How are complex problems different?

The challenge is the same in both of these landscapes: scale the highest peak.

single-moutian-front-pageStraightforward Problem Landscape

It's clear which mountain to scale
Simple cause-effect:

full-mountain-rangeComplex Problem Landscape

It's hard to know which mountain to scale
Multiple, interacting causal relationships:



 What is Complex Thinking?

First, it acknowledges the "Mind Gap"
(Our intuitions about the world are suited to straightforward problems, but not complex ones)

Second, it closes the gap
(We need more sophisticated thinking strategies for complexity)

The Mind Gap:

  • We live in two worlds...

    World #1 is where straightforward problems reside—the kind we have expertise in handling. Cause and effect are tightly linked, which expedites learning.

    World #2 is characterized by complex problems—the kind for which our intuitions are not well suited. Causal relationships are intricate, multidirectional and not easily accessible. Expertise is hard to develop.

    In World #1 we know more than we can say. In World #2 we know less than we think.

  • We use two shortcuts...

    Our survival has always depended on understanding and responding to the world quickly. We do this by simplifying and

    We simplify everything we think about. Then lock down on the first reasonable interpretations we come up with.

    These two shortcuts work brilliantly in World #1.
    But in World #2 they result in oversimplification and overconfidence.

  • Missing Information...

    We get into trouble when we treat the two worlds as though they are the same (they are not), as if our expertise in one is fully transferable to the other (it is not).

    When intuition that works in a straightforward world is applied to a complex one, a Mind Gap arises.

Closing the Gap:

  • Better Thinking...

    Just as Newtonian mechanics is limited to working for slow speeds, so our default intuitive models are limited to the straightforward problems of World #1. Just as we need Einstein's relativity for fast speeds, so we need more sophisticated thinking for tackling the complex problems of World #2.

    Closing the gap requires new models for interpreting that are not as vulnerable to oversimplification, and new ways of concluding that are not as vulnerable to overconfidence.

    Developments in complexity science and cognitive science allow us to increase the complexity of our thinking, to match the complexity of World #2.

  • Rethinking Causality...

    The key to interpreting complexity is to avoid oversimplifying the intricate interconnections that characterize a complex system. This is the objective of complexity science, a discipline that cuts across many fields, including physics, economics and psychology.

    Complexity science reveals that complex problems require a more sophisticated notion of causality.

  • Rethinking Truth...

    The key to more sophisticated decision making is understanding how the human mind draws conclusions; in particular, how our addiction to certainty makes us vulnerable to overconfidence.

    Cognitive science and philosophy reveal that drawing conclusions about complexity requires a more sophisticated notion of truth.

 What is Complex Leadership?

First, it recognizes the power and the traps of group discussion
(High quality discussion does not happen on its own.)

Second, it leverages cognitive diversity
(21st century problems require that leaders be Chief Conversation Facilitators.)

  • The Missing Leadership Ingredient...

    The key to 21st century leadership is not taught in business or public policy schools. Yet it is more important than it has ever been at executive and board tables.

    A group of diverse minds will outperform high IQ individuals. This is no secret; but what is still a secret is how to maximize the benefit of cognitive diversity, through proactively managed discussion.

    Complexity has made the need for high quality conversations more pressing. Today's leader has to be a strong facilitator of dialogue: the Chief Conversation Facilitator.

  • Fostering Constructive Dissent...

    Leaders who are adept at facilitating high quality conversations avoid the traps that teams are vulnerable to, such as group think and path-dependent thinking.

    They foster the constructive dissent that corrects individual error, deepens discussion and synthesizes diverse perspectives.

  • Avoiding Path Dependence...

    The greatest obstacle to productive team discussion is path dependence, which permeates board meetings, executive team meetings, strategic offsites, jury deliberations and political agendas. Path dependence is a problem when the wrong path of ideas dominate a discussion.

    Leaders-as-facilitators are mindful of paths as they unfold: they deliberately force discussions out of paths that are too limiting or entrenched. They avoid "group polarization" and majority thinking that squeezes out minority dissent.