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Solving Complex Problems

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

As a business leader, you and your team doubtless need to tackle complex problems from time to time − if not every single day! Even when those problems do not need, or even want, creative solutions, your imagination is a powerful tool for understanding and solving complex problems. 

Complex problems include one or more of these characteristics: they have lots of factors affecting them; the situation surrounding the problem is unclear; they require you apply unpleasant solutions; or they are the result of an unforeseen disaster.

Lots of Factors

Simple problems tend to have just a couple of factors that you need to keep in mind. Complex problems tend to have lots of them. For example, imagine you run a toaster company and you discover that a switch in your toasters is defective and, if the toaster is bumped, could become dislodged and cause customers to get electrical shocks. You basically have two solutions. You could, and probably should, recall your toasters and fix them. Alternatively, you could ignore the problem and hope that your customers fail to realise that your toasters are flawed. Fortunately, replacing the broken part is simple and inexpensive.

In a more complex world, let us imagine that your toaster has the same defect. Unfortunately, a family is suing your company because their two year old child was seriously injured by an electric shock from your toaster − or so they claim. Your lawyer tells you that this family has a history of suing companies based on dubious claims and there is little evidence the child really was injured.

Moreover, the piece that is malfunctioning is a computer chip that enables people to operate their toasters via smartphone. That the chip is faulty is due to poor manufacturing by the chipmaker, not you. However, they fail to admit responsibility for the bad chip and refuse to fix it. To make matters worse, there is not an equivalent chip immediately available to replace the flawed one.

On top of that, you are just about to launch your new Gonzo 1200 toaster. A recall now would be difficult to manage because resources are tied up in producing and distributing the new product. The publicity surrounding the recall would, according to your vice president of marketing, have an adverse effect on sales of the new toaster. Better to wait six months.

Nevertheless, more and more retailers are contacting you about customer complaints regarding the defective toaster. Worse, some dissatisfied customers have taking to complaining on your Facebook page and your social media marketing director suggests you should act quickly before things get out of hand.

What do you do?

Unclear Situations

Apple launches an iToaster, which becomes all the rage. Do you you invest in devising a similar product? Or do you assume that the iToaster, which is five times more expensive than your simple, traditional toaster, will simply be a status symbol for Apple fans; and have little effect on the traditional toaster market?

Designing, licensing new technologies and marketing a similar product, to the iToaster, would be wickedly expensive. But, if the iToaster becomes to toasters what the iPhone was to mobile phones, not launching a similar product might be disastrous. If you doubt me, ask Nokia's CEO.

On the other hand, if the iToaster fails to take off, your knock-off product is equally unlikely to be popular and the investment in designing and manufacturing it would be lost.

What do you do?

Unpleasant Solutions

Some problems may have simple solutions, but those solutions are not very nice. Thanks to the iToaster and copycat products launched by Samsung, Sony, LG and a handful of little known Chinese firms, sales of your traditional toasters are plummeting and you are losing money. Lots of it.

Your chief financial officer (CFO) tells you that the only option is to close a factory or two, but that will mean laying off over 2000 workers. It will be bad for the workers and bad for the company. Unfortunately, not closing factories would probably bankrupt the company within 18 months, your CFO tells you, and that would lead to way more people out of work.

What do you do?


Let us imagine that the defective chip in your toasters does not cause an electrical shock. Instead, it causes the toasters to explode. Worse, the defective chips were placed in your toasters by an evil gang who demand $20 million or they will blow up all of your toasters at midnight tomorrow. And, if you call the police, they will blow up the toasters sooner.

What do you do?

Or, maybe your main toaster making factory is destroyed in an earthquake that also has killed 100s of your employees and many more members of their families. You want to help their survivors, of course, but you also need to keep making toasters in order to keep your business alive.

What do you do?

Combination Platters

And, of course, many complex problems include characteristics from more than one of these categories, which only makes them more complex.


In many cases, not only are problems complex, but their solutions need to be discovered and acted upon quickly, which does not give you the luxury of evaluating possible solutions in great detail or at least holding lots of meetings to avoid making a decision. Even if you do not act on your complex problem, your failure to act is in effect a solution. Complex problems do not go away if you ignore them. They usually grow worse.


