This Simple Method Will Change the Way Your Team Solves Tough Problems

How can leaders overcome ambiguity, volatility, and paradox in their businesses?originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by David Benjamin, co-author of Cracking Complexity, on Quora:

Today, organizations are grappling with ambiguity, volatility and paradox surrounding the challenges they face. This is complexity, and solving it is the defining leadership challenge of our time. But too many leaders approach complexity the wrong way - putting pressure on 'the usual suspects' (those with a track record of solving other problems) to tackle complex challenges one-at-a-time, in sequence over many months. It's like setting a pot of water on "low" and waiting for it to boil. To solve the seemingly impossible challenges that leaders bang their heads against for months - to get the metaphorical water to boil - you must generate a high amount of heat very quickly.

To set the pot of water on "high", you need to do things differently.

Acknowledge and Articulate the Complexity

You know that 'form follows function' and 'structure follows strategy'. So, too, problem-solving approach must follow problem type. Start by recognizing you are facing something complex - not merely complicated (Chapter 4 of Cracking Complexity offers guidance on how to tell the difference) - and proceed accordingly.

This will mean engaging others in helping to solve it, and to start down that path, take the time to formulate a really good question that will give them clarity on the help you're asking for. Whether the question is about "doubling the business over the next 2 years while protecting margins", or "radically improving our capabilities and capacity to deliver value to customers", getting the question right means you can anchor and focus people unambiguously.

Convene All the Right Players

Who do you need to answer your question? A group that collectively matches the complexity, made up of a high-variety mix of both in-house and external talent. Think through who that is: those representing all relevant constituencies from within your organization - business units, geographies, functions, roles, and hierarchical levels; and others from inside or outside who you need to include for the additional variety they bring - futurists, market experts, innovative thinkers, experts on the challenge, customers, partners, and so on. Chapter 6 gets provides comprehensive guidance on requisite variety.

Now get everyone together in one place for a short time to co-create answers to your question.

Put Shared Understanding before Action

Before solving anything, force your convened group to first tell their stories, and surface issues and opportunities from their individual perspectives. Deliberately build tension and frustration by holding them back from answering your question until they have first reached a shared understanding about the challenge itself. This will drive them to prime their own collective pump with the data, information and knowledge that they've each brought in, before they turn their attention to answers.

Make Collisions the Fuel for Solving

In the context of complex challenges, brainpower is table-stakes, and insufficient. Collisions are the currency - the 'method of action' - for getting to answers, alignment and mobilization fast.

Collisions are purposeful interactions between individuals in your high-variety group, where they come together to deliberate on something important. At collision points, people are in direct contact with each other, talking, listening, challenging, agreeing or disagreeing, and then quickly moving on to collisions with others. Collisions fuel problem-solving and controlled explosions of progress in large groups when they are high-speed, high-volume, and high-quality. Chapter 7 will give you much greater detail on what I mean.

A great question, the right people, and many, many high-impact collisions driving the group from initial confusion through shared understanding and finally to clarity and an action plan they all believe is right - that is the right approach to overcoming ambiguity, volatility and paradox.

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