What are complex problems?

(Created with Wordle)

[Updated 23 February 2018]

Working with families and communities is a very different process to solving a maths problem, diagnosing and treating a medical issue, designing and building a bridge, or testing a new medicine.

In family and community work we can rarely say that implementing this change will produce this result. We can’t simply tell a woman experience family violence how to stop the violence and be safe. We can’t tell a mother or father who is worried about their teenage children how to make sure their child will safely navigate their way to adulthood. We can’t be sure that a certain rehab program will help someone overcome a lifelong addiction.

The types of problems and issues impacting on the families and communities we work with are often multifaceted, confusing and hard to define—they are complex problems. In this context, complex problems are problems that are beyond the scope of any single organisation to understand and respond to; there is often disagreement about the cause of the problems and how to address them; and the problems can only be addressed, not completely solved [1-3].

Complex problems are difficult to define because different people will have differing opinions about the cause, nature and extent of the problem. It is often their social complexity, rather than their technical complexity that makes complex problems so hard to address [1]. 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 to be much more difficult.

We are surrounded by complex problems. At a global or national level, many of these are new, very difficult to solve or control, and very threatening. They are generally outside most people’s day-to day experience, there is disagreement about how best to overcome them (but not tackling them may lead to an escalation of the problem or even a major disaster) and addressing them will require significant changes in human behaviour and broad social change [4]. Some of these 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” (p.1)[1]. Examples include climate change, world poverty, the global financial crisis, child abuse, terrorism and drug abuse.

Each of these examples of complex problems impact directly on individuals, families and communities and have implications for the lives of real people. Not only do we need to address these issues at a national or societal level; but we need to provide support to individuals, families and communities who are affected by them and assist them to address them at a personal level.

Glouberman and Zimmerman[5] 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.

A simple problem:
Following a recipe
A complicated problem:
Sending a rocket to the moon
A complex problem: 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

Complex problems share a number of characteristics including [2, 6, 7]:

  1. The “solution” to the problem depends on how the problem is understood
  2. The problem is not really understood until after it has been addressed
  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,” and every attempt has unintended consequences
  10. Every complex problem can be consider to be a symptom of another problem.

One of the challenges of complex problems is that in order to understand the problem, we need to attempt to solve it but, particularly at a global and national level, solutions are often expensive and have “lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems” (p.8)[6].

Addressing complex problems

Generally literature on complex problems advocates collaborative approaches to addressing complex problems [1, 2, 6], including community engagement.

The Australian Public Service Commission [1] suggests that responding to complex problems requires:

  1. Holistic rather than partial or linear thinking
  2. Innovative and flexible approaches
  3. The ability to work across agency boundaries.
  4. Effectively engaging stakeholders and citizens in understanding the problem and in identifying possible responses
  5. A comprehensive focus and/or strategy
  6. Tolerating uncertainty and accepting the need for a long-term focus.

Because complex problems are beyond the scope of any single organisation to understand and respond to, there is a need to engage a range of stakeholders [1-3]. Moore [2] suggests

The key to effective approaches to tackling wicked problems is creating a shared understanding between the stakeholders about the problem, and shared commitment to the possible solutions. This does not necessarily mean that there is complete agreement about the nature of the problem, but that the stakeholders understand each other’s positions well enough to have intelligent dialogue about the different interpretations of the problem, and to exercise collective intelligence about how to solve it. (p.5)

Community engagement is central to engaging stakeholders as it is important that the people who are impacted by complex problems are recognised as stakeholders. Too often, stakeholder engagement focuses primarily on agencies and service providers rather than people with lived experience, so community engagement is vital to ensure a broader base for consultation, planning and decision-making [8]. (See also my post on Rethinking the roles of families and clients in evidence-based practice.)

Understanding that working with families and communities often involves complex problems can help explain why we cannot provide clear evidence about what works, why we cannot be confident about what the most effective approach will be in a given and why we need to continually reflect on our work.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. An introduction to community engagement
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. What is the Spectrum of Public Participation?
  4. Bottom-up community development
  5. Rethinking the roles of families and clients in evidence-based practice
  6. Reflections on community development vs community work

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


  1. Australian Public Service Commission. (2007). Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective. Canberra: Australian Public Service Commission. Available from http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/archive/publications-archive/tackling-wicked-problems
  2. 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
  3. Head, B. W. (2008). Wicked problems in public policy. Public Policy, 3(2), 101-118. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43502862_Wicked_Problems_in_Public_Policy
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley. Available from http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf
  7. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.
  8. Barnes, M., & Schmitz, P. (2016). Community engagement matters (now more than ever). Stanford Social Innovation Review(Spring), 32-39. Available from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/community_engagement_matters_now_more_than_ever


About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, 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.

7 Responses to What are complex problems?

  1. Graeme, very good job, we are trying to develop a project with your ideas, about teenage pregnancy. Do you have any information?


  2. Wotu, Elijah says:

    It’s a good piece, more research is needed in relation to multi racial conflicts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Simon says:

    Great article Graeme. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Charis says:

    Hi Graeme, I have only started reading your blog recently (I was reading a link from Little Eco Footprints which then led to your website). I am learning a lot and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the coming days.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. 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 2 people

I'd love to hear what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.