H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, straightforward, and wrong.” How do you solve complex problems? Sometimes you can “just do it,” knock down the first domino—which topples the next in a long line of dominoes—and achieve the result you want. More often, however, the world is not domino-simple.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley nailed the nature of the problem: “Nothing in the world is single, All things...In one another’s being mingle....”

Business strategist Peter Senge has expressed the same idea less poetically but more precisely: “human endeavors are...systems. They...are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other.”

Senge said this is a problem of dynamic complexity, which he defined as “situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.”

At the simplest level, dynamic complexity is the problem of the hotel shower with a delay between the faucet and water temperature, resulting in water that lunges between freezing and scalding. At more complex levels, it is the problem of the well-intentioned action that has disastrous unintended consequences, such as early settlers importing rabbits to make Australia look more like England—rabbits that ultimately caused widespread habitat destruction.

The world is not only a dynamic system; it is an open dynamic system. This means that it is not only complex, but also that new things can enter the picture to change the nature of the equation. For example, com¬plex though it was, the ocean ecosystem off the shores of Peru was functioning harmoniously until an outside force intervened. In the 1950s, enterprising fishermen decided to make some easy money by harvesting 14 million tons of anchovies to sell as food for cattle and pets. Unfortunately, the guanay (a seabird) eats an¬chovies, and the guanays’ droppings make an excellent fertilizer, particularly for plankton. Plankton feed not only the anchovies but also tuna and sea bass. After the giant Peruvian anchovy harvest, the guanay population dropped by 98.5 percent. As a result, the populations of plankton and the fish that fed on them also crashed. Now, fifty years later, the fish populations in the area have yet to recover. With one ill-conceived action, the fishermen destroyed generations of livelihood for future fishing families.

Senge suggested that the best way to deal with complex systems is with systems thinking: “Systems think¬ing is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for see¬ing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’” He went on to say, “Seeing only individual actions and missing the structure underlying the actions...lies at the root of our powerlessness in complex situations.”

So how do you deal with such complexities? Every situation is different so you need to engage in con¬sidered action, features of which include:

Acting complexly

In The Logic of Failure, German psychologist Dietrich Dörner summarized experiments on how people deal with complex systems. Dörner created a computer model of an imaginary country in West Africa that he called Tanaland. The people of this imaginary land depend on growing crops, gathering fruit, and herding sheep and cattle. Participants in Dörner’s experiment were given the opportunity to control certain variables of the Tanaland computer model, such as whether to use irrigation and fertilizer. Most participants quickly wiped out Tanaland’s population, but a few were able to preserve a healthy rate of growth. The differences between the experiment’s two groups, Dörner wrote, were striking: “The good participants acted more complexly. Their decisions took different aspects of the entire system into account, not just one aspect. This is clearly the more appropriate behavior in dealing with complicated systems,” he added, because complexity means there are “many interdependent variables in a given system,” which makes “it impossible to undertake only one action.”

Dörner continued, “To the ignorant, the world looks simple. If we pretty much dispense with gathering information, it is easy for us to form a clear picture of reality and to come to clear decisions based on that picture.” Further, “The bad participants displayed...a reluctance to gather information and an eagerness to act. By contrast, the good participants were initially cautious about acting and tried to secure a solid base of information.... The less information gathered, the greater the readiness to act.”

Moving your focus

Complex action requires an ever-moving focus, which involves:
• Solving the problem that needs to be solved, which means resisting the temptation to do only what you enjoy doing or only what you are good at doing.
• To the degree you can, tackling problems while they are still small. I’m thinking of the children’s book The Little Prince, in which the prince is looking for a sheep to help him with his baobab-tree problem. When told that the trees are enormous, he points out that they start small.
• Shifting your focus from the big picture to the details and back again without fixating at just one level of the problem.
• Balancing the need to gather more information with the need to get something done.

Suppose you are an emergency room physician. One day a friend of yours who has been in a car wreck is wheeled in. First you’d make sure his airway is clear and that his breathing and circulation are fine (details and action), but all the while you would keep an eye on his vital signs (big picture and information). At the same time that all of this is going on, you would attend to his emotional needs and try to moderate your emotional reaction at seeing your friend in such a state. Definitely very dif¬ficult to do, but you have to do it all at once to achieve the best outcome.

Dörner, D. 1996. The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right. Translated by R. Kimber and R. Kimber. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington. To find out more, go to http://www.lastingcontribution.com.

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington is the author of a book that has won seven prestigious awards, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work.