Story Construction

Complex Problems

June 15, 2011

It seems like the problems we are tasked to solve in our projects or personal lives are increasingly complex. These problems have several variables. The direction any variable takes has an impact on another variable. In other words, if something moves upward, it means something else must move downward. It requires that we view the entire system as the problem instead of just focusing on one variable. At the end of the day, the goal is always to solve the problem in the most productive way possible and not just to optimize any one variable in the equation.

A powerful metaphor for complex problem solving is the Rubik’s® Cube. I have one in my office. It is a complex problem. It has many moving parts, and the goal is ALWAYS to solve the cube, not just a side. Also, it is impossible to solve the cube purely one side at a time. Just as soon as you solve one side, you need to be prepared to sacrifice the perfection of that side temporarily in order to make progress on the other sides. Again, the goal is to solve the cube, not just a side or to make measured progress one side at a time.

As I see it, the challenge in solving complex problems is in fact clearly seeing the problem (the cube) to solve. What is the goal and what are the variables that impact the goal? What is the best way to navigate the variables to properly solve the problem? How do the variables relate to one another? Who are the smart minds I need around this problem? Which ‘side’ experts do I need and which ‘cube’ experts should be part of my team? How can I assemble my team from the start of the problem-solving and not part way through when we are unwilling to revisit our progress?

I see examples of poor problem solving all around our industry and in our society too; linear thinking, limited participants, too little too late. Many problem solvers do not even know there is a cube to solve; they get lost in the linear process of solving one side at a time. It is frustrating to see and it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the last six months, we have been asked to participate in many examples of complex problem solving. It is very challenging, fun, and rewarding. It is amazing how quickly and productively problems can be analyzed and solutions advanced when you understand that solving the cube is the goal and when a team of committed problem solvers focuses on the goal. We are good at leading and participating in complex problem solving.

It is more important now than ever to be good at complex problem solving. The stewardship of resources (money, time, energy, trust, etc.) is at stake. What is the cube that is before you and can we be helpful?

Mike Espeset

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