Problem Solving Skills for the Future

Learning complex thinking is uncomfortable. Complexity is, after all, the realm of unknown unknowns.

The Cynefin Framework is a conceptual framework created in 1999 by Mary E. Boone and Dave J. Snowden while working for IBM Global Services. It classifies the issues leaders face into five contexts, defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. It offers decision-makers a “sense of place” from which to view their perceptions, and make better decisions.

Obvious or simple is the domain of best practice, or known knowns. Problems in this realm can be solved by applying rules or best practices. There is rarely disagreement or doubt about what needs to be done.

Complicated is the domain of experts, the realm of the known unknowns. Relating cause and effect requires expertise and analysis, but once the problem has been analyzed, the course of action is clear: apply the appropriate good operating practice.

Complex, on the other hand, is the context of the unknown unknowns, where the relation between cause and effect is known only in retrospective. “Complexity is more a way of thinking about the world than a new way of working with mathematical models1.” Complex systems are dynamic. They involve large numbers of interacting elements. Interactions are non-linear. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Political entities, organizations, markets, the rainforest… are examples of complex realities.

Solutions to complex problems can’t be imposed. There is no ‘right solution’. Deciding on the criteria to be used to evaluate possible solutions is part of solving problems in this realm.

Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux. In this domain, we can understand why things happen only in retrospect2.

Finally, a problem is chaotic when it’s too confusing to wait for a knowledge-based response. Because cause and effect are unclear, we need to establish certain level of order first, sense where stability lies, and try to turn what’s chaotic into the realm of complexity.

Guess what kind of problem solving skills will give you an unfair advantage and won’t get you replaced by a robot, automation, or a clever machine learning algorithm anytime soon. “Work is moving yet again. The move from Simple to Complicated that was a hallmark of the twentieth century is being outpaced by a move from Complicated to Complex and Chaotic3.”

To learn to navigate the sea of complexity, you need a sense of curiosity and the habit to notice the nature of things around you. You need to nurture the ability to learn new things. Expose yourself to complex situations, where identifying the problems is part of the challenge, leaving behind the shallow and safe waters of what’s just complicated and tactical.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

  1. cfr HBR, November 2007. A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. SNOWDEN, David J. and BOONE, Mary E. 
  2. cfr HBR, November 2007, idem
  3. Taylor Pearson, The Commoditization of Credentialism: Why MBAs and JDs Can’t Get Jobs
competitive-advantage complexity cynefin decision-making frameworks learning problem-solving

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