What are complex problems?

We are surrounded by complex problems. Many of these are new, very difficult to solve or control, and very threatening. They are generally outside our day-to day experience, there is disagreement about how best to overcome them (but not tackling them may lead to a major disaster) and addressing them will require major changes in human behaviour and broad social change (Mumford, 1998). Some of these complex problems are so complex that they are described as wicked problems. Wicked here is not used in terms of evil but rather as “an issue highly resistant to resolution” (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007, p. 1). Examples include climate change, world poverty, the global financial crisis, child abuse, terrorism and drug abuse.

Glouberman and Zimmerman (2002) highlight the difference between simple problems, complicated problems and complex problems by comparing following a recipe (a simple problem), sending a rocket to the moon a (complicated problem) and raising a child (a complex problem). While I hesitate to call raising a child a “problem”, it is a useful comparison.

Following a Recipe Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child
The recipe is essential Formulae are critical and necessary Formulae have a limited application
Recipes are tested to assure easy replication Sending one rocket increases assurance that the next will be OK Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next
No particular expertise is required. But cooking expertise increases success rate High levels of expertise in a variety of fields are necessary for success Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success
Recipes produce standardized products Rockets are similar in critical ways Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual
The best recipes give good results every time There is a high degree of certainty of outcome Uncertainty of outcome remains
Optimistic approach to problem possible Optimistic approach to problem possible Optimistic approach to problem possible

Characteristics of complex problems (CogNexus Institute, n.d.; Moore, 2011; Rittel & Webber, 1973) include:

  1. The “solution” to complex problems depends on how the problem is understood
  2. The problem is not really understood until after it has been resolved
  3. The problem cannot be completely solved
  4. People involved can have very different world views and have radically different views about the causes of the problem and the best way to respond
  5. Solutions to complex problems are not true or false, but good or bad, or better or worse
  6. We cannot know beforehand what impact our interventions will have
  7. Every complex problem is essentially unique
  8. Cause and effect is unknown and unknowable
  9. Every solution to a complex problem is a “one-shot operation,” every attempt has unintended consequences
  10. Every complex problem can be consider to be a symptom of another problem.

Complex problems are difficult to define. Different people and stakeholders will have differing opinions about the cause, nature and extent of the problem. This can be compounded when vested interests focus more on their own interests than how to address the issue. (Remember the seven cigarette company CEO’s stating under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive even though there was clear evidence showing the opposite?) It is usually their social complexity, rather than their technical complexity that makes wicked problems so hard to address (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007). Take climate change for example. There is wide scientific agreement about the need to reduce our carbon emissions, and technically this is not difficult to achieve. Socially and politically it is proving virtually impossible.

The Catch-22 of complex problems is that in order to understand the problem, we need to attempt to solve it, but every solution is “expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems” (Conklin, 2005, p. 8).

Most literature advocates a cooperative response to addressing complex problems. Unfortunately our current political system is making this extremely difficult. The Opposition (of whatever persuasion) wins power by undermining the actions of the Government. Rather than working together to address complex problems, they continually undermine each other. When attempting to address complex problems it can help to have a broad, holistic approach; encourage innovation and flexibility; work across organisation, state and national boundaries; and effectively engage the community and as many stakeholders as possible (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007).

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Parenting for a better world
  2. The paradox of inconsequence
  3. A story of two communities
  4. Focusing more on families
  5. Strengths-based approaches = HOPE


Australian Public Service Commission. (2007). Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective. Canberra: Australian Public Service Commission.

CogNexus Institute (n.d.). Wicked Problems Retrieved 5 January 2012, from http://www.cognexus.org/id42.htm

Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley. Available from http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf.

Glouberman, S., & Zimmerman, B. (2002). Complicated and complex systems: What would successful reform of medicare look like? Ottawa: Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. Available from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/CP32-79-8-2002E.pdf. (Last accessed 13 April 2016)

Moore, T. (2011). Wicked problems, rotten outcomes and clumsy solutions: Children and families in a changing world. Paper presented at the NIFTey/CCCH Conference, Sydney. Available from http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/NIFTeY_CCCH_Conference_11_-_paper.pdf.

Mumford, E. (1998). Problems, knowledge, solutions: solving complex problems. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 7(4), 255-269. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0963-8687(99)00003-7

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169. Available from http://www.thestudiony.com/ed/bfa/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas.pdf.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Environmental sustainability, Families & parenting, Social change, Working with communities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What are complex problems?

  1. This is another great article thanks for this! I never thought of categorizing problems this way and I really agree that current systems are not geared up for complex solutions and rather apply the one size fits all approach, which in my opinion will never succeed to instigate and sustain change…

    Liked by 1 person

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