“Much learning does not teach understanding.”

— Heraclitus

“Abundance of knowledge does not teach man to be wise.”

— Heraclitus

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

— H.L. Mencken

“Big data is great when you want to verify and quantify small data – as big data is all about seeking a correlation – small data about seeking the causation.”

— Martin Lindstrom

“Correlations are not explanations and besides, they can be as spurious as the high correlation in Finland between foxes killed and divorces.”

— Gunnar Myrdal

“When the world changes, correlation goes away… Causals are what endure.”

— Geoffrey Nunberg

“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple with all these simple solutions, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. And your solutions are way too oversimplified, and they don’t work.”

— Steve Jobs

“Solutions to tough problems should be made as simple as possible — and no simpler.”

— Albert Einstein

Today’s world of constant change is full of problems. Each day sees new additions to this problem overload. What we don’t see or rarely see are real solutions, aka answers. Having to deal under great pressure with the steady barrage of problems forces us to seek simple, quick, easy solutions. Not so much because we think that these will work but because we have neither time nor bandwidth to develop real solutions. Assuming of course that real solutions even exist.

Australian politician Steve Herbert offers little hope here: “Beware of people preaching simple solutions to complex problems. If the answer was easy someone more intelligent would have thought of it a long time ago — complex problems invariably require complex and difficult solutions.” He seems to be saying that in general there really are no simple solutions to important problems but only the continuing challenge of developing the necessary complex solutions.

It gets worse. Professor Bobby Hoffman’s view is: “Beware of simple solutions. They often lead to complex problems.”. Simple solutions as complex problem generators? Simply gotta believe it. More on this below.

What is a “simple solution”?

Why, of course it is obvious, quick and easy to implement, and generally painless. Also, too often “wrong”, in satirist Mencken’s words. Extrapolating a bit, this seems to mean that, almost by definition, any obvious, quick, easy, painless solution won’t work.

So … you need to look for non-obvious, time-consuming, difficult, and painful solutions in order to find one that should work? Somehow, this approach doesn’t quite work for me, and probably you also. Too simple.

Since we are faced every day with an array of complex problems that don’t appear to have any “simple solutions”, what to do? We can’t ignore most of the problems so we have to do the best we can, whatever that means in practice. Doing nothing isn’t an option in most cases.

Perhaps the best place to start is to recognize that there are rarely any “simple solutions” that actually work. Does this mean that you must automatically reject out of hand any proposed solution that fits either of the “simple” definitions above?

Simple problems may solve themselves

Why are so many of our problems complex in nature? Perhaps it is because most of the simple problems either solve themselves or are not worth any time and effort to address. We can safely ignore them and they will mostly go away.

This background problem-solving process effectively eliminates or obscures problems that are simple, leaving only tough, complex ones out there for us to tackle. As best we can.

Starting with “causation” may not work any better

All complex problems have some number of causes. Knowing causes can help us understand the nature and source of the problem and thereby develop truly appropriate solutions. Some of the causes however may be obscured or even undiscoverable in practice.

Here’s where the real world takes over. Too many of our most important problems today are generated by causes unknown and often unknowable. Spending a bunch of time and effort on upfront causal analysis may be unproductive.

It may instead be better to begin by trying out a few potential solutions and discovering – maybe – the causes through this process. Here is an outline of one such approach:

Most complex problems will have several candidate solutions

Very few complex problems have only a single evident solution. In general, there will be at least a few alternatives. So our first step might be to identify and rank in some manner a few solution alternatives.

The logical next-step approach here is to try out the top-ranked alternative to see what happens. Learn by doing. Doing something, anything, quickly.

A problem almost immediately arises in deciding which one is “top-ranked”. You may be able to develop a very rough ranking based on things like cost, time-to-implement, and difficulty but, too often, even this will not produce persuasive ranking results.

There must be a better way.

A stepwise parallel solution testing approach

Implementing a few candidate solutions in parallel avoids, at least to some extent, the need to rank them upfront. If it is possible to try out more than one solution at a time, then a set of solution experiments should be able to provide valuable feedback on which one might work best.

Better yet, frame each candidate solution as a set of steps. Implement each solution a step at a time so you can evaluate interim results frequently. This “learning by doing” process has been described in more detail in an earlier post .

The idea here is not just to test a small set of solution candidates but to use this stepwise process as a way to learn as much as possible about what is going on in your current complex-problem reality. Steps can be designed to minimize both risk and potential damage if something doesn’t go quite right.

How might this work in practice on a really nasty current problem?

