How To Think About Approaching A Problem


Wednesday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

You cannot solve all the problems out there. In fact, by the time you’re aware there is a problem by, for example, seeing it on the news, it’s too late to do anything about it. The people that did know saw it building up weeks, months before and they either did something or failed to convince people with power that they had to do something.

Of course, if they did something and everything was fine you wouldn’t have seen it on the news anyway. It’s the failures that pop up and get everyone’s attention. But we digress.

The point is that there are problems that you understand and that you’re in a position to deal with. So how should you go about doing that?

You could start by thinking about what’s going on along two axes – the nature of the situation and the nature of your approach to the problem.

First, what kind of situation are you facing? Is it simple or complex? A simple situation is one where there is only one decision maker, there’s no power and politics involved and you need to figure out what to do one way or another. A complex situation is one that involves more people, has power relationships and the inevitable politics that come with those and twisted, interdependent decision pathways.

Second, what sort of approach are you going to take. Is it a simple one or a complicated one? A complicated one is easier to explain, oddly enough. A complicated solution involves lots of elements – many parts. You have many pieces that you need to juggle. A simple solution is a complete solution – a whole – even if it’s made up of parts.

This needs to be unpacked a little bit.

Say you have a simple situation – you’re sitting an exam in three weeks. What kind of approach are you going to take? A complicated approach may involve various elements: doing some cramming; taking some brain pills; trying to get notes off others; seeing if you can buy the questions from the underground market; or seeing if you can get out of it by being sick.

A simple approach would be to get into a routine. Set a time each day for a couple of hours and work through the material. And prepare for the exam. The simple approach will get you there. The complicated one may work, but you’ll be praying it does when the time comes around to put pen to paper.

How do these approaches work when you enter a complex situation? The complicated approach is the one that most people seemed doomed to follow. Take any project you’ve been part of. You might have had to work with engineers, with finance, with sales, with marketing, with operations – and they all have their own little bits of the organisation and their own ways of working – and somehow all of that gets the job done but also creates a great deal of stress. It never seems like the job is done right – customers keep complaining. Yes we get stuff out of the door and shipped but the boss is shouting and everyone is under pressure.

The thing that’s missing is how the pieces are connected together to work as a whole. That’s hard to do in organisations that are designed to work in pieces. The thing we need to remember is that the reason organisations are designed the way they are is because it’s more efficient to do things in that way – it makes sense for some people to focus on finance and some people to focus on engineering. But for the organisation to work the finance people and the engineering people have to figure out how to work together. And this isn’t simple – it’s complex. And you need to connect things up so that they can cope with this complexity. This relates to something called requisite variety – the ability to have a working structure that is able to match the complexity of the situation – so you can deliver what needs to be done without the stress that comes with the complicated but disconnected approach.

So how do you create an organisation that works that way – that has requisite variety? And the answer is that it’s difficult – it needs skills and practice and expertise. That’s why most organisations are and will remain complicated ways to deal with complex situations. Which is a bit of a shame.

Maybe someone should write a book on how to do better.


Karthik Suresh

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