Systemic problems in business usually involve multiple goals, conflicts, and many possible actions that could be considered to resolve them.
They would fall under the complex category if we use the Cynefin framework. The number of interacting subsystems and their interactions are usually so large that it is almost impossible to establish a cause and effect relationship between them. This relationship can only be seen in retrospect. A probe-sense-response approach is needed. An effective survey should generally be based on an assumption that could be proven right or wrong. Results matter less, what matters most is learning, as it refines the problem and solution empirically. An empirical approach is the key to solving problems in the complex domain. This requires a good understanding of the structure and dynamics of complex systems. It is not a trivial undertaking. How is a complex system represented in a human mind with its limited capabilities?
Models are particularly useful for this and are useful tools to aid in the appreciation of attributes and behaviors of a system. Very rarely, a model will explain a complex system in its entirety, but without models it would be impossible to understand how a complex system works. There is more to humanity than what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs illustrates, yet Maslow’s model helps us explore a particular aspect of human nature in depth. Models are just that. They help to describe the attributes of the system and to study the behavior of the system, mostly in a particular context but in more depth. Most of the time, a complex system and its multiple sub-systems create a multidimensional network of information and interactions. This makes it difficult to observe the system under study and do anything meaningful to influence the interactions.
Models, often taking a simplistic and linear view of reality, help draw a line. Emphasis is reduced to a limited area and restricted to a particular context. It’s a way for us to take the big boulder and smash it into smaller boulders that are within our reach.
Whether it’s Tuckman’s model that charts team development or Kotter’s model that presents a change management approach, sometimes it can seem like they’re stating the obvious. Yes they are, but they also provide a framework that allows us to see our situation in more detail, explain it to others, or develop a common understanding in a larger group. Knowing where we are and where we aspire to go is an essential ingredient in problem solving. Sometimes you will have a hard time or after a while will find out that the model is not suitable, but that’s okay because the exercise itself will lead to a deeper appreciation of the system under study and the problem itself. even.
The model helps to build the hypothesis and to test the given system against the expected attributes and behaviors. The resulting validated learning is particularly useful. It does not matter how close the initial model used to start the survey will be to the final model which will eventually adapt and lead to the resolution of the problem.
The journey itself is fascinating. It’s a journey from complexity to simplicity. A trip to reduce noise so you can hear the underlying problem more clearly. Remove unnecessary items that obscure the real problem. The unnecessary chatter makes the monster look bigger than it actually is. However, it is not easy. Quoting the legendary Steve Jobs, “The simple can be more difficult than the complex: you have to work hard to keep your thinking clear and simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once there you can move mountains”
A validated learning approach that uses models can help you turn complex problems into simple problems. Find simpler solutions that will help you move your mountains.