bridging the gap complex problem solving

How To Solve Complex Problems

In today’s increasingly complex world, we are constantly faced with ill-defined problems that don’t have a clear solution. From poverty and climate change to crime and addiction, complex situations surround us. Unlike simple problems with a pre-defined or “right” answer, complex problems share several basic characteristics that make them hard to solve. While these problems can be frustrating and overwhelming, they also offer an opportunity for growth and creativity. Complex problem-solving skills are the key to addressing these tough issues.

In this article, I will discuss simple versus complex problems, define complex problem solving, and describe why it is so important in complex dynamic environments. I will also explain how to develop problem-solving skills and share some tips for effectively solving complex problems.

How is simple problem-solving different from complex problem-solving?

Solving problems is about getting from a currently undesirable state to an intended goal state. In other words, about bridging the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. However, the challenge of reaching a solution varies based on the kind of problem that is being solved. There are generally three different kinds of problems you should consider.


Simple problems have one problem solution. The goal is to find that answer as quickly and efficiently as possible. Puzzles are classic examples of simple problem solving. The objective is to find the one correct solution out of many possibilities.

Puzzles complex problem-solving
Puzzles are simple problems with one right answer.


Problems are different from puzzles in that they don’t have a known problem solution. As such, many people may agree that there is an issue to be solved, but they may not agree on the intended goal state or how to get there. In this type of problem, people spend a lot of time debating the best solution and the optimal way to achieve it.


Messes are collections of interrelated problems where many stakeholders may not even agree on what the issue is. Unlike problems where there is agreement about what the problem is, in messes, there isn’t agreement amongst stakeholders. In other words, even “what is” can’t be taken for granted. Most complex social problems are messes, made up of interrelated social issues with ill-defined boundaries and goals.

Problems and messes can be complicated or complex

Puzzles are simple, but problems and messes exist on a continuum between complicated and complex. Complicated problems are technical in nature. There may be many involved variables, but the relationships are linear. As a result, complicated problems have step-by-step, systematic solutions. Repairing an engine or building a rocket may be difficult because of the many parts involved, but it is a technical problem we call complicated.

On the other hand, solving a complex problem is entirely different. Unlike complicated problems that may have many variables with linear relationships, a complex problem is characterized by connectivity patterns that are harder to understand and predict.

Characteristics of complex problems and messes

So what else makes a problem complex? Here are seven additional characteristics (from Funke and Hester and Adams).

  1. Lack of information. There is often a lack of data or information about the problem itself. In some cases, variables are unknown or cannot be measured.
  2. Many goals. A complex problem has a mix of conflicting objectives. In some sense, every stakeholder involved with the problem may have their own goals. However, with limited resources, not all goals can be simultaneously satisfied.
  3. Unpredictable feedback loops. In part due to many variables connected by a range of different relationships, a change in one variable is likely to have effects on other variables in the system. However, because we do not know all of the variables it will affect, small changes can have disproportionate system-wide effects. These unexpected events that have big, unpredictable effects are sometimes called Black Swans.
  4. Dynamic. A complex problem changes over time and there is a significant impact based on when you act. In other words, because the problem and its parts and relationships are constantly changing, an action taken today won’t have the same effects as the same action taken tomorrow.
  5. Time-delayed. It takes a while for cause and effect to be realized. Thus it is very hard to know if any given intervention is working.
  6. Unknown unknowns. Building off the previous point about a lack of information, in a complex problem you may not even know what you don’t know. In other words, there may be very important variables that you are not even aware of.
  7. Affected by (error-prone) humans. Simply put, human behavior tends to be illogical and unpredictable. When humans are involved in a problem, avoiding error may be impossible.

What is complex problem-solving?

“Complex problem solving” is the term for how to address a complex problem or messes that have the characteristics listed above.

Since a complex problem is a different phenomenon than a simple or complicated problem, solving them requires a different approach. Methods designed for simple problems, like systematic organization, deductive logic, and linear thinking don’t work well on their own for a complex problem.

And yet, despite its importance, there isn’t complete agreement about what exactly it is.

How is complex problem solving defined by experts?

Let’s look at what scientists, researchers, and system thinkers have come up with in terms of a definition for solving a complex problem. 

