Complex Problem Solving
According to Albert Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” So what does it take to increase the complexity of our thinking? Tony Schwartz shares some insight leaders need to solve seemingly intractable problems.
Too many leaders default to looking at decisions as either-or: The answer is right or wrong, good or bad, win or lose. This binary thinking has a built-in limitation: Overrelying on any given solution eventually generates the opposite problem. Consider the familiar story of the esteemed consultant brought in to address the CEO’s concern that decision making in her organization has become too centralized. The consultant’s solution? A detailed plan to decentralize. Three years later the CEO calls the consultant back in, worried that decision making has become too decentralized. The solution? A detailed plan to centralize.
To cultivate this more embracing perspective, my team and I encourage leaders to adopt three core practices:
Forever challenge your convictions. This practice begins with asking two key questions in the face of any difficult decision: “What am I not seeing here?” and “What else might be true?” Most of us tend to default to what we already know. Confirmation bias is one of the most pernicious and predictable influences on our capacity to see more. Confirmation bias makes us feel safer, but it also prevents us from seeing a more nuanced picture of the possible. The reality is that any strength can be overused to the point that it becomes a liability. Think for a moment about one of your primary strengths. Then ask yourself: “What does it look like when I overuse it? What is the cost to my effectiveness, and what is the balancing quality I must cultivate?”
Do the most challenging task first every day. Most leaders we encounter have every minute of their calendars filled, typically with meetings and emails they write in between, often on the run. But relentless demands and the pressure to respond rapidly undermine more complex thinking. Critical as decisiveness can be, nuanced solutions emerge from wrestling with the most difficult issues, rather than prematurely closing in on a decision. Scheduling this practice is a way of ensuring that I give complex issues time and attention that might otherwise be consumed by more urgent but less intellectually demanding and value-adding priorities.
Pay close attention to how you’re feeling. Embracing complexity is not just a cognitive challenge, but also an emotional one. In part, it’s about learning to manage negative emotions — anger and fear above all. When we move into a fight-or-flight state, our vision literally narrows, our prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, and we become more reactive and less capable of reflection. In these moments our attention automatically shifts from focusing on the task at hand to defending our sense of value. Above all, managing complexity requires courage — the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us. The best practice is to not overrely on best practices, which typically emerge from our current assumptions and worldview. “In complex systems,” says leadership consultant Zafar Achi, “there is no recipe, only art.”
Use this advice to navigate your already complex world of management and take heart that accessing the complex thinking you need is a few straightforward, but courageous, steps away.