A Methodology for Complex Problems (version 3)

complexity methodologyA year ago I presented a second version of a cobbled-together methodology for grappling with complex problems. These are the problems that traditional analytical methodologies cannot handle, because analytical approaches require a near-complete understanding of the phenomenon, the variables that enter into it, and their causality. Complex problems simply have too many variables to ever be ‘knowable’ to the extent required by such methodologies.

My last effort drew together ideas from a dozen different complexity theorists. I was trying to accomplish two things that I think previous attempts to define such methodologies have lacked. The first was to tweak the invitation process so that the ‘crowd’ that was attracted to the event was truly diverse (some such events are too self-congratulatory and suffer from groupthink). Dave Snowden has even suggested that debate and disagreement are probably essential to progress in addressing complex problems.

The second was to ensure that, while the process had to be principally self-managed (or at most loosely facilitated), the attendees would be sufficiently informed about both the process (the methodology, and the nature and challenges of complex problems) and the specific problem they were addressing, that they left their preconceptions and pre-formed conclusions behind, and came to the event both knowledgeable and open-minded.

But it has since occurred to me that these two additional ‘ingredients’ (diversity and lack of preconceptions) are to some extent at odds. Let’s suppose for example the complex problem we’re tackling is creating natural enterprises — finding people to make a sustainable, joyful living with, and establishing and operating an enterprise with those people. A couple of weeks ago I presented a model for what I think is the first and most difficult part of that process: finding the right people to make a living with. Having put a lot of thought into it (and having a lot of entrepreneurial success stories and horror stories to draw on that support it) my propensity would be to provide this model as pre-reading for a ‘creating natural enterprises’ event, to help inform attendees. But what if that model were to turn off potential attendees who didn’t like that model, or who didn’t think finding the right partners was an important part of the process of creating natural enterprises? Would ‘my’ event end up being attended only by people who (perhaps erroneously) agreed with my ideas?

The great challenge we have in any open, self-managed process is that the more informed you are about a subject, the more likely you are to have already formed conclusions about approaches and even answers to the problems it presents. This is human nature — we form opinions quickly and change them slowly and reluctantly, as Lakoff’s theory of frames and worldviews has demonstrated. So we have a choice, in our invitees to complex problem events, between people who have already made up their minds what should be done (and will fiercely defend those views during the event) and those who are open-minded and are likely to accept the first intelligent view they hear at the event (not necessarily the most defensible). You’ve probably seen this dynamic in meetings and conferences you’ve attended. And notwithstanding the urgings of Scharmer, Varela et al to practice teaching ourselves to be open to new ideas, to ‘let go’ of our preconceptions and ‘let come’ new emergent possibilities, this is, I think, asking most of us to be what we are not.

What has, in my experience, led to the creation of extraordinary natural enterprises is a fortunate synchronicity of a group of people with complementary gifts who love each other (no I do not think ‘love’ is too strong a word) and who have learned something new on a subject about which they had no preconceptions at a time when they had the energy and predisposition and resources to do something about it. People who love each other are more willing to be open to new ideas, more willing to ‘let go’ and ‘let come’ and to persevere past the inevitable hurdles in new enterprise creation and operation.

If I were to organize and invite people to an event to address the challenges of creating natural enterprises, my guess is that it would attract roughly the right people — mostly people looking to create natural enterprises for themselves, and therefore engaged and motivated. It would, however, probably include some annoying people with magic, one-size-fits-all formulas for how to create natural enterprises that they’d try to force down everyone else’s throat.

The big problem would be that most of the motivated attendees would come with a lot of burdensome baggage, including preconceptions that natural enterprises, like other small enterprises, inevitably require:

  • External ‘market’ financing
  • A sales force, and lots of ‘marketing’
  • A huge amount of work and self-sacrifice
  • A tolerance for stress and the high likelihood of failure
  • Hiring and ‘motivating’ employees
  • Competition with ‘established players’ and adversarial relationships with some stakeholders
  • Continuous growth

I have tried many times to smash these myths of entrepreneurship, but as long as business schools and other entrepreneurs keep repeating and reinforcing these myths, they will continue to prevail in the minds of most prospective entrepreneurs (and keep most from even trying to become entrepreneurs).