As a series of observations and informed decisions

For many employers, the focus is on making smart decisions. These must weigh the future effects to the company of any given solution. According to, it is defined as “a series of observations and informed decisions used to find and implement a solution to a problem. Beyond finding and implementing a solution, complex problem solving also involves considering future changes to circumstance, resources, and capabilities that may affect the trajectory of the process and success of the solution. Complex problem solving also involves considering the impact of the solution on the surrounding environment and individuals.”

As using information to review options and develop solutions

For others, it is more of a systematic way to consider a range of options. According to O*NET,  the definition focuses on “identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.”

As a self-regulated psychological process

Others emphasize the broad range of skills and emotions needed for change. In addition, they endorse an inspired kind of pragmatism. For example, Dietrich Dorner and Joachim Funke define it as “a collection of self-regulated psychological processes and activities necessary in dynamic environments to achieve ill-defined goals that cannot be reached by routine actions. Creative combinations of knowledge and a broad set of strategies are needed. Solutions are often more bricolage than perfect or optimal. The problem-solving process combines cognitive, emotional, and motivational aspects, particularly in high-stakes situations. Complex problems usually involve knowledge-rich requirements and collaboration among different persons.”

As a novel way of thinking and reasoning

Finally, some emphasize the multidisciplinary nature of knowledge and processes needed to tackle a complex problem. Patrick Hester and Kevin MacG. Adams have stated that “no single discipline can solve truly complex problems. Problems of real interest, those vexing ones that keep you up at night, require a discipline-agnostic approach…Simply they require us to think systemically about our problem…a novel way of thinking and reasoning about complex problems that encourages increased understanding and deliberate intervention.”

A synthesis definition

By pulling the main themes of these definitions together, we can get a sense of what complex problem-solvers must do:

Gain a better understanding of the phenomena of a complex problem or mess. Use a discipline-agnostic approach in order to develop deliberate interventions. Take into consideration future impacts on the surrounding environment.

Why is complex problem solving important?

Many efforts aimed at complex social problems like reducing homelessness and improving public health – despite good intentions giving more effort than ever before – are destined to fail because their approach is based on simple problem-solving. And some efforts might even unwittingly be contributing to the problems they’re trying to solve. 

Einstein said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I think he could have easily been alluding to the need for more complex problem solvers who think differently. So what skills are required to do this?

What are complex problem-solving skills?

The skills required to solve a complex problem aren’t from one domain, nor are they an easily-packaged bundle. Rather, I like to think of them as a balancing act between a series of seemingly opposite approaches but synthesized. This brings a sort of cognitive dissonance into the process, which is itself informative.

It brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim to mind: 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

To see the problem situation clearly, for example, but also with a sense of optimism and possibility.

Here are the top three dialectics to keep in mind:

Thinking and reasoning

Reasoning is the ability to make logical deductions based on evidence and counterevidence. On the other hand, thinking is more about imagining an unknown reality based on thoughts about the whole picture and how the parts could fit together. By thinking clearly, one can have a sense of possibility that prepares the mind to deduce the right action in the unique moment at hand.

As Dorner and Funke explain: “Not every situation requires the same action,  and we may want to act this way or another to reach this or that goal. This appears logical, but it is a logic based on constantly shifting grounds: We cannot know whether necessary conditions are met, sometimes the assumptions we have made later turn out to be incorrect, and sometimes we have to revise our assumptions or make completely new ones. It is necessary to constantly switch between our sense of possibility and our sense of reality, that is, to switch between thinking and reasoning. It is an arduous process, and some people handle it well, while others do not.”

Analysis and reductionism combined with synthesis and holism

It’s important to be able to use scientific processes to break down a complex problem into its parts and analyze them. But at the same time, a complex problem is more than the sum of its parts. In most cases, the relationships between the parts are more important than the parts themselves. Therefore, decomposing problems with rigor isn’t enough. What’s needed, once problems are reduced and understood, is a way of understanding the relationships between various components as well as putting the pieces back together. However, synthesis and holism on their own without deductive analysis can often miss details and relationships that matter.  

What makes this balancing act more difficult is that certain professions tend to be trained in and prefer one domain over the other. Scientists prefer analysis and reductionism whereas most social scientists and practitioners default to synthesis and holism. Unfortunately, this divide of preferences results in people working in their silos at the expense of multi-disciplinary approaches that together can better “see” complexity.

seeing complex problem solving
Telescoping between analysis and synthesis to see the big picture.

