Before you begin trying to solve a problem, you should first get clear on what kind of problem you're facing. This provides a window into how difficult the uncovering of solutions and their implementation will be.
It's helpful to know this upfront as it grounds everyone's expectations, including your own, in reality.
It may also lead you to decide you don't need to undertake a problem-solving process at all or that you're not yet ready.
To do this, we recommend the usage of the Cynefin Framework (pronounced ku-nev-in in Welsh).
Created by management consultant, Dave Snowden (no relation to Edward), it breaks decision-making into five “contexts”: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. (Though variations of this framework exist, we will stick to Snowden’s original terminology.)
This framework was born out of the understanding that the world is frequently irrational and unpredictable.
This assessment will allow you to quickly determine if you are dealing with a problem that is Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic, or Disordered and then how to respond appropriately.
Defining the Problem Context:
"The Domain of Best Practice"
Simple contexts are as they sound. There's already a high degree of agreement as to what the problem is and how to solve it. Parts of a business that are consistent, like order processing, usually fall into this category.
It’s unlikely you need to launch into a full-scale problem-solving process if this is the case. You may just have to do some light tinkering around the edges to move the solution implementation along.
Approach and Potential Risks:
There are some risks in this context, however, with the largest one being you may wrongly classify a problem as Simple when it belongs in another context.
If you're the type of leader that's always telling people to keep their explanations short (and likely have a Social Style of Driver) you run the risk of missing important information. You need to give those that report to you the latitude to provide more in-depth clarifications of a situation if warranted.
You also need to make sure you don't become complacent about Simple context challenges. Taking your eye off the ball can cause you to miss shifts of context, and a simple problem can quickly descend into Chaos. Often, by the time the leader notices, things have gone completely off the rails.
Make sure you maintain regular check-ins on the challenge, even if they’re extremely brief.
"The Domain of Experts"
Though there's a clear relationship between cause and effect, everybody isn't able to see it. More analysis and broader expertise are required here, and you're now in the realm where conducting a problem-solving process is appropriate.
A great example would be if something is narrowly defined as a marketing problem. Several truly innovative ideas may emerge from non-experts outside of the marketing department that are dismissed. We've conducted many ideation sessions where some of the best solutions came from someone in a function that wasn't considered an expert in that challenge category. You need to create a setting that encourages participation from everyone.
"Analysis paralysis" is common with complicated problems as well. Remain committed to action.
"The Domain of Emergence"
Given the present speed of change and disruption, as well as macroeconomic factors brought upon us by global markets, this is the context where many organizational decisions are found today. The resulting lack of predictability means very few organizations exist in a cozy, protected bubble.
The Complex context is where a well-defined problem-solving process isn't just appropriate, it's imperative.
With a large degree of uncertainty at play from the influence of outside and unpredictable forces, you need to accept the solving of this challenge is going to be more difficult. This means there’s a higher likelihood of failure and a more intense need to explore several solutions simultaneously if resources allow. It’s NOT, however, an excuse to sit back and see what happens.
When a Complex challenge surfaces, it can be tempting for leaders to panic and respond by exerting a great deal of command-and-control. This is the opposite of what should be done. You need to open yourself up to the expertise of your team, to experimentation, and to the likelihood of multiple setbacks as you work toward resolving the challenge.
"The Domain of Rapid Response"
Though thankfully rare, this is the context where there’s no rhyme or reason for what’s happening. It’s an unpredictable (at least by you) crisis like a malfunctioning small engine aircraft crashing into one of your factories.
Trying to determine cause and effect is impossible because no manageable pattern exists. There are no right answers to be found. Though there are crisis management methodologies to utilize in a situation like this under expert guidance, this isn’t the correct context to undertake a collaborative exercise.
You need to stop the bleeding.
As a leader, this is where you show your mettle. It's a time where the exertion of top-down leadership is entirely appropriate as there's no time to seek input.
Your job is to establish order as quickly as possible and transform the context from Chaotic into Complex. From there you and your team can conduct a more collaborative exercise where you will be able to discern emerging patterns that will prevent crises like this from happening again (if possible) and identify new opportunities created.
As a side note, don't always manage from this context or be the type of leader that creates false Chaos as a form of control. Many of the examples of leadership we exalt are by those that performed well in a time of crisis by managing with a firm hand. However, outside of the Chaos context, this will earn you a reputation for being authoritarian, and your best people will rightly abandon ship in search of a better captain.
Disorder is when you're unable to tell which context your challenge falls into. It's probably the most frustrating because it's tough even to know where to begin.
If you landed on this as your result, it is because the quiz detected a high degree of inconsistency and confusion in your responses.
This is in no way a negative outcome or criticism.
It is very common to end up with this a result in your first go-round, especially if you just answered very quickly.
This requires some more work on your part with some possible input from your team.
What's often happening is the challenge itself is a mash-up of several different problems that exist in various contexts.
The leader's job is, therefore, to break the challenge down into distinct parts, assign each part to the appropriate context, and then act accordingly.
Once you have done this, you can retake the quiz with a focus on these smaller parts. It is very likely that this further analysis will result in receiving a more definitive result for your problem context.
Is there a repeating pattern to this problem that is persistent and causing consistent outcomes?
Do you feel the problem will require the diagnosis of an external subject matter expert?
Does the problem seem to be in a constant and unpredictable state of flux?
Is the problem causing a high degree of upset and confusion in your organization?
Are there clear cause-and-effect relationships at play that seem fairly obvious to most of your team?
Does it seem like the cause-and-effect relationships are discoverable but not obvious and more than one "right" answer is possible?
Does your team feel like there are no apparent right answers to the problem?
Does it appear that there is no cause-and-effect at play and that there is therefore no point in looking for the "right" answers?
Do you instinctually feel like the problem can be easily addressed with a simple review of the facts?
Do you have a clear grasp of what further knowledge you need to acquire or what further due diligence is required to arrive at a solution?
Are you stuck in a place where you feel like you and your team "don't know what you don't know"?
Are you being confronted with the need to make a lot of decisions extremely quickly with no discernable way to gather more information?
Is the challenge likely addressable with a return to or revision of established practices?
Is the challenge likely addressable with a few new processes and procedures created with some expert guidance?
Is the challenge only addressable by going "back to the drawing board" with some significantly reimagined approaches?
Is the challenge only addressable by taking immediate and significant action to re-establish a sense of order?