My great fear is that, if I were to convene an event on creating natural enterprises, it would be hijacked by:

  • Believers in the myths above, who will try to focus the attendees’ attention on how to finance, sell, market, sacrifice, cope with stress, survive, hire, motivate, compete, defeat and grow, and
  • Advocates of one-size-fits-all ‘turnkey’ solutions (ý la eMyth) trying to ‘sell’ their preconceived solution to the whole group.

If that were to happen, I think I would probably throw up my hands and walk out of my ‘own’ event. And I think there is a substantial likelihood that it would happen. I think that is the reason so many people end up developing and trying to sell their own entrepreneurial formulas (and there are a million of them out there) rather than put up with the disagreements that collaboration seems destined to bring. I also think that is the reason that I haven’t already held a event on creating natural enterprises.

If I were to hold one, the complex problem methodology I would propose to use is shown above right. It is simpler and more iterative than my previous attempts. The first three steps are pre-event activities, while the latter four are event activities. Here’s how they would work:

  1. Research the Issue: Draw together as much information as possible about the issue. Post it somewhere, ideally using a wiki or some other collaborative format. Cite sources. Interpretations are permitted, but solutions and prescriptions, at this stage, are not. 
  2. Articulate the Challenge: Develop a clear, succinct statement of the problem or challenge, and why it is such a challenge (i.e. extent, intractable nature, why previous ‘solutions’ appear to have failed).
  3. Invite People to Address the Challenge: Send out an open invitation (Open Space style) designed to attract a diverse, engaged, reasonably informed and open-minded set of attendees. Invite people, whether they can attend or not, to contribute to the collective research developed so far. Ask invitees to study and think about the research. Also, ask invitees to think about how the challenge might be parsed (divided up into aspects for the brainstorming conversations during the event), and to post their thoughts on this to the collective research repository.
  4. Parse the Challenge: At the start of the event, have the group decide (self-managed, Open Space style) which aspects of the challenge to address in smaller groups. They may draw on the parsing ideas in the repository, or may not.
  5. Brainstorm Each Aspect: Over the next hours or days, have the self-selected groups converse, brainstorm, and self-document (using mindmaps or similar techniques, and transcribed stories) their learnings and ideas. Each session should start with an overview of the pertinent research from the respository, which should be available to everyone, and linked to from the mindmaps.
  6. Integrate Learnings: This is a period for each participant to read and think about the mindmaps and stories from all the sessions.
  7. Decide on Next Steps: Each participant tells the others, in turn, what they plan to do next, personally or with others, to use what they learned from the sessions. Participants may self-organize into groups to pursue some of these next steps. These next steps could include research towards another, perhaps more specific, event.

That’s it. I’ve deliberately made it as flexible as possible, and tried to avoid being overly prescriptive. The only differences from Open Space are the more substantive up-front research and the use of specific technologies (wikis for collaborative research, mindmaps and stories for documenting conversations). It could be used for a session on global warming, or world poverty, or creating a health system or an education system that actually works. It would be iterative, with high-level events leading to other events on more focused subjects, approaches or aspects of a problem. The events would probably have to be face-to-face, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be broadcast live and recorded, for Internet viewing.

So for an event on creating natural enterprises, for example, I would set up a wiki with all the data on underemployment, entrepreneurial failure rates and the reasons for them etc., but not including my Natural Enterprise models — that would be jumping to solutions. After articulating the challenge I would send an open invitation to the event, and open the wiki to others. I might suggest, on the wiki, as parsing options, a session on finding the right people to make a living with, and sessions on organic financing, viral marketing, how to research unmet needs, non-hierarchical organization, and succeeding without growth. As Open Space requires, whoever shows up would be the right people. I would not twist arms, nor would I refuse anyone who wanted to come.

