What’s Your Problem?

Have you ever noticed that certain problems have elusive, unidentifiable elements confounding your efforts?

I first encountered this when I was in my first year as a school teacher.  No matter what I tried I couldn’t convince a certain student to come to school regularly.  I tried bribes (gift cards the student couldn’t use due to lack of transportation to the store).  I tried threats (detention which the student also did not attend).  I tried calling home (no parents around and phone was often disconnected).

I realize now there were other factors impacting the problem; home relationships, peer relationships, nutrition, poverty, sleep/stress, mental health, transportation, literacy, and learning challenges.  I was using simple solutions for a complex problem.

It’s easy to get caught in the clutter and bramble of the problem and forget to step back and assess whether it is simple, complicated or complex.  I find the lists below useful as a first step.

Your solution is suitable for a complex problem if it:
  • requires expertise, experience and relationships.
  • begins with an uncertain outcome.
  • attempts to understand how the components of the problem and solution inter-relate and intersect.
  • cannot be identically replicated in another context.
  • challenges established rules and protocols.
  • is emergent and dynamic.
  • ‘raise a child’
Your solution is suitable for a complicated problem if it:
  • requires expertise and experience.
  • begins with a predictable outcome.
  • specifies the separate parts of the solution and how they fit together.
  • can be replicated by following the lessons learned in previous attempts.
  • relies on established rules and protocols.
  • ‘build a rocket’
Your solution is suitable for a simple problem if it:
  • does not require expertise, experience or relationships.
  • begins with a definite assured outcome.
  • has a prescriptive set of steps or process.
  • can be replicated if the same steps are followed each time.
  • ‘bake a cake’