Simplify complex problems in three (simple) steps

The world, and the way we work together, is becoming increasingly interconnected. It’s undoubtedly making things like flexible working easier but the more interconnected our businesses get, the more complicated it can be to solve the complex challenges that arise within them.

Whether you’re working directly with clients, or with colleagues based in different offices and time zones, complex problems that affect these relationships and business transactions come up for us all. Solving them now requires a set of skills that traverse borders, devices and perspectives. As well as understanding how others work, you need to understand how things work, and how they interact, before you can begin resolving the issues they present.

That said, understanding the problem is still only part of the solution. You also need to be open to lateral thinking, interested in alternative interpretations of the same problem, and prepared to develop your awareness and self-judgement. These practices might already be familiar to you, but it can’t hurt to take the time to reflect on how, and how often, you’re using them as the workplace evolves.

1.      Define, reframe, and