Background Reading

On Complexity and Complex Problems


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On Complex Problems

Issues or problems that arise during a facilitated process may vary in their levels of complexity. In this context the word “complex” is not a synonym for “difficult”. It has a specific meaning and relates to problems that differ from those that are simple. To treat a complex problem or issue as a simple one risks increasing tension and possibly making it more complex. We believe that it is important for the process designer, but also the facilitator, to understand complexity in order to be able to adjust the process accordingly.

For the sake of simplicity, we will use the word “problem” from now on, rather than to use both issue and problem. A problem refers to any issue and does not necessarily have to be difficult or contentious. Nor does it require a “solution”.

Recognising complex problems

Some problems are simple while others are more complex. There are different ways to explain the difference between these two categories of problems. In these notes we will do so by comparing simple, complicated, and complex problems from the perspective of their main characteristics and how best they are handled.

In the advanced facilitation course, we will consider complexity from a systems point of view and consider the psychological dimensions involved in complex problems.

Simple problems

These are problems with a high degree of predictability. They look, feel and behave like other, similar problems and can therefore be handled in a similar way. An example is fixing a machine or baking a cake. A video or handbook explaining how to deal with the problem should logically help to resolve it.

If I am faced with the “problem” of baking a cake for my wife’s birthday, I can search for the cake I want to bake and if I have the ingredients and the equipment prescribed in the instructional video, I will produce a cake like the one in the video. The same goes for fixing my son’s bicycle. When it concerns cars, this becomes a little more complicated.

Simple problems are usually resolved by using linear logical methods and rational thinking processes. Planning often makes the resolution of a simple problem easier. And because it is predictable, planning usually works well.

To get back to our baking example: it would be desirable to buy the ingredients in advance and to check that my oven is working before starting the baking process. If I don’t, I will be complicating my life by running back and forth to the shop or looking for a friend with a good oven – or even worse, building a wood stove in the garden.

Complicated problems

Complicated problems are in essence, simple. With the correct ingredients, equipment and know-how, these problems can be resolved. The difference is that these complicated problems consist of a cluster of (related) simple problems and often require a higher degree of expertise to solve. When we use the word simple, it does not necessarily imply that it is easy.

When I was much younger it was still relatively easy to repair the motor of a car by using a manual. Today this may be true of some cars, but more modern cars require a higher degree of expertise to fix. We often use the example of landing a robot on Mars as a highly complicated problem. Everything can be calculated by experts and, having landed one spacecraft, one could probably land another by repeating the process. This is not true for the typical complex problem of raising a child.

Complex problems

Raising a child is a complex problem, not because it is difficult or easy, but because there is no certainty or predictability as in the case of a machine. Raising one child successfully is no guarantee for success with the next one. Complex problems are dynamic and often involve several equally dynamic aspects that overlap or influence each other. A problem in the workplace or in a school is often complex because it involves different individuals who are capable of unpredictable behaviour or responses.

Complex problems often have a history of failed or half-successful attempts at resolving them it. These might have helped but might also have made the problem more complex. Complex problems are often characterised by the fact that conditions change – suddenly or over time. There is no certainty in predictions and planning often proves to be inadequate. Should conditions change, plans must be adjusted.

An action group from civil society can quickly mobilise a protest. if the protest is met with violence, it can escalate the conflict and cause old grievances to surface. All this can happen within the space of a day. Suddenly the problem has become more complex and more infected.

Another way to describe complexity is to think of the actors and the perspectives they represent as belonging to systems. The systems affect each other and are affected by other systems. Any change somewhere in the larger system will affect other parts and change the overall picture or field.

A school class is a good example to illustrate this way of describing complexity. The class is a system affected the family systems of each child and that of the teacher. In turn the teacher and the class are affected by other classes, the school and its leadership, the authority in charge of the school and the education ministry. A problem at home that affects a pupil or pupils will affect other pupils and the “field” we call the class. Dysfunction in other classes, new rules from the ministry or the leadership style of the principal will all impact on the class in different ways. In the same way, positive aspects might affect other systems positively. As any teacher knows, no day is a copy of the day before. The same applies to a dialogue involving a complex problem.

It may appear that one can sort problems into two categories: simple (including complicated) or complex. We have realised however that there are degrees of complexity. One might view this as a scale with simple on the one end and very complex on the other. This implies then that there are degrees of complexity.

Recognising degrees of complexity helps us to create a clearer picture of what a problem or issue entails and how we need to go about designing and facilitating a dialogue process. We refer to the Dialogue Triage briefly referred to above.

Why is the understanding of complexity important for us as facilitators, mediators and negotiators? Precisely because there are levels or degrees of complexity. These will affect the design or our processes and the way in which we facilitate conversations. It is also important to consider in advance – if that is possible – whether the facilitator has the level of experience needed to meet the challenges of a particular problem.

Remember that we started off this section with the advice: don’t try to simplify a complex problem. This is one of the risks involved when a designer or facilitator lacks the experience of dealing with complex problems. Some methods work well when a problem is not too complex but can be counter-productive when faced with a very complex problem. 

Finally, you may have heard the term Wicked Problems. We do not use the term but wish to refer you to the notes at the end of the text where you can read about the characteristics of these problems as described by Horst Rittel och Melvin Weber. They will help you to better understand the nature of complex problems in general.

Some questions for reflection

•    Which of the problems that you face in your work would you regard as complex? Which characteristics lead you to see them in this way?

•    Have you experienced complex problems being handled as simple ones? What has been the result?