Complex Problems Require Systems Thinking

Complex Problems Require Systems Thinking

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 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, complex 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 anchovies, 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 thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing 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?


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

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