Four Signs a Problem Isn't as “Complex” as Your Team Thinks

By Samantha Creme

Think about the most valuable challenges your organization is facing. These are the really tough, messy problems that keep you up at night. If they weren’t so difficult, you most likely would have already solved them! What if it turned out that these problems were not complex, but instead were all surprisingly easy to solve? How would you approach the problems differently?  

All too often, the perceived complexity surrounding a problem builds up over time until it becomes an insurmountable challenge. This can cause people to stop believing that a simple solution exists, which may result in an organization spending more time and resources than required to solve the problem or could even deter attempts at solving the problem altogether. 

So what can you do when your team is adamant that a challenge is too hard to overcome? First, detect which challenges may be easier to overcome than they appear. Here are some signs that a problem might not be as complex as your team believes:


Multiple irreconcilable ways are used to explain the same phenomenon

If conflicting stories are told to explain the same situation by different people, then the justifications cannot all be valid. For example, a manufacturing plant I once worked at wanted to increase its output to improve profitability and gain market share. In the first few days on site, I heard vastly different ideas about where the bottleneck of the process was: the production manager said it was the ageing machines, the maintenance manager said there was insufficient autonomous maintenance, the improvement manager believed the operators were underperforming, and the process manager claimed the bottleneck was caused by supply chain’s failure to dispatch raw materials on time. In reality, none of the initially believed areas turned out to be the true output bottleneck of the process. And while it may sometimes be true that reaching a new target will require working in multiple areas, there can be only one bottleneck at a time, as it is by definition the part of the process limiting capacity.

If there are multiple reasons floating around that can’t all simultaneously be true, gaining a deeper understanding of what’s really happening may reveal that the problem is less complicated than you thought.


New data has not been collected for a long time

The complexity associated with the challenge at hand may be based on outdated information that no longer holds true. Consider the parable about the elephants who were restrained only by a small rope tied to their front legs. At any moment, the elephants could easily break free from the restraints, but they never tried to. Since at a young age this same rope was strong enough to hold them, they had been conditioned over time to believe that they could not break free.

Is your team basing their conclusions on recent information? Maybe, like the elephants who were actually stronger than they realized, your team’s beliefs about the problem are based on outdated data.


The explanation is overly elaborate and highly unlikely

These examples may be most obvious to detect in children, where vivid imaginations and wishful thinking can lead to intricate reasons to explain a situation. In business, a story may evolve over time, based on input from different individuals and departments, to the point where it borders on outrageous. Or, when someone comes up with a new idea, others may be quick to respond with highly detailed reasons why it’s not possible. I experienced this first-hand when working on a capital expansion project, after we identified an opportunity to bring forward the construction of a major asset and improve the planned production schedule. One of the team members very thoroughly articulated the technical impact this would have on the heating systems of an adjacent building (and used lots of terms that not everyone in the room was  familiar with - “mass flow”, “cooling coils”, “convection heating”, etc.). While others were adequately persuaded to let the opportunity go, we dug into the facts and discovered that there was a simple way to avoid his concerns by rerouting one of the planned pipes. As an added bonus, this solution also resulted in a CAPEX reduction, since the new pipe was almost half the length of the initial one.

As Occam’s razor claims, "other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones". So if the justification you’re hearing sounds too complicated to be true, it probably is.


The problem is part of a complex system

If this is the case, it may be easy to assume that because the broader system within which the problem exists is extremely complicated, the problem itself must also be complex. Imagine your car’s engine stops running and causes a breakdown on the side of the road. The engine may be a sophisticated system that isn’t straightforward to understand, but the solution to getting your car back up and running may be as easy as refilling the gas tank. Luckily, our cars have indicators, created by their manufacturers, that let us know when the problem at hand really is simple to understand.

Are some of the challenges your team is working on part of larger, more complicated processes in the business? Perhaps then, the complexity of the problem is being mistaken for the complexity of the system.  

Now, think back to those valuable problems that your organization is facing. Can you challenge your team on their perceived “complexity”? You may be pleasantly surprised to find that the problem may not be as insurmountable as it initially seemed. Imagine the opportunities that are waiting to be uncovered and the simple solutions that may be possible.


Like this article? You might like:

Where simple, elegant solutions go to die

Improvement mindsets - amplifying your efforts

Do you solve problems like a NASA rocket scientist?