Human beings love a quick fix. If there’s an issue, let’s get a team on it to be solved right away. The thing is, many of the problems we face are not so easy to solve. And sometimes, the solutions we find actually create a slew of other problems that cascade all around us so that the proper solution seems impossible to find. How do you solve the problem while ensuring everyone is reasonably satisfied with the result? Enter complex problem solving. 

Solving complex problems isn’t easy. It’s right there in the name. In this article, we’ll provide an introduction to complex problem solving, including some introductory strategies that your team can put into practice today. 

What is a Complex Problem

We are faced with many different kinds of problems every day. If we’re lucky, most of those problems are simple. If you notice it’s starting to become dark in the room where you’re working, you can switch on a light or light a candle. If you’re cold, you can put on a sweater or wrap yourself in a blanket. Generally speaking, these are simple problems with simple solutions.

A complex problem is, well, complex. It involves a number of different layers and impacts a wide range of people, and the more you learn about the problem, the more people it seems to affect. A solution is hard to find because the people involved have competing interests, and what works for some won’t work for others. How do you find a solution that will please everyone and ensure every person is treated equally? Where do you even begin?

One of the most complex problems facing the world today is climate change, which affects literally every person, creature, plant, and microbe on the planet. How do you hold every country and company to the same standard? Should India be held to the same standard as the United States? What will happen to the Albertan workers in the oil and gas sector who will lose the only profession they know? What about the children being born post-2021; what future can they expect if drastic actions aren’t taken to reduce carbon emissions and save a planet on fire? The gravity and convoluted intricacies of the issue and all of the people it affects are what make the problem so complex.

Intro to Complex Problem Solving 

Solving a complex problem requires a deeper understanding of the actual problem and all of the people it affects. Complex problem solving involves gathering observations and asking questions to make informed decisions, considering how future developments could affect a potential solution’s continued success, and understanding how the solution will affect both the people involved and the surrounding environment. 

As you can tell, it’s called complex problem solving for a reason. While finding solutions to complicated problems is challenging, there are strategies you can employ to solve complex problems effectively. 

1. Clearly Define the Problem

“A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved.” — attributed to or repeated by at least John Dewey and Charles Kettering.

If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you hope to solve it? 

To solve a complex problem, you must clearly and objectively define what the problem is—what is the root cause of the problem, and what are each of its contributing factors? Who does the problem affect, and how does it affect them—physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually? Does the problem affect their safety? This involves a collaborative and systematic analysis of any and all relevant data. 

By seeking to understand exactly how the problem negatively impacts the people and the surrounding environment, you can begin to prioritize potential solutions that will relieve those impacts. But keep in mind that defining the problem is only the beginning. 

2. Push the Limits of Your Assumptions

How to catch a big fish: 1. Catch a lot of fish. 2. Throw back all the little ones.

Linda Carson

Cast a wide net when you’re coming up with new ideas. It’s important to bring as many different perspectives to the table as possible to limit any potential biases. Collaborate with a team of different minds from different backgrounds and with different skill sets to gather as many ideas as you can. 

Focus on quantity because you need the not-so-good ideas to find the good ones. Don’t focus on what’s possible at this stage—you’re ideating, so encourage your team to be creative and open to any possibility.

Don’t limit yourself to your assumptions or what you believe to be possible. What if you did the opposite? What if you deeply explored an idea you previously thought wouldn’t work out? Complex problems require you to be open to all possibilities.

Once you’ve gathered potential solutions together, it’s time to test them, break them down, and seek feedback. 

3. Test Assumptions and Gather Feedback

We like to think of complex problem solving as an excavation site. Defining the problem is you putting the stakes in the ground and determining where to start digging. Meaning, defining the problem is only the beginning. Once the problem is defined and you’ve ideated on it, it’s time to do your research, gather feedback, and test your assumptions around the problem space. In terms of an excavation site, it’s time to begin the dig. 

A well-designed solution is always based on extensive research. Research grounds our solutions in the real world and keeps us thinking about the tangible needs of our stakeholders. Research also prevents us from following misleading assumptions and both over-complicating and over-simplifying a problem. 

To design an effective solution to a complex problem, you need to gather input from everyone the problem and potential solution affects. An effective solution works for everyone, and gathering feedback will inform you about which assumptions should be cast aside and which potential solutions should be explored further. 

Research and gathering feedback is not a one time thing. It’s a process that will take time and many trips out into the community. Each potential solution you arrive at will need to be tested thoroughly and shared with the people it will affect. Just when you think you’ve got the perfect solution, you’ll receive feedback that informs you it won’t work. But don’t lose heart! It’s all part of the process and will yield a better, longer-lasting solution in the end.

4. Seek Continuous Improvement

There’s no single magic strategy for solving complex problems. It’s an ongoing process that takes diligent research, time, and ongoing feedback. Each solution you find will need to be tested and adapted to reveal new insights that you can put into practice next time. 

Complex problem solving is a skill you can continue to improve with each new complex problem. The more you test your assumptions, open your mind, put feedback into practice, and test new ideas, the better you will get at it. It’s not about seeking perfection; it’s about seeking continuous improvement. How can you be better next time? 

And the more you seek continuous improvement, the better you will get at making connections. It’s a skill you can continue learning and refining.

Learning How to Explore Complex Problems

Overlap’s suite of courses share tools and strategies that will help you and your team make better decisions. 

Get started with our introductory level courses, or get your team on board for our Exploring Complex Problems course. We’ll dive deeply into the Define and Research phases of the human-centered design cycle and show why staying in the problem space and iterating between these two phases produces a strong foundation for ideation. Learn how to do the homework around the problem space in a human-centered way to better understand context and develop launch points for solution generation.