How to Solve Complex Problems Fast

Today’s organizations are grappling with increasingly complex problems that lack simple or straightforward solutions. That is the challenge authors David Benjamin and David Komlos take on in their new book Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast

David Komlos, CEO of Syntegrity, is an entrepreneur, early-stage investor and speaker who has helped change the way many global leaders approach their top challenges. From Fortune 100 transformation to international aid, content creation in sports and entertainment to improving access to life-saving products, he advises top leaders and enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate solutions and execution on their defining challenges. David Benjamin is the co-founder of Syntegrity and the chief architect behind its implementation of the complexity formula laid out in the book. He regularly guides leaders and their teams through their application of the formula, helping them get to decisions and action in days, no matter the industry, type of challenge, or nature of the organization. In this capacity, David has become a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies and government leaders on how to organize for complexity and find traction in the face of the intractable.

I recently spoke with Benjamin and Komlos about their formula for helping organizations in diverse industries successfully tackle complex challenges.

Early on in the book, you differentiate between “complicated” and “complex.” Could you summarize the difference between those concepts and why it matters?

Complex problems are categorically different from other kinds of problems. Simple and complicated challenges are linear in nature; they’re mechanistic—solved once, solved forever. Complex challenges, on the other hand, are new each time. They are non-deterministic, with many moving, interdependent, and compounding parts. Complex problems are the defining challenges, the ones that persist until new solutions are developed and tried. Driving a car is simple (anyone can do it). Fixing a car is complicated (only experts can do it). Disrupting the automotive industry is complex.

The distinction between simple, complicated, and complex matters because each category requires its own approach if you are to be successful in resolving it. For complicated challenges, the traditional hub-and-spoke, expert-centric, interview-based approach is appropriate. For complex challenges, that same approach consistently falls short when it comes to buy-in, alignment, and execution. Recognizing the difference and adapting how you go about solving accordingly is a key first step in dealing with complexity.

You also stress the importance of defining a challenge by turning it into a good question. What do you see as the components of a good question?

A good question should be compelling to those who will be asked to develop answers. It should include a stretch goal that is within reach but not without departing from the status quo. It should provide a clear scope without unnecessary constraints or bias. It should be action-oriented with a clear planning timeline and possibly a separate timeline for goal achievement. If the question agitates people, that’s good, because by definition it’s calling for new answers to something complex; a comfortable, familiar, and safe question won’t do the trick.

Here are a few examples of good questions:

  • “What changes to the entire customer experience do we need to make starting now and over the next 18 months to turn every customer into an advocate for us?”
  • “What must we do now and over the next two years to get the best-possible value with far more efficient expenditure on our IT business investments?”
  • “In the next 12 months, what must we do to drive necessary changes in mindset, action, and behavior to fully realize the benefits of operational risk management across the enterprise?”

A core aspect of your formula involves “complexity challenges” where the right people work on solving the complex challenge together. What kinds of roles and characteristics should be included in a complexity challenge?

The term “requisite variety” characterizes the group you should convene to solve a complex problem—the necessary and sufficientvariety that matches the variety of the problem. Here are a couple tools that can help you identify necessary candidates:

The 12 Zones. These cover your in-house operations, geographies, field personnel, hierarchical levels, supply chain and key partnerships, customers, and external experts. For any given challenge, it also includes those directly impacted, those with relevant experiences or specialist know-how, and those who must own and execute solutions. The 12 Zones cover the functional/roles-and-responsibilities structure of your organization and your challenge.

The 13 Characteristics. These help you define and choose the human beings who are part of your team—their personalities, thinking styles, demographics, attitudes, stake, personal histories, specialty knowledge, authority, and influence.

You must think carefully about the zones and the characteristics that you prioritize for your group and in how you find the people who collectively will cover those aspects in as small a group as possible. That’s where sufficiency comes in; and without it, the group can very quickly become unwieldy.

Your in-house team is likely most, but not all, of the variety you need to include. A few carefully selected outsiders, whether they are customers or supply chain partners or external experts, may be absolutely necessary in terms of how they will both challenge and stimulate your in-house group to achieve results that aren’t otherwise possible.

You stress that complexity challenges should take place face-to-face. Why is that important?

Human beings are wired to connect, but not all connections are created equally when it comes to effective problem-solving. Research has shown that in-person contexts are more effective for groups who are working together to tackle something. Face-to-face increases communication of multimodal sensory information, which more successfully drives “turn-taking” and social sensitivity—keys to how groups collaborate and perform together.

You also recommend not putting together an agenda for complexity challenges, which contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom about how to run effective meetings. What are the benefits of foregoing a formal agenda?

Only by foregoing a formal agenda can you truly maximize the return on convening a high-variety group of people. You sought out variety because you and your small team have limited data, information, and knowledge about what’s really going on in your organization, with customers, and so on. While your small team might possess some of the pieces of the puzzle, when it comes to complexity, it can’t possibly know everything it needs to know. So you applied the law of requisite variety and chose 36 people to augment your executive team (for example) in figuring out what to do.

To impose an agenda on this group is to filter out much of the rich variety you’re hoping to leverage. Without the direct involvement of everyone in setting the agenda, you won’t know everything that needs to be discussed. Worse, as someone once said, when you preset the agenda, you can basically write the minutes before the meeting happens. That’s because a preset agenda can easily pre-ordain the results.

Another great reason to involve your entire group in setting the agenda together is that it’s an incredibly engaging way to start a collaborative exercise. The absence of an agenda is an interesting and distinctive signal that we’re not approaching this in the same old way.

Note that in place of an agenda, there’s a really compelling question (to provide scope) and a really solid schedule (because discipline and time-awareness are necessary). All that’s missing is consensus on what topics are going to be explored and resolved in the course of answering the question.

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