The Difference Between Complex and Complicated Problems and How to Solve Them

The Difference Between Complex and Complicated Problems and How to Solve Them

Recognizing that you’re sometimes not in control of your organization’s complex challenge provides the foundation for moving forward. Yes, we know it can be difficult to step back as an established, proven leader with a track record of guiding people personally and professionally and say, “I don’t know. I’m confounded. I’m stuck. I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure how to look for the answers.”

When it comes to looking for the answers and driving change, many leaders operate under the prevailing wisdom that when things get particularly confounding, they can always outsource the challenge to a consulting firm. But what happens when the consultants can’t deal with the situation any better than you can? Now you’re really forced to admit defeat: “I am not up to solving this challenge.”

As a leader, people around you expect answers, guidance, strategy, clarity, confidence, decisiveness, and . . . leadership. They want you to establish objectives and map a way forward. But you’re staring at the situation and don’t know what to do.

First, determine whether the challenge is complex:

  • Complicated Challenges: Complicated challenges have straight-line, step-by-step solutions that can be implemented by experts with the necessary skills and experience. For complicated challenges, you can either solve them on your own if you happen to have the expertise or find someone who does and have them do for you what they’ve done for others many times before. You would generally refer to a complicated challenge as ‘technical’.
  • Complex Challenges: Complex challenges, on the other hand, are creative in nature, with many seemingly unpredictable and interconnected moving parts. They are often confounding head-scratchers, without a clear, straight-line path to a solution, and you can only know that you’ve found an effective strategy once it works. New solutions are needed each time you encounter a complex challenge.

Fixing a car is complicated; disrupting the automotive industry is complex. Building a fence is complicated; building a strong relationship with a neighbor is complex.

It’s Not the Problem You’re Solving, It’s How You’re Approaching Problem-Solving

Before deciding how you will solve a significant problem, you must first recognize what kind of challenge it is: If it’s complicated, find an expert to solve it for you; if it’s complex, you need a wholly different approach. The expert-centric approach that works so well on complicated challenges, does not work on complex challenges.

For complex challenges, you need a ‘we-are-the-experts approach’ that engages all the right people from inside and around your organization in co-creating a solution they know will work. When they are in the act of finding solutions, give them direct access to each other and equip them to effectively and efficiently reach a shared understanding about the challenge and how to overcome it. And when they’ve found their solution, they will know what needs to be done and what needs to be tried, and they will be mobilized to act.

In our new book, Cracking Complexity, we get into much greater detail about how to distinguish between complicated and complex challenges, and then explain what it takes to identify and engage your high-variety group in solving the latter.

It all starts, however, with making that distinction and then choosing your approach accordingly.

Adapted from Quora.


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