Complexity is a characteristic of problems or systems that are difficult to understand or solve. This is due to their many interconnected parts and unpredictable behaviour. Complex problems often have multiple possible solutions. And it can be difficult to determine which solution is best or even whether there is a solution at all.
Both product development and organisational transformation are complex problems. This is because they have multiple possible solutions. What works for one product (or service), or organisation will not necessarily work for another.
The Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-nev-in) is a conceptual framework that can be used to understand and manage complexity. It divides problems into four domains: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.
- Simple problems have known causes and effects, and there is a single best solution.
- Complicated problems also have known causes and effects, but there are multiple possible solutions, and it may take time and effort to determine which solution is best.
- Complex problems have unpredictable causes and effects, and there is no single best solution. Instead, the best approach is to experiment and learn from experience.
- Chaotic problems are unpredictable and uncontrollable, and there is no clear solution. The goal in chaotic situations is to minimise damage and survive until the situation stabilises.
The Enterprise Change Pattern
The Enterprise Change Pattern is a proven collaborative strategy to achieve lasting organisational change. Underpinned by a people first, experiments-based approach, it enables an organisation to rapidly respond to change and innovate.
Key to this is balancing exploration of root causes (sensing) with trying low-risk changes (responding). Using the Enterprise Change Pattern, people run iterative experiments, informed by feedback to evolve effective solutions to complex organisational problems.
Examples of Complex Problems
Here are some examples of complex problems in the real world:
- Climate change
- Economic crises
- Political polarisation
- Healthcare systems
- Education systems
- Transportation systems
- Energy systems
These problems are complex because they involve many interconnected parts, and the relationship between causes and effects is often unpredictable. For example, climate change is caused by a variety of factors, including greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and changes in land use. The effects of climate change are also complex and far-reaching, impacting everything from weather patterns to food production to human health.
How to Manage Complex Problems
There is no single solution to managing complex problems. However, there are some general principles that can be helpful:
- Embrace uncertainty. Complex problems are often unpredictable, so it is important to be comfortable with uncertainty and to be able to adapt to changing conditions.
- Experiment and learn from experience. There is no single best way to solve complex problems. The best approach is to experiment and learn from experience.
- Be collaborative. Complex problems often require solutions that involve multiple stakeholders. It is important to be able to collaborate effectively with others to develop and implement solutions.
Complexity is a challenge that we face in many different areas of our lives. However, by understanding complexity and using the right tools and approaches, we can manage complex problems more effectively.
Complicated, or complex?
Here is an example of how the Cynefin framework might be used to manage a complex problem:
Problem: A company is experiencing high levels of customer churn.
Analysis: Using the Cynefin framework, the company can analyse the problem to determine which domain it falls into. If the company has a good understanding of the causes of customer churn and there are known solutions that have worked in the past, then the problem is likely complicated. In this case, the company can use its existing knowledge and experience to develop and implement a solution.
However, if the company does not have a good understanding of the causes of customer churn, or if the solutions that have worked in the past are no longer effective, then the problem is likely complex. In this case, the company needs to experiment and learn from experience. Using the Enterprise Change Pattern, you can create measurable experiments to include activities such as surveys and workshops to iterate towards a solution
Action: Once the company has determined which domain the problem falls into, they can take appropriate action. If the problem is complicated, they can use their existing knowledge and experience to develop and implement a solution. If the problem is complex, they need to experiment and learn from experience.
Using Cynefin and Enterprise Change Pattern to solve complex problems
It is important to note that the Cynefin framework is not a rigid model. Problems can move between domains over time, and the best approach may change depending on the circumstances. However, the Cynefin framework can be a helpful tool for understanding and managing complex problems.
Once you have determined that you are in the complex domain, then you can use the Enterprise Change Pattern for collaboratively and iteratively solving problems in complex adaptive environments, such as your change program or product development organisation. Find out more about the Enterprise Change Pattern and how to use it here.