Do you know that some problems are simple, while others are complicated, complex, or chaotic? Do you know the difference between them? Today I want to talk about how understanding the different types problems can help you face up to your challenges more effectively.
"We must not let the impressions carry us away so that we are not in control of ourselves, but we must receive them in such a way as to be in control of ourselves."
Types of Problems
A few weeks ago I was listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast and he was interviewing Albert Brooks who is a columnist for The Atlantic and a professor at Harvard who writes and researches happiness. Now I’ve been reading Albert’s column in The Atlantic for years, so I was really looking forward to the conversation. They went over a lot of different topics and ideas, but there was one that they briefly talked about that caught my attention because I didn’t quite understand it.
In the episode Albert talks about how his father taught him about complex and complicated problems, and that far too often, because we don’t understand the difference, we waste a lot of time and energy trying to solve problems in the wrong way. When we can understand what type of problem we’re dealing with, then we can start to apply the appropriate type of solution.
As I began thinking and researching about these ideas so that I could understand the distinctions, I came across some articles that talked about what is called the Cynefin (pronounced “ku-nev-in”) framework which was developed by Dave Snowden in 1999 while working for IBM. The more I read about this framework, it really helped me understand several types of problems, and how to approach each of them. So let’s dive in and discuss the four main types of problems.
First, we have simple or obvious problems. Simple problems are those where we can easily understand the problem, all issues are easily known, and relationship between cause and effect is clear and obvious. There are well established solutions, and any issues are easily resolved. This would be something like if you were baking cookies, you would need to get the ingredients from the store, follow a recipe, and bake the cookies for a set amount of time, and there you have your cookies
Complicated problems are ones that, while they may be difficult and challenging, they are solvable or tractable. It means that there is an absolute solution to them, and they can be completed.
A clear example of some complicated problems would be something like building a bridge, manufacturing a phone, or getting a college degree. There may be a lot of steps involved, and lots of moving parts, but the steps can be mapped out and followed, and the goal is quantifiable and can be reached. Generally, if it is a problem that can be solved, and it is not simple, then it is probably complicated.
Complex problems are problems that have no known solutions, just best attempts. Complex challenges are creative problems, with many unknown, unpredictable moving parts. When you work on complex problems you often won’t know if your solution is effective until a strategy actually works, and even then there maybe tradeoffs that don’t show themselves right away. Complex problems are dynamic, and there will probably be lots of failure as you try different solutions.
Examples of complex challenges are things like creating a loving relationship, running a campaign, or ending poverty. Complex problems are not problems that can usually be solved, but are problems that are managed on a continuing basis. They are fluid and ever changing, so the solution is always evolving. Complex problems are often confused with complicated problems, and people try to solve them using the same methods as solving complicated problems, which usually ends up failing and often making things worse than they were before.
The last main type of problem is chaotic problems. Chaotic problems are usually ones of circumstances that are out of your control. In these circumstances it is usually important to respond quickly, and the goal is usually to establish order or stability.
Examples of chaotic problems would be emergencies such as a car crash, natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes, or chaotic environments like getting caught in a mob of people. There is not a lot of time to sit and think about a solution, and circumstances are often unpredictable or in a state of flux.
While chaotic problems are very reactionary, certain aspects can be prepared for, though they are always just best guess scenarios and are subject to change as the situation unfolds. Creating an emergency or crisis plan can help mitigate some aspects of a chaotic situation. For example, firefighters think through as many contingencies as possible and train for things to go wrong so that they know how to keep calm and respond effectively when they do.
What’s the Problem?
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”
So why is it important to understand what type of problem we are dealing with?
When we understand the type of problem that we are dealing with, it helps us to be more effective as to how we approach it, and the kinds of solutions we can bring to bear. If it is a simple problem we can find some straightforward solutions and choose one, and have satisfactory results.
The most important thing that we need to understand when dealing with simple and complicated problems, is that we misjudge them. We may have a simple problem that we overcomplicate, or a complicated problem that we think is simple, and we approach it the wrong way. By learning to discern what kind of problem we’re dealing with, we can address it properly and make progress with the right kind of framework.
When we confuse complicated and complex problems and try to deal with a complex problem in the same way that you work on a complicated problem, you’re going to try to manage unpredictable issues as if they were predictable.
A clearer example would be if you tried to manage your marriage the same way you manage building a bridge. There are clear engineering methods and standard practices that have been developed over the centuries about the best ways to build a bridge. By following these methods and standards, given the correct materials, competent workers, and enough time you can get a bridge built correctly.
Whereas a relationship is something that is always changing, and is never the same from person to person, from day to day, or even situation to situation. There is no perfect blueprint to create a good relationship. There’s no perfect formula that you can follow that will guarantee happiness with another person. It is about trying things and seeing if they work. Often, they won’t, and that’s when you have to be willing to be wrong and try something else.
Personal Development is Complex
As I was researching this, it occurred to me that one of the main reasons that self development and personal growth is challenging and often made even harder, is that it is a complex problem but is often treated as a complicated problem. Meaning, that it is not something that can simply be solved with some blueprint like engineering a bridge or a building. While there are aspects of personal growth that this type of problem solving can be useful for, the overarching challenges for growth is a complex problem.
Our physical health is also something that is a complex problem. Our bodies are complex systems which is why diagnosing illnesses or creating an optimal diet or workout plan are not a “one size fits all”v. This is why, for example, some people with cancer may respond very well to a particular treatment while others will not. There are so many factors at play and many of them are unknown.
