Why we need complex problem solving skills
It’s not easy to achieve outcomes in a world where things are interconnected in messy, dynamic and often counter-intuitive ways, where ideas are contested and the future is uncertain.
Without effective ways of grappling with complex challenges, we can end up with wasted time and money as we figure out what to do, unintended consequences, little or no progress towards alleviating problems, and, missed opportunities.
That’s why organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the OECD cite complex problem solving as the most important skill we need this century*.
But as the OECD acknowledges*, there isn’t much around on what complex problem solving entails, or, how to do it. This is the gap our 20 Questions aims to fill. There is a pattern to the questions we should ask ourselves when problem-solving is difficult to navigate. We’ve captured that pattern into 20 Questions for complex problem solving, strategy and design (and practical techniques to help answer them).
What is complex problem solving?
Complex problem solving is an approach for determining what to do, for non-routine, complex challenges which have high levels of uncertainty, because they change over time and are difficult to understand, predict, influence and control.
Complex problem solving is very different to the linear, step-by-step problem solving process most of us are familiar with. It’s just no longer sufficient to do some research, identify and evaluate some options and make and implement a recommendation. The world is too dynamic, uncertain and interconnected for that now.
Complex problem solving is a dynamic, iterative, interdisciplinary and learning and adaptive approach to problem solving that allows for situations where we don’t have all the information and where things change. It prompts us to test ideas, learn what works and what doesn’t and refine our ideas, iteratively.
Complex problem solving is a skillset that draws on a rich range of ideas and techniques and embeds various higher-order thinking styles such as strategic thinking, critical thinking, structured and analytical thinking, systems thinking, design and design thinking, creative thinking and futures thinking. It requires us to do problem solving activities concurrently and iteratively, rather than as ‘steps’.
Our approach to complex problem solving
Complex problem solving is a relatively new concept and until now there has not been much around on what it entails and how to do it. We believe there is a huge opportunity to make more progress with the challenges of the 21st Century by making complex problem-solving skills more accessible, tangible, systematic and practical.
The 20 Questions don’t give you the answers or do the thinking for you, but they remind you of what you need to think about. They prompt your thinking, and, the practical techniques you will learn, help you to do that thinking to answer each question.
The techniques draw on a range of proven and trusted disciplines such as engineering design principles and logical reasoning, as well as emerging and influential disciplines such as behavioural insights and complexity science. They also embed higher-level thinking skills. So that if you are asking (and answering) the 20 Questions, then you are complex problem solving.
The 20 Questions help you to bring structure to a messy issue, to generate insights, to assess ideas, to provide guidance, direction and feedback to others, and above all, to navigate the complexity of contemporary challenges.
The Navigate Complexity course is structured around the 20 Questions as well as other skills and knowledge we need for complex problem solving.
Why complex problem solving skills are helpful
Typically when a team gets together to work on a complex challenge, there is a period at the beginning where people feel overwhelmed. People often jump to solutions before considering what the problem is and what the intended outcomes are. There can be indecision and sometimes disagreement about what to do. People bring their own knowledge, experience, mental models, language and opinions and it can be frustratingly difficult to reconcile all these into something useful and to make progress.
Complex problem solving makes solving problems and developing strategies easier by:
- Providing a common approach, language and toolkit that sits across discipline-specific methods and knowledge. All team members understand and can contribute to the problem-solving process;
- Giving teams useful things to do and think about from day 1 so no time is wasted;
- Prioritising effort in a way that brings about progress over time;
- Giving structure to messy issues;
- Giving teams and team leaders a framework for providing guidance, direction and feedback to others.
- Ultimately delivering a better outcome from the project because less time is wasted and knowledge and time is used productively, effort is focused, and the approach used has been rigorous and robust
Who the course is for
We honestly think that complex problem solving skills are needed by just about everybody these days. They help you grapple with any complex challenge, and let’s face it, there are no shortage of those. We’ve designed this course so that is interesting and useful for everyone, from high school and university students to our society’s most senior leaders across academia, public, private, and NGO sectors.
No particular pre-requisite knowledge is assumed. These ideas and techniques complement your area of expertise and knowledge.
Our approach to teaching and learning
Our aim is to teach complex problem solving skills in an accessible and practical way. The course is not very technically demanding (though it will make you think!), and it is presented in plain English with plenty of stories and examples to make the lessons engaging and the ideas and techniques tangible and real. We have designed the course so that it appeals to several learning styles. We have included visuals, stories and examples to help make the ideas and techniques tangible and real. However, while the ideas and techniques themselves are not overly technically demanding at a conceptual level, they do take time and practice to become very good at. Experiential learning (learning-by-doing) is a very important part of ‘able’ to do complex problem solving (as opposed to understanding what it is). The course itself will explain and explore the ideas and techniques. It will provide case studies, stories and examples to help you see how they might be applied in the ‘real world’. And there are quiz questions to check for your understanding of the main ideas. But the main vehicle of learning is when you apply the ideas and techniques to examples or real-world challenges. Each lesson contains guidance for how you might go about this (in the videos titled Learn-by-doing).
What to expect
Many online courses and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are produced in a documentary style to make the course as ‘entertaining’ and ‘watchable’ as possible. We think that sometimes this approach comes at a cost to depth of learning. Other online courses and MOOCs are very technical and require substantial prerequisite knowledge. The Navigate Complexity course is somewhere in between those two type of courses. The course is not “difficult”, per se, but it does require some thinking and reflection and most importantly, practice. Some lessons may cover ideas which are very new to you. You may wish to watch those lessons more than once. We have not produced the videos in documentary style, but we have jam-packed the modules with stories, case studies and examples to make the ideas and techniques as real, tangible and practical as possible. The purpose of the course is not to entertain you but to equip you with a formidable range of new skills and ideas to effect positive change in the world.
How long it takes to do the course
It depends! There are about 9 hours of total viewing time across the 40 lessons, but you will need to allow extra time for quizzes and activities. It is entirely up to you how quickly you progress through the lessons. Your subscription provides access to all the materials for one year. But if you don’t quite finish the course in that time (we know, life is busy), or, if you would like continued access to the course so you can revisit parts that you find helpful or interesting, you can renew your subscription.
The Navigate Complexity course started out in 2014 as face-to-face workshops and we’ve been refining it ever since. The face-to-face workshops vary in length from 1/2 day (covering some content) through to 2-5 days for variations of the full course. We still run these as availability allows, so if you are interested in discussing this option, please contact us. Most of our face-to-face workshops are run internally for a specific organisation, but if you are interested in attending a public workshop, please let us know and we’ll keep you updated.
Navigate Complexity was developed by Ponder Enterprises (for more information, see www.ponder.online). The conceptual model for complex problem solving and the 20 Questions were developed by Jane MacMaster (for more information, see the Presenter page), and the development of this site was a team effort – see the acknowledgements below…
Navigate Complexity online would not have happened without the support and work of many people, all of whom I was very lucky to have working on the project. So, a huge thank you to: the team at ED. Digital (for their incredible creativity and technical capability in developing this site, in particular Eric di Cuollo, Elliot Schultz, Daniel Lever and Bryn Shanahan), Andrew Sill from Sill Marketing (for invaluable advice on filming equipment and studio setup), Archie Gordon from Archie Gordon Creative Solutions and Kieran Barrett from Sill Marketing for being super (and very patient) video editors, Christopher Ireland (for beyond-talented photography), The University of Sydney staff and students for being Navigate Complexity‘s first subscribers, and to my family who have been very patient throughout the whole process.