And then the event would occur, and I would be just one of the participants, equal to all others. My guess is that, especially since Open Space would be a new process for most of the participants, it would be as much an experience learning about Open Space as grappling with the challenge of creating natural enterprises. I suspect I would be disappointed with what got accomplished, but not with the process. I expect some important new relationships would be formed and they would lead to some important new collaborations. I doubt that a strong consensus on how to create natural enterprises would emerge, though that might come later. I doubt that anyone would find others to make a living with at the first event, or decide on a product or service for a new natural enterprise, but I think it’s possible that future events on each of these two more specific subjects might well be more fruitful in those regards.

What is holding me back, I think, is fear of failure. Fear that I won’t be able to convince anyone that the myths of entrepreneurship are just that. Fear that I’m too far ahead in my thinking, and that no one will come, or understand. Fear that someone will try to hijack the event to sell their stale or naive ideas. Fear that people will not like, or not follow, the process. Fear that people will not be open to new ideas, or will be too open to new ideas. And most of all, fear that we no longer have the patience, or the time, to commit to any process that can actually work, that can actually make a difference in our beleaguered world.

But I think I will do it anyway. Probably a weekend this summer. Time to stop talking about it and do something. Stay tuned.

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6 Responses to A Methodology for Complex Problems (version 3)

  1. Jason says:

    You should experiment with Right brained individuals and left brained. Debono’s “Lateral Thinking” has some great information. ADHDer’s are right-brained, they don’t create such deep trenches of preconceived ideas as most people. They think in pictures, thus the thoughts are not organized, and they seem more scatter brained. The benefit is they strip away the non-essentials/fluf and can see directly into the patterns…something like TRIZ.

  2. Jason says:

    I’m in a bit of a cynical mood regarding complexity at the moment, so I’m going to raise of couple of concerns/critiques and hope for some responses that restore my faith in such things.- Won’t all of the research you discover have similar framing issues as having a group of experts?- Don’t “clear, succinct statements of the problem” by definition reduce the complexity inherent in the situation?- How will you handle closed-minded, purposely perverse people who won’t play by the rules?- Isn’t parsing the challenge an inherently reductionist (or at least non-connectivist) approach to understanding the challenge?- A small point, but as I recall when individual brainstorming is used as a precursor to group brainstorming the results are more broad and “creative” than starting in with group brainstorming (although as I look closer, you aren’t advocating group or individual work; my bad)- Since the integration in personal, and the next steps are about action and not understanding, aren’t opportunities for sharing the newly-developed perspectives missing?As I see it, what your methodology is the development of an enriched (in the sense of incorporating a wider variety of perspectives) pool of potential actions centered on the individual agent. Assuming that this is the case, why is the enrichment a desired outcome? If the situation is complex, then why does adding in a limited (by virtue of logistics) number of new perspectives enable my to obtain a better (whatever that means) understanding (in the sense that if a complex situation has inherently too many variables to understand than the difference between having one and ten perspectives is essentially noise)?Enough grousing for the moment. Thank you for the interesting posts!

  3. Nick Kearney says:

    Thinking about your search for a publisher. While I understand that the time you spend on that needs some kind of income, it occurs to me that maybe that is not the way, that maybe there are other ways to approach it. Maybe the business model of author finds publisher, gets advance etc does not gel so well with what you seem to be aiming at. Maybe you could think about self-publishing? Collaborative writing?Just a thought. All the best.Nick

  4. Ed says:

    I would love to participate.

  5. John Goekler says:

    Hey, Dave:Some thoughts on your, Methodology for Complex Problems (version 3).Complexity science tells us the emergent behaviors of a CAS are determined by:

  6. SOPHIA says:


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