Complex problems are here to stay and will probably only become more complex. As a business leader, this means that you need to prepare your people for dealing with such problems. Training and simulations are a good start. But before we go there, we need to consider the key skill you and your team need for solving complex problems: imagination.


Solving complex problems usually requires a basket full of skills: analytical, technical, soft and more. Nevertheless, in order to visualise the problem in the first place, you need a good imagination.  The ability to visualise a complex problem gives you far deeper insight into the problem. Imagining the problem often makes it clear that there are other factors to the problem that are not immediately obvious and while that only makes the problem more complicated, a more comprehensive view of the problem makes it more likely that you can devise the best possible solution.

Once you visualise a problem in your imagination, you can begin to experiment with solutions − also in your imagination. You can imagine how solutions would affect every aspect of the problem and even imagine how solutions might play out over the longer term. This is important, what may initially seem like a simple solution may prove a disaster when you consider the factors affecting it, while a seemingly poor solution could actually be the most effective over the longer term.

For example, when things go seriously wrong, business leaders often try to cover them up, believing that if the public never learn about the disaster, the problem will go away. It is a solution that seems easy.

But, the public inevitably does learn about the problem and when they do, the problem usually becomes fare worse. On the other hand, acknowledging a serious problem right away and doing something about it may seem a difficult and expensive solution in the short term. However, it will often work out less expensive and less complicated than denying the problem over the longer term.

A classic example of this is the Tylenol  murders of 1982. Someone tampered with a number of bottles of this popular, over-the-counter pain reliever and poisoned the capsules inside. Several people took the tablets and died, including a 12 year old girl. Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol acted promptly by taking responsibility and recalling all Tylenol products everywhere, even before it was clear which batch or batches had been tampered with.

The company's fast action was expensive and potentially damning, but it paid off. They maintained customer trust and Tylenol is still widely used in America. Indeed, their response is a classic case study in MBA programmes.

Simple Modeling

Not everyone has a deep imagination (particularly if they have been discouraged from using it in their adult years) and sharing the imagined visualisation of a complex problem is difficult. As a result, a useful technique can be to create a  diagram of your problem. I do not mean complex flow charts that look clever, but really do not make a problem any easier to grasp. Instead, I suggest drawing a problem as a cartoon or series of sketches. If you and your team are not able to do this yourselves, you can hire a graphic recorder (if you are not familiar with graphic recording, this Youtube video explains it nicely through graphic recording) to listen to the problem and draw it. While such an image simplifies a problem on some levels, it allows you to view all of the factors on a single document, large sheet of paper or whiteboard. It also facilitates discussion about the problem.

Once you have done this, you can start discussing various solutions while viewing the illustration. This makes it easier to understand how a solution that may solve one aspect of a problem might make another aspect worse.

If a diagram or cartoon does not work, get three dimensional. You can build models of problems using toys, such as building blocks, Lego building bricks, dolls, toy cars and anything else useful. Craft materials such as paper, pens, Styrofoam, boxes, string and the like are also useful. 

Again, model building simplifies the problem, but enables you to see multiple factors at once. An added advantage to making models is that you can then begin to experiment with solutions within the model itself by moving things, removing things and adding things.


When problems involve people, and especially people interacting, designing role-plays that you and your team can act out is a great way to understand a problem as well as play with possible solutions. I have experimented with this approach and find it effective and fun.


In short, complex problems are probably the biggest challenge business leaders and teams face today. And these problems are likely to grow in their complexity and frequency. To solve them, you and your team need to learn how to visualise complex problems and potential solutions in your individual and collective imaginations.

To prepare yourselves, you should start exercising your imaginations in creativity training, focusing on complex problems, and simulations of complex problems.

Then, when the real problems hit, and they will, you and your team will be prepared.


Self-Promotional Note

If you want a facilitator to help you with the method described in this article, get in touch. I can help you rediscover the immense power of your imagination.



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey