try conjuring up an image that is positive or even exhilarating, such as herding sheep; steering a skidding car, drifting in a hot-air balloon; hiking to an unmarked crossroads.

2. State of Mind

It’s important when addressing complex challenges to stay positive, alert and curious. People who practise Neuro-Lingustic Programming talk about resourceful states; others talk about mindfulness. A powerful approach is to take an attitude of enquiry, observing what is happening at various places around the system, posing questions and experimenting. Working with diverse stakeholders improves the quality of data.

3. Exploring Synergy

Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. Creating synergy means generating arrangements that benefit a number of parties, or stakeholders — sometimes referred to as a ‘system win’. Synergy comes through collaboration. To engage stakeholders they need to be involved in defining a purpose in which they can believe, with values that they share, rules for interacting and tools to help them think together. A powerful ingredient is difference. With trust, we can use this for creative conflict. Working with opposites and connecting across difference allows us to integrate insights and create new possibilities — to innovate.

4. Systems Thinking

Systems thinking involves exploring the interrelation between elements, and how change at one point creates an effect at other places — the so-called system dynamics. It’s important to define and explore the problem, resisting the temptation to solve it. Understanding, or ‘seeing’ the whole system requires us to probe it at many different points, which we can do by questioning everything together and sharing the experiences and data of other people inside and outside. Processes of action and reflection facilitate learning and incremental change.

Taking action

Create time and space for senior managers and leaders to consider the type of problems they are facing. Consider bringing in help from someone outside your system.

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