The new tagline of this blog is “steps for taking action on complex problems” which was always the end goal of the previous “thinking towards the whole”. The change in focus came partly from realizing I was sketching out the same ideas over and over again in my journal, but there was no real purpose to them.
This is the framework of steps and skills that I have been thinking about as a way to create better solutions to complex problems.
First, what is a complex problem?
It’s a mess. It’s a situation that if you push it with some action doesn’t respond immediately in a consistent way. It’s one where you know you have competing forces that will affect the adoption ofa soluton. It’s one where you have to come up with a new approach to reach your desired goal.
The first step in most problem solving techiques is to define the problem. But when what you have is a mess, this is not a simple step. How you frame the question will have a large effect on the outcome. And you might not even know your desired end state with clarity.
Step 1: See from multiple perspectives
You can’t learn everything you need to know by standing in one place, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking at. It is like the blind men in the parable who have gone to see the elephant. Each can only describe what he can touch, relating the part to something familiar to him.
To understand a complex problem you need different perspectives, which usually means the stories of different individuals, each with their own biases and priorities.
Skills that are valuable in this step include:
- an open and responsive mind
- connecting and listening to others
- asking great questions
Step 2: Build a mental model
This is the central point. Somehow you have to put all the different pespectives into something that you can describe. It is only after you conceive of the idea that these pieces make up an elephant that you can decide what to do next. Sometimes this is a thing that must be done by an individual, other times it can be hashed out in a group.
Skills used in this step include:
- creative and design thinking
- systems thinking processes
- visualization techniques
- collaborative discussion
Step 3: Propose and execute actions
Just because you have an elephant doesn’t mean you will be able to do anything with it. You can hold the idea in your mind and nothing will change. The next step is to extrapolate and propose what should be done and to get other people to work to carry it out. Few messy and complex situations can be effectively changed by one person working alone, although one person is always needed to get things started.
Skills needed to carry out this step include:
- tactical and strategic planning
- ability to understand and influence others
- purposeful storytelling
Step Infinity: Review
As execution occurs, understanding changes. The situation itself changes. Individual responses need to be listened to. Potentially reimagining needs to take place.
A single model and plan can take us only so far. We can rest and see what happens as we carry out plans, but we always need to remember that things change and we will need to go through the process again to create the best possible solutions for the future.
My First Attempt
Nothing I have just said is a new idea. It has been all been spoken of before, although perhaps not in exactly this way. Combining it into this framework is what makes the most sense to me.
Within this framework and this blog I intend to bring together stories, techniques, books, and work by others that make it ever more possible to carry out these steps and develop these foundational skills. My longer term goal is to eventually produce a version of this framework that helps others work through their own complex problems.
If there is an area of particular interest to you, please contact me, so I can focus first on what is of immediate use.