Situational awareness and self-awareness 

Dual awareness is the ability to pay attention to two experiences simultaneously. In the case of complex problems, context really matters. In other words, problem-solving exists in an ecosystem of environmental factors that are not incidental. Personal and cultural preferences play a part as do current events unfolding over time. But as a problem solver, knowing the environment is only part of the equation. 

The other crucial part is the internal psychological process unique to every individual who also interacts with the problem and the environment. Problem solvers inevitably come into contact with others who may disagree with them, or be advancing seemingly counterproductive solutions, and these interactions result in emotions and motivations. Without self-awareness, we can become attached to our own subjective opinions, fall in love with “our” solutions, and generally be driven by the desire to be seen as problem solvers at the expense of actually solving the problem.

By balancing these three dialectics, practitioners can better deal with uncertainty as well as stay motivated despite setbacks. Self-regulation among these seemingly opposite approaches also reminds one to stay open-minded.

How do you develop complex problem-solving skills?

There is no one answer to this question, as the best way to develop them will vary depending on your strengths and weaknesses. However, there are a few general things that you can do to improve your ability to solve problems.

Ground yourself in theory and knowledge

First, it is important to learn about systems thinking and complexity theories. These frameworks will help you understand how complex systems work, and how different parts of a system interact with each other. This conceptual understanding will allow you to identify potential solutions to problems more quickly and effectively.

Practice switching between approaches

Second, practice switching between the dialectics mentioned above. For example, in your next meeting try to spend roughly half your time thinking and half your time reasoning. The important part is trying to get habituated to regularly switching lenses. It may seem disjointed at first, but after a while, it becomes second nature to simultaneously see how the parts interact and the big picture.

Focus on the specific problem phenomena

Third, it may sound obvious, but people often don’t spend very much time studying the problem itself and how it functions. In some sense, becoming a good problem-solver involves becoming a problem scientist. Your time should be spent regularly investigating the phenomena of “what is” rather than “what ought to be”. A holistic understanding of the problem is the required prerequisite to coming up with good solutions.

Stay curious

Finally, after we have worked on a problem for a while, we tend to think we know everything about it, including how to solve it. Even if we’re working on a problem, which may change dynamically from day to day, we start treating it more like a puzzle with a definite solution. When that happens, we can lose our motivation to continue learning about the problem. This is very risky because it closes the door to learning from others, regardless of whether we completely agree with them or not.

As Neils Bohr said, “Two different perspectives or models about a system will reveal truths regarding the system that are neither entirely independent nor entirely compatible.”

By staying curious, we can retain our ability to learn on a daily basis.

Tips for how to solve complex problems

Focus on processes over results

It’s easy to get lost in utopian thinking. Many people spend so much time on “what ought to be” that they forget that problem solving is about the gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. It is said that “life is a journey, not a destination.” The same is true for complex problem-solving. To do it well, a problem solver must focus on enjoying the process of gaining a holistic understanding of the problem. 

Adaptive and iterative methods and tools

A variety of adaptive and iterative methods have been developed to address complexity. They share a laser focus on gaining holistic understanding with tools that best match the phenomena of complexity. They are also non-ideological, trans-disciplinary, and flexible. In most cases, your journey through a set of steps won’t be linear. Rather, as you think and reason, analyze and synthesize, you’ll jump around to get a holistic picture.

adapting complex problem-solving
Adapting methods to changing environments.

In my online course, we generally follow a seven-step method:

  1. Get clear sight with a complex problem-solving frame
  2. Establish a secure base of operation
  3. Gain a deep understanding of the problem
  4. Create an interactive model of the problem
  5. Develop an impact strategy
  6. Create an action plan and implement
  7. Embed systemic solutions

Of course, each of these steps involves testing to see what works and consistently evaluating our process and progress.

Resolution is about systematically managing a problem over time

One last thing to keep in mind. Most social problems are not just solved one day, never to return. In reality,  most complex problems are managed, not solved. For all practical purposes, what this means is that “the solution” is a way of systematically dealing with the problem over time. Some find this disappointing, but it’s actually a pragmatic pointer to think about resolution – a way move problems in the right direction – rather than final solutions.

Problem solvers regularly train and practice

If you need help developing your complex problem-solving skills, I have an online class where you can learn everything you need to know. 

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