The prior post described the problem of vaxx mandates as an example of a very tough, vitally important, pressing, and complex problem. Full-vaxx mandates are here (early September 2021) and seem likely to expand in reach and rigor over the next year. This problem is likely to be made more complex by the addition of masking, distancing, testing, and similar requirements.

The causes of this particular complex problem set are presently controversial, largely obscure, and almost impossible to deal with directly – in the sense of causal mitigation or elimination. You probably can’t address this problem set from the causal end.

If so, we are left with having to develop solutions for dealing with a complex problem set that has become almost a fact of life for most organizations. Worldwide. You can’t not deal with this. Your only question is how.

One immediate solution is simply to require vaxx for all

Proving the earlier comments on “simple solutions”, this one is simply unlikely to work in practice. A 100% vaxx target cannot be achieved in most situations. Those strongly opposed will leave or be fired, depriving many organizations of some of their best people. Huge understaffing problems may result in many cases. Simple solution leading to even more complex problems.

To make matters worse, vaxxed employees may be highly uncomfortable working closely with the unvaxxed. This is happening today. It is part of what is making vaxx mandates a particularly complex and difficult problem. But it is our reality, at least for a while.

An alternative complex solution involves parallel structures

This possible solution was discussed in the previous post. It avoids any confrontational, direct, and visible approach by separating those who are okay with 100%-vaxxed mandates (as well as any associated requirements). The unvaxxed group, likely much smaller than the main vaxxed group, can be separated out into a contractor entity or atomized into a group of freelancers.

The main organization can follow mandates fully, without any (or much) internal hassle. The unvaxxed (or un-something) remainder can work independently following whatever rules and practices they can devise within the latest regulatory framework that applies to small entities or individuals.

You may also be able to restructure your business geographically so as to concentrate vaxxed and unvaxxed workers, respectively, in their particular friendly locations.

Another possibility is to restrict the unvaxxed workers to full-time remote work. This prevents any face-to-face interactions but it may not comply adequately with a 100%-vaxxed non-exceptions mandate of their common employer. In that case, the organizational separation suggested above may be the only solution.

Three other complex problems that we are facing today

Vaxx mandates alone are certainly complex and tough to deal with but we have some other complex problems to tackle as well:

  1. More and possibly stricter lockdowns
    The U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are struggling with lockdowns pretty much as severe as those in early 2020. These restrict travel, reimpose occupancy limits, and effectively quarantine a major part of the population.

  2. Growing shortages of materials
    Materials shortages continue to escalate due to (maybe) port congestion, lack of workers as a result of COVID cases, and the result of short-sighted just-in-time supply chains. And probably a bunch of other stuff. We live today in a very tightly-connected, brittle system. It was always going to break at some point. We may well have reached that inevitability.

  3. Back to the office for all
    More than a few employers are calling for 100% office work at some point in the coming months (Fall 2021). Simple solution to dealing with remote work hassles. Probably goes along with a full-vaxx requirement. Employer’s problems solved. Simply. Recall again this quote from above: “Beware of simple solutions. They often lead to complex problems.” Might this caution apply here? Probably.

The actual list of complex problems on our plates today is obviously much longer but these three should serve to illustrate how complex problems tend to interact and make things even more complex.

Complex problems have a bad habit of joining forces

Gone are the days when we had only one or two complex problems to tackle at a time. Good-old-normal days.

Combining the vaxx-mandate with very limited or no remote work seems like a sure-fire generator for serious complex problems. I would expect to see rock-bottom morale, productivity declines, loss of valued employees, and much hidden internal push-back. The underlying problems are likely to be compounded and extended by the “simple solution”.

A recent poll (9/1/2021) from The Washington Post and ABC News found that over 70% of unvaxxed respondents will probably or definitely not accept a mandatory-vaxx. There were roughly 70 million adults, or just under 50% of the eligible adult population, unvaxxed as of late August 2021. If over 70% of these folks refuse and quit or are fired, how might that affect your business? A very complex problem, yes?

Learning the hard way is always an option

As management guru W. Edwards Deming observed many years ago, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Pain is often the most effective teacher, assuming the pain is not fatal or disabling.

Seriously, it may well take some significant pain to motivate many leaders into taking action. Denial works – for a while. Why do anything when you are not forced to? You probably don’t know anyone who thinks that way but I sure do.

How bad do things in your world have to get before you think about acting? Major hurricanes are a fact of life in the southern U.S. and yet so few businesses seem to be adequately prepared for what is surely coming – forever.

Part of the complex problem to be faced here is just how much and what kind of preparation should you do. There are definitely no simple answers except to strengthen your adaptability as a routine management practice, not just post-hurricane or post-other-catastrophe.

