On the complexity of change: What problem do you have?

It’s too difficult! Does this really have to be so hard? You are being complicated.

Have these thoughts crossed your mind? Every day? Each hour? Fleetingly? Or have they lingered, recurred? Made you swear or resign? Or you buckled down and tried harder? I know for me it has been all of the above. And more. I have to ask, though. All of these feelings and experiences are subjective. It depends on us whether or not and to what degree we perceive something – a task, a request, a plan, an experience, a process … – as hard and challenging or as easy and quick. Yet, many of the problems or challenges we face or see others tackling “contribute” in and of themselves to being more complicated than others. Why?

At first sight, the answer is trivial. Such processes are not only complicated, they are complex. Complex problems.

I believe it is useful to take a good look at their complexity. At bare minimum, we know better what we are dealing with; at best, we arrive at a path to a solution and—with a little bit of luck—get a feeling of ease and simplicity.

Let’s put on our theoretical lens. (Very helpful, remember?) What is a problem? And what makes many of them complex?

Let’s pretend you have not encountered the concept of problem before. Let’s take a fresh quasi-naïve look.

So, you stare at your very first problem … What is happening? The process you look at is in state A. You want to, have to, plan to have the process reach state B. There is a hurdle, an obstacle between state A and state B. It’s easy, right? Solving that problem involves overcoming the obstacle and getting the process from the current state A to the desired state B.

The management consultant and researcher David Snowden distinguishes four different types of problems. I will call them simple, linear, complex, and chaotic problems.

Simple. You get up in the morning. You want some coffee (desired state B). There is no coffee; the pot is empty (current state A). The obstacle is minimal: fresh coffee needs to be brewed. You have done it a thousand times. You know exactly what to do, without having to analyze the current state and its context, available tools and avenues, and possible solutions. This is a simple problem. It presents itself, you immediately recognize it, automatically know the details of the desired state B – a nice cup of dark roasted coffee, no milk or sugar because its acidity are low and neither is needed.

Linear. You have had your coffee. The day can start, but first you decide to immediately wash your cup. And! When you pour water in the sink, you realize the drain is blocked (current state A). (The desired state B is an unblocked sink drain, of course. The obstacle is the drain has to be unblocked.) You analyze the situation. You look and think, you poke around. What is blocking the drain? How stubborn is the blockage? You look at some contextual factors: how urgent is it? how much time do I have? what tools do I have at home? what am I able and willing to do? who could help? how much does it cost to call a plumber? and when are they gonna come? You do this analysis of state A and its context once. You know how to do it. You match the result of your analysis with an appropriate course of action, such as pouring hot water or drainage cleaner down the drain, removing the elbow underneath yourself and cleaning it, notifying the landlord or building manager, or calling a plumber … If this is indeed a linear problem, then this course of action will produce a result. With a bit of luck – and skill and effort – the drain is unblocked. And the cups of the future can be washed. A linear problem like this one requires analysis. Both the analysis and overcoming the obstacle require a skill set and some labor. Linear problems have a best solution, which is the one that most likely and most efficiently leads to the desired state B. You can consult an expert who will present, and often implement, the required solution to/for you.

Since the third type is called complex problems. You are assuming right: neither linear nor simple problems are complex. The general problem of problem-solving is, as David Snowden pointed out, that most problems we encounter in our daily lives, with our and other people’s’ health, at work, in relationships, in politics, with the environment, in history, … are neither simple nor linear.

I am going to hazard a guess: most problems you have encountered, witnessed, heard about are complex. So, in the next post—you have been reading for long enough—I will take a closer look at these omnipresent complex problems.