3 Steps to Define A Complex Problem Within Your Organization

3 Steps to Define A Complex Problem Within Your Organization

Complex problems are in a category of their own. Unlike complicated challenges which are technical in nature and can be solved time and again by experts who know what they’re doing, complex challenges are much harder to pin down from the start. Defining a complex problem starts with recognizing this categorical difference.

When you’re facing something complex, the old playbook no longer applies. You can’t just take the brand strategy that worked so well 3 years ago and use it again this year; you can’t just keep doing the same things in the market—as the market changes—and expect them to keep producing the same results; the products and services that your customers loved so much must change as your customers change. The old playbook is rendered obsolete almost as soon as it starts to work.

Complex challenges don’t call a time-out and await your response. This isn’t tortoise-and-hare territory where slow-and-steady wins the race. In fact, slow-and-steady is a recipe for disaster. When a disruptive force appears in your market, you can’t afford to be caught flat-footed, studying the situation for months, designing an elegant response for another few months, and then implementing it for months or years—you’ve been disrupted by then. When your customers start jumping ship for someone else’s solution, you’d better act fast first to keep them, then to win them back.

Complexity moves fast. It’s not step-by-step and linear, so you can’t be either – not when it comes to understanding what’s going on, deciding on a response, and executing on it. Think of how fast the digital landscape is changing, and customer expectations, and the needs and wants of your workforce, and the face of your competitors. When you are dealing with complexities like these, you’ve got to be fast enough to keep up. And they don’t come at you one at a time or in sequence, so you can’t handle them that way either.

You know you’re up against complexity when you just can’t get your hands around the challenge when what used to work has stopped working, when its impact is persistent and seemingly relentless, and when things are changing faster than you can detect, let alone absorb. All of these aspects of complexity make it categorically different; and your response to complexity must also be.

Step 1: Define your complexity. Start by recognizing that you don’t know what you don’t know and that you can’t approach this challenge the way you do others where clear patterns and known solutions exist.

Step 2: Step back and frame the challenge as a question. Ask about what’s happening and what it means, state whatever goals are relevant, make scope and timelines clear, and ask for actions in response. Make your question clear, compelling, and ambitious. For example:

  • What must we do starting now and over the next 18 months to make ourselves, our products and our services relevant to our customers again?
  • What will it take to grow by 30% over the next year while continuing to be a great company to work with and for?

Step 3: Acknowledge the complexity and articulate it so that others can understand it too.

With complexity, problem-definition and problem-solving will happen concurrently. Once you’ve given people a place to start, the further you and they get into solving, the greater shared clarity you’ll have on what you’re trying to solve and the closer you’ll get to solutions that work.

Originally published on Quora.


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