So how do we approach each of these types of problems?
For simple or obvious problems we should look to find the best or most obvious solution. The thing to look out for when dealing with simple problems is to make sure that we don’t confuse it with a complicated problem. Otherwise we may oversimplify a complicated problem or overcomplicate a simple problem. With simple problems, there are well established and accepted solutions that are known to work. Simple problems are common, and they are easily solvable.
For example, if you wanted to wake up in the morning at a particular time, you would purchase an alarm clock or use the alarm on your phone. If you need to secure your house, you buy a lock and only give a key to the people that need it. If you want to stop drinking alcohol, the simplest solution is to remove all alcohol from your house and do not purchase any more. If bars are a temptation for you, then choose non-alcoholic bar, or find some other place to meet up with people.
Now understand, that the last solution is for a part of what could be a more complex problem. If you are an alcoholic and your body is addicted, then simply removing alcohol from your life is going to be more challenging than just removing it from your home. But I hope you get my point in that in many cases, the obvious solution is often the best solution to simple problems.
“First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”
From a stoic perspective, simple and complicated problems are ones that we have control over. Complicated problems are often a lot of simple problems wrapped up into a project. By finding and implementing the best tried and true solutions for simple problems, and the various components of complicated problems in our lives, we can reduce the amount of time and energy we spend on them. This frees up our energy for the dealing with the complex and chaotic problems that we face.
Complicated problems are best solved by breaking them down into the smallest tasks possible, and finding the best way to accomplish those tasks. Many problems that we try to solve in this arena have methodologies about how to manage them. This is generally how most construction and software projects are managed. The more problems in your life that you can identify as complicated, will allow you to use existing methodologies to help you solve them.
For example, if you wish to be more organized and declutter your home or workspace, there are solutions as to how to accomplish it. At a very basic level, you get rid of the things you don’t need or use. Then you figure out a place for each of the things that you do own, then make sure that when you are done using something, you put it back in its place. There are of course many variations on this, and there are various solutions that you can use to organize your life. It just depends on finding which one works for you, and sticking to it.
“Show me someone for whom success is less important than the manner in which it is achieved. Of concern for the means, rather than the ends, of their actions…I want to see him. This is the person I have looked for a long time, the true genius.”
The stoics give us guidelines of how best to deal with complex problems by teaching us to know and live our principles. Complex problems are hard because there is often no clear way forward. By having a clear set of principles, we are able to make better choices, try things out, see what works, and make adjustments accordingly. Things like finding your life’s purpose, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, or learning to be truly happy, are all things that will vary from person to person because there isn’t a “one size fits all” kind of solution.
Solutions to complex problems are the most challenging, as they take the most creative effort, as well as the ability to try, fail, and keep on trying. Complex problems are ones that change and morph over time. As soon as we think we understand the problem, we may find other issues that we were unable to anticipate because the problem is, well, complex.
As I said earlier, I think that most mental and physical health problems fall into the category of complex problems. We often don’t know or understand the things that hold us back. As we seek to understand the things that keep us from making progress, we are often surprised by what we discover. Our path forward is something that is unique to us and no one else. It takes creativity and resilience for us to figure out solutions for the many challenges we face. We may think that we understand how to move forward, only to find that we missed something that dealt us a heavy setback. What worked for us last week might not be as effective this week. The important thing is to keep pressing forward and keep trying.
Mental health issues such as dealing with trauma or depression, are complex issues that take a lot of work to deal with. Often, as we unravel one issue, we stumble onto another that we didn’t even know was there. We might be making progress in one area, only to falter in another due to some unexpected circumstance that took us by surprise.
Physical health issues are also complex problems. We might want to get in shape, but find that because of injuries or other issues, a specific plan that works for one person may not work for us. In my own case, because of issues with my shoulder, I’ve had to be very careful in my daily workouts not exacerbate my injuries. So as I work through my routines, I’m not able to do them exactly the way I want, but I notice how my body is responding, and adjust as necessary. I also may add or remove some exercises depending on how I’m feeling that day.
“Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even, being withstood if they have been trained for in advance. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings.”
Lastly, the stoics give us lots of ideas of how to work through chaotic problems. Learning to manage our emotions, accepting that there are circumstances that we cannot change, and doing our best to remain true to the principles that we have internalized can help us weather the storms that life throws our way.
Tools like premeditatio malorum, which is imagining all the things that can go wrong can help us figure out beforehand how we might deal with situations that we otherwise never would have imagined. This is what crisis and emergency management is all about. We think about what things that can go wrong, and then we work on trying to prepare how we can handle those situations the best.
Chaotic problems are generally rare and are hard to prepare for. Even with the best planning, we also understand that even if we prepare for as many things that can go wrong, we know we probably won’t get them all. Flexibility, grace under pressure, and the ability to adapt quickly are key attributes needed to handle chaotic problems. It’s really about doing the best you can.
Life is full of problems, but understanding the nature of the problems that we face can help us to apply the correct tools. Some problems will have straightforward solutions or processes that we can apply. Complex problems will take lots of resilience, and a willingness to try and fail, and use our principles to guide us when we are unsure of what the next steps might be. Chaotic problems will call on us to keep control of our emotions, accept our circumstances, and do the best we can. The next time you find yourself dealing with a problem in your life, take a moment and see if you can identify what type of problem you’re dealing with, and take the appropriate action.
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