A common truism is, “A problem well stated is half solved.” Understanding the type of problem so you can choose the right approach will save time and maximize your chances of success.
In a Harvard Business Review article, David Snowden and Mary Boone outlined an approach called the Cynefin Framework that helps to characterize a problem to make the best choice for its solution.
PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED BEFORE
Simple contexts are problems you’ve previously encountered, where cause and effect are easy to discern, and the appropriate answer is clear. This approach applies to many standardized processes. Solving problems in a simple context means first, sensing that something is not working properly; second, assessing and categorizing the facts; and then responding with an existing solution—usually a best practice.
Complicated contexts are problems you’ve previously encountered, but where cause and effect are hard to discern, and there is a range of possible solutions. Solving these problems requires deep domain expertise. Think of the Apollo 13 story where engineers had to find a solution that was good enough to keep the astronauts alive. Solving the problem requires first, sensing that something is awry; second, analyzing the facts; and then responding with a “good” solution.
PROBLEMS NEVER ENCOUNTERED BEFORE
Complex contexts are characterized by new and very difficult problems, in which cause-and-effect relationships are hidden. You must discover them by exploring patterns of connections and trying out low-risk interventions so potential solutions may emerge. Climate change is an example of a highly complex problem. Solving the problem requires first, probing to explore the problem; second, sensing the emergent connections of cause and effect; and then responding with a potential solution. Complex contexts require novel solutions because they are new and unpredictable.
Chaotic contexts have no right answers because there are no discernible or manageable patterns— there is only volatile turbulence. An example is the U.S. financial crisis of 2008. The course of action in chaos is first, acting to minimize the damage; and second, breaking the problem into parts and then sensing what emerges. However, in chaos, a solution may not always be found. If you can respond to minimize the harm from the chaos, then there is a possibility that the problems can be addressed using methodologies that work for complex and complicated systems.
Choosing the right approach to a problem will focus your efforts and increase the likelihood of finding the most appropriate solution.