Small steps to learn are nearly always the right way

Tackling complex problems is, well, complex. Who knows what will work best, or even work at all. The tougher the problem, the more important it is to be sure upfront that whatever you do is going to be effective.

Learning the answer here can of course be done the hard way. You might choose to do nothing or as little as possible and wait to see what happens. Or you can go full blast on what appears to be a sensible approach and wait until the results come in to assess effectiveness.

An obviously better way is to try out various candidate approaches in small steps, with results assessment relative to expectations done as each step completes. Low risk, good way to learn what actually works.

Bottom line:

Seeking simple answers to complex problems is part of human nature. Humans want to know how something happens – causation – as well as why it happens – understanding and meaning. But all too often, few are willing or even able to go through this typically difficult process. Much quicker and easier to jump at the first answer that appears and then invent some sort of meaning for it. This approach often creates much bigger problems. Testing candidate solutions in parallel and in small steps seem to offer a much better chance of success.

Related Reading

Jeff Fox writing in medium.com offers a major caution about dealing with complex problems: “Beware Those Offering Simple Solutions to Complex Problems”:

“We are a paradoxical species in many ways but perhaps one of the more perplexing is the ever present war within ourselves between the desire for quick, easy, and simple solutions to our problems and our compulsion for excessively complicating the problems facing us. The first is driven by the natural impulse towards comfort and pleasure. The second is most often born of our quest for a sense of personal importance. Complicating a problem can be done quite simply and easily, solving it cannot.”

“There is nothing evil or weak or lazy about preferring comfort and ease to discomfort and difficulty. We harvest the low hanging fruit first, we take the route with the least twists and steep cliffs, we prefer spending time with people we find easy to get along with, we happily greet information which affirms our existing thoughts and feelings. Seeking and preferring comfort and pleasure is a natural impulse and is the prime motivation behind virtually all technological development. Preferring things be simple, however, does not mean it is always an option.”

“There are always going to be times in our lives when the solutions to our problems are neither simple nor easy. Some solutions will certainly be less complicated than others but ‘less complicated’ is still ‘complicated’. This holds true at the personal level and exponentially more so at the societal level, because societal problems are not a singular problem but rather a collected multitude of personal ones.”

Consulting giant Accenture offered an interesting real example of parallel stepwise approaches (aka trial and error) to problem solving: “What Can the Brain Teach Us About Complex Problem Solving?”:

“There was an interesting trial and error approach at one of the biggest retail companies in the world, Unilever. In the 1960’s, Unilever wanted to design a new nozzle for their detergent production. Liquid detergent is pushed through a nozzle with high pressure in order to spray the detergent. The detergent dries, falls on the floor and then can be sold. However, the nozzles kept clogging up.”

“Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever solved this problem: trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10; you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. After 45 generations you have a nozzle that works perfectly. They could not explain how it works, but it does.”

Author and consultant Skip Prichard has his own take on solving complex problems – and fast yet: “How to Solve Complex Problems Fast”:

“In business, I often wonder if there are any simple problems. We are living in a world that is complex, full of ambiguity and more difficult to navigate.”

“Complex problems are messy, unstable, unpredictable, confounding and don’t come with right answers, only best attempts. These problems require new solutions created specifically for the circumstances, and you can only know that you’ve found a good one in retrospect. Contrast that with complicated challenges which are the domain of the expert: a known solution exists, and it can be reliably and successfully applied as needed by someone who knows what they’re doing.”

“Leaders tend to get tripped up on the early steps, and when that happens it means they don’t even get to the point where they’re trying to implement the later ones.”

“In step 1 – acknowledge the complexity – leaders often don’t see the difference between complicated and complex, so they can’t acknowledge it. All they know is that some challenges tend to get solved, and some don’t. This leads to the wrong conclusion – if going to the experts to solve some problems (i.e. the complicated ones) works, it makes sense to go to them to solve all of them. Since the complex ones are categorically different, the experts and the expert-centric model of solving problems is the wrong approach.”

“Even when leaders do recognize and acknowledge that this problem is different, steps 2 and 3 are where they’ll tend to devote much less attention than they should, and these steps are also foundational. Step 2 is about framing the complexity in a great question, and step 3 is about getting all the right people involved in answering that question.”

“Instead of a great, clear, compelling, aspirational question – which takes work – they’ll tend to do some problem definition, have a report written, and use this as a starting point. This easily leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding and misalignment (from the start) about what the problem is, what success looks like, why it matters, and what’s at stake.”

“And instead of assigning a high-variety group from inside and around their organization to develop solutions, they’ll tend to go to the usual suspects, keep the group small, and rely on what they see, know and believe (which, with complex problems, isn’t nearly enough).”