Our problem is complex! What next?


  • Picture of Ian Randall
    Ian Randall
    Founding Director, Wasafiri
  • Sustainability
  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Communities

Whether it is the affordability of British homes, poverty for cocoa farmers, America’s diabetes epidemic, or plastic in our oceans, some challenges feel impossibly complex. There’s no single root cause. The problem is constantly evolving. Entrenched behaviours and interests sustain the status quo. Ian Randall FRSA asks: who is responsible for fixing this tangled mess?

“Aargh! What should we do next?”

This is a question regularly asked by people working at the frontlines of thorny challenges – from countering violent extremism in Kenya, to creating a thriving local economy in Barnsley. Frustrated with technical interventions that are siloed, static and often backfire, a new generation of change-makers have embraced “system thinking” approaches and tried to make them practical. By building collective and adaptive responses to seemingly intractable problems, ordinary leaders can bring about extraordinary change.

Just last week, the Africa Green Revolution Forum hosted the largest ever gathering people committed to transforming African agriculture. Farmers, politicians, investors, tech innovators, donors, and civil servants all converged to share progress, forge partnerships, learn and make commitments. This is in marked contrast to the rising hunger and social unrest of 2008, when the global food crisis shone a grim light on the long-term neglect of African agriculture, and the near total absence of structures for collaboration. A decade long-effort by the African Union and its partners has built the networks, language, and architecture for collaboration that now has the sector buzzing, with positive agricultural growth rates in the most engaged countries. There is no silver bullet driving this progress. No perfectly designed fertiliser subsidy, or genius trade strategy. Instead partners have established conditions in which positive change can emerge.  

When "Normal” Approaches Won’t Work

Tough problems can be spotted by asking four questions:

  1. Is there no single root cause?
  1. Is there no single owner?
  2. Is the situation evolving?
  3. Does the problem face entrenched behaviours and interests?

When these four characteristics are at play, you know you have a “complex problem”. These problems are not the result of neat causal pathways; instead, they are non-linear, and therefore not fully predictable. Think of the difference between a doctor prescribing a pill for a child’s sore throat, which is designed to relieve that symptom (a scientific fix for an ailment), versus all the intertwined efforts it would take to reduce child mortality in Kenya (a complex effort navigating multiple causes and actors).

In complex problems the situation is also constantly evolving -- it is emergent -- influenced by the dynamics around it. That means that the whole is greater than the parts. Think of bringing up a daughter. As a “whole”, she is much more than the sum of education, health, genetics and other factors that have shaped her. As she keeps changing, your understanding of her today, and tactics to influence her growth, may be outdated tomorrow. The same is true of an issue like violent extremism, the product of a heady mix of disenfranchised youth, religious ideology, globalisation, poor governance, demographics and more.   

Finally, a complex problem is generated and sustained through patterns of action that are rational for individual people and institutions, but that, when aggregated, are damaging to the collective good. Heating our homes contributes to climate change. Prescribing antibiotics feeds microbial resistance. Less innocently, change may threaten the established position of powerful actors, leading them to protect their own interests, overtly or covertly. Tanzanian rice importers don’t want investment in domestic rice production. Tobacco companies challenged research linking smoking to cancer.

Complex, emergent problems are truly tough to address. The “normal” approaches to problem solving are built on a set of assumptions that don’t apply, which makes understanding and collaboration messier, and impact evaluation harder. They need an approach that is both collective and adaptive.

Five dimensions to build a collective and adaptive response

Patterns of human behaviour resist change. That’s because they have evolved out of the rational incentives of multiple actors, which have together formed a pattern that “works” for the interests it currently serves — even while creating collective problems. Efforts to shift these patterns will need to overcome this inertia, which maintains the status quo. Hence, changing the system requires building collective awareness and agency such that a set of actors are strong, willing and coordinated enough to redesign the pattern. Sometimes, such protagonists can achieve a “tipping point”; in other circumstances, change will be more gradual. Five dimensions are worth considering when seeking windows of opportunity to build a collective and adaptive response:

1. Build Shared Understanding: Creating a more complete, current view among different actors, opening insight on who and what is served by the pattern, along with opportunities to influence its outcomes.

2. Secure Commitment:  Aligning goals among those driving change in the pattern – and, where appropriate, gaining a mandate from those with governing influence — to create momentum toward a positive collective vision.

3. Change the Dynamics: Targeting mutually-reinforcing interventions to disrupt the pattern and redesign it towards more favourable outcomes.

4. Enable Coordination: Aligning disparate stakeholders to build shared understanding, secure commitment, change the dynamics and augment learning in the pattern, either through formal or informal structures.

5. Augment Learning: Adopting emergent, iterative strategies for learning how the pattern is functioning and evolving, and addressing power imbalances in information flows.

When these dimensions are tended to with sustained leadership and relentless effort, there is good reason to be optimistic. From violent extremism to African agriculture my own organisation has born witness to demonstrable progress on the most intractable of issues. We’ve codified our learning into a practical framework to help change leaders and their institutions answer “What next?” when tackling such complex problems. We’ve called this Systemcraft, and a free action guide is available for anyone interested in learning more about this approach.


Ian Randall is the Director of the Wasafiri Institute, which equips people with the knowledge and tools they need to tackle complex problems.

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