Problems are less scary once you are able to break down the factors that make them complex and difficult.

We fear problems because they often seem insurmountable from the get-go. What can help is a framework to assess the difficulty and complexity of a problem before starting to work on the solution.

Former Director of the IBM Knowledge Institute, Dave Snowden, developed the Cynefin Framework to help business leaders make better decisions. This is a system that helps decision makers make sense of the complex and complicated world as well as problems that we have to navigate at all times. 

The Cynefin framework defines a problem as “a perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo.”.

What this says is, for instance, what you expect a working project to be is a project that is achieving the intended results in the planned time. When the time or results are not met, it is seen as a problem that needs a course correction to get it back to the expected state – which is the solution.

The types of problems we experience evolve with time. A math problem in school might have been our biggest hurdle of the day back then, while today we need to make decisions that affect us, a team and a budget.

With that in mind, we have to acknowledge that problems have different levels of complexities that call for various ways to troubleshoot them. The Cynefin framework indicates precisely how situations can be of different complexities, thus calling for a different approach for each. We cannot solve problems with a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Let’s look at three levels of complexity that you can expect to encounter at work:

Level 1: Obvious

Problem example: You walk into the main office space early in the morning before everyone else and switch the lights on but none of them work. You could guess that you might have tapped the wrong button – which could be the root issue. If that is the case, your solution would be to make sure you tap the right button. The cause would be that you pressed the wrong button and the effect being the lights not turning on.

This is an obvious problem, which is simplistic with a very short problem-to-solution journey, oftentimes having one solution. It is a scenario that is common, predictable and repetitive. At work, there might already be a process whenever an obvious problem happens, such as a script and procedures for handling angry customers. This type of problem is considered obvious because the cause-effect and the root issue can be identified by anyone, you don’t need an expert to analyse it.

What to do: Sense-Categorize-Respond

In dealing with obvious problems, you want to assess the situation, identify the type of problem (obvious, complicated or complex) and find a way that best solves it. There is not much detail in finding the solution. There might already be a solution for it either from knowing how others dealt with it or a process created to deal with such a problem.

Level 2: Complicated

Problem example continuation: You discovered that the lights were not working, but not because you tapped the wrong button. You tried all the buttons available but none of them turned on the lights. Your next guess might be something is wrong with the wiring, the bulb or the switch itself. Your one problem is now branching into multiple possible solutions with an unclear root issue and cause-effect.

This is a complicated problem – with known, unknown aspects – that has a longer problem-to-solution journey while offering you multiple possible root causes and solutions. You will notice that there could be a gap of knowledge or skills to be able to solve the problem. At this level, the more specialised you are with a given problem, the more obvious the root cause and cause-effect relationship will be to you.

What to do: Sense-Analyse-Respond

For a complicated problem it is best to have an expert involved. You start with assessing the situation, analysing the problem (best with an expert) and solving the problem with a fitting process. The word “analyse” is used here as the process of breaking a problem into smaller components. 

In regards to our main example, breaking down the mechanism of what makes a light turn on is an analysis – this is why you considered that there could be something wrong with the wiring.

Level 3: Complex

Problem example continuation: From our main example, let’s say the light would need electricians to fix it. Now, the office will be dark for everyone to work in. The company has a number of office spaces that have big windows that provide enough light. However, these spaces are not large enough to accommodate everyone. Should they be cramped into the said office spaces? Or, should everyone be given a special pass today to work from home?

You might also be wondering if everyone is going to be okay with any of these solutions.

And if certain people were okay to stay and work in a cramped space, would they be able to be as productive as usual?

A complex problem can seem vague which can make it impossible for you to derive the single best solution, as well as to identify the root cause and cause-effect relationship. It involves unpredictable elements that could change at any time. In most cases, if it involves human beings, you have to expect resistance coming from different beliefs and perspectives about what the best solution could be. 

Therefore, a complex problem requires collaboration in coming up with a solution that is robust and effective enough to count in the numerous factors, varying perspectives and the possible outcomes.

There are 4 characteristics that a complex problem has:

  1. The number of possible solutions is so large that it prevents detailed search in finding the best one.
  2. Deals with an unpredictable changing nature – a solution that worked last year might not be suitable to be used today.
  3. Difficult to be solved with 1 solution -there are numerous restraints from it being solved, so instead of having one solution that fits all, it becomes a series of problem-solving actions discovering how one solution leads to another before finally resolving the issue.
  4. Numerous conflicting objectives – a solution that might lead to an improvement on one side, might cause a disservice on another side of the project. 

What to do: Probe-Sense-Respond

Solving a complex problem means a series of problem-solving actions that can take time. You want to bombard the problem with questions to clarify details in your search for the root cause and its cause-effect. Manage your expectations here that you most likely would not find the solution in one attempt. Amass knowledge, expertise and experience through collaborating with others, instead. From one problem-solving checkpoint to another, take a step back and remind yourself to be patient while looking for patterns that help you better understand the problem.