Brick Walls Can Be Part Of The Solution To Complex Problems

“It’s tough keeping the team motivated when we keep hitting brick walls,” a client recently said. “We sure could use a win.” I noticed his surprise when I asked, “What if the brick walls were part of the solution, rather than just taking you back to the drawing board?” Then, I elaborated: “These brick walls may seem like dead ends when you hit them, but when it comes to solving complex problems, they are often a step toward the solution — a sign that you need to backtrack a few steps and course-correct.”

Hitting the proverbial brick wall is a recurring theme in many coaching conversations I have with clients who work in the fields of science, technology and engineering, as well as health care and nonprofits. It seems leaders from all industries are being called to solve problems they haven’t come across before, and that won’t be changing any time soon.

Based on a Harvard Business Review survey from 2015, 43% of business managers reported that complexity was slowing growth, getting in the way of their ability to react to competitive threats and impeding their decision-making. I’m guessing the number would be greater if leaders were asked now, as we move through the next stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2016, the World Economic Forum stated one of the most important skills for the workforce in 2020 would be complex problem-solving.

Complex Vs. Complicated

What exactly makes a problem complex rather than complicated? Authors David Benjamin and David Komlos describe complicated challenges as technical in nature: “They have straight-line, step-by-step solutions, and tend to be predictable. People with the right expertise can usually design solutions that are easy to implement.”

On the other hand, never-before-seen complex challenges require innovative solutions. There are no right answers in most cases. Benjamin and Komlos suggest that complex challenges are never actually solved, rather, “most of the time, you have to push forward and see how it goes.”

Solving complex problems or systems means doing things differently. It requires fresh thinking, opening ourselves up to different possibilities and recognizing that, as author and coach Michael Neill puts it, “the future is an incomplete equation.” With complexity, part of solving the problem is actually moving forward and creating iterations as we go along.

Solving Complex Problems

Despite the uncertainty and unknown, there are steps we can follow to work toward solutions.

1. Take a breath.

First things first, take a moment to pause and breathe. We know from neuroscience that when we are in a state of threat, we lose access to our complex ways of thinking — often referred to as executive functions. Frustration and confusion can quickly move us to that threat response, where we lose these higher thought functions including strategizing, problem solving and the ability to commit to a sustained span of attention. Prevent that response by taking a few breaths and gathering your thoughts before acting.

2. Don’t go it alone.

Pull in your team. Share the problem and tap into their intel. Innovative ideas often come from a series of ideas built on one another, on the synergy that is created. It’s the adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Better yet, call on people from different disciplines. When it comes to complex problems, there is seldom one unique answer. Bringing in people from diverse areas will offer different perspectives.

3. Ask yourself one important question.

In his three-step approach, Navneet Arora, managing director of Citadel’s Global Quantitative Strategies says the first step in solving complex problems is to ask yourself the question, “Is this problem worth solving?” Although it may seem obvious, take the time to consider whether or not the problem should be solved and what the impact would be if it wasn’t essential.

4. Get back to basics.

If you decide to proceed, the next step is to take things back to basics by using first principles reasoning. In an interview with Kevin Rose, first principles thinker Elon Musk explains that to create, we need to reason from first principles, rather than by analogy — or “what’s been done before.” He explains, “You boil things down to the fundamental truths ... to what we are sure is true, or as sure as possible is true, and then reason up from there.”

A blog post, “First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge,” poses a series of questions based on Socratic questioning that can be used to establish first principles. Asking ourselves these questions allows us to establish the truths, reveal assumptions we hold and distinguish knowledge from ignorance.

Once you’ve taken yourself through this process, hitting the brick wall will take on a new meaning. Take a few steps back and start with a different iteration. As Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”