Not all problems are created equal

Problem solving is not a simple process; not all problems are created equal and they can’t always be solved with a one-size-fits all approach. Using the same management style or decision-making approach in all situations can result in costly mistakes for your team and organization. How you respond in a crisis or emergency for example, should be different to how you manage the launch of a new product. Having a useful framework to access your situation and adapt your leadership style accordingly is essential.

David Snowden’s Cynefin framework is a tool that does just that. It’s a widely used tool for those working in constantly-evolving, dynamic environments, dealing with uncertainty and risk. According to Snowden, problems can be categorised into simple, complicated, complex, choatic or less frequently, disorder. When it comes to managing a situation, effective leaders know how to categorise the situation into one of these 5 “domains”, defined by cause and effect relationships. Doing so allows managers to approach a problem and behave appropriately. It encourages you to be flexible and adaptable when making decisions, and adjust your management style to fit your unique situation.

Some challenges we face can be defined as simple. There is an easy link between case and effect and are generally easy to solve. Complicated problems on the other hand, are those whereby the path between cause and effect is not direct and requires expertise and analysis. It’s often recommend to ‘get the experts in’ in this situation.

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let’s explore the nitty gritty domain of problems; complex ones. These are defined by Snowden as those problems “where cause and effect are only obvious in hindsight, with unpredictable emergent outcomes”. A complex system has many variables; people with competing agendas and conflicting expectations, all interacting with each other so the complexity increases exponentially. Take the recent marriage equality or American gun control as prime examples of complex problems.

If you use the same process for solving a complex situation that you would use in a complicated one, you end up with a sub-optimal result. In complicated situations there is a definitive, correct answer. Not so in complex situations where there are no obvious relationships between cause and effect. The best method we have for approaching complex situations is to use experimentation.

In complex situations at work, you are dealing with the unknown and cannot plan accordingly, so it’s vital you have an organisational culture and adopt a management style that welcomes experimentation and tolerates it’s failures just as much as it’s successes. A good leader will allow many ideas to be put to the test, and are done so in contained ways so that any failures do not result in massive costs to the company. You can then either ditch the experiment as ineffective, or embrace it if it works.

Just as you need to be open to open-minded to new ideas and experiments, you also need to be awake to the experiments, being able to observe the benefits it produces. The focus needs to be moving towards an outcome, through facilitating experimentation within your team. This is best achieved through ongoing collaboration, immersing yourself in the situation, remaining highly engaged and staying open minded while avoiding acting too hastily.

For more information on how I can help you to effectively manage complexity in the workplace, please get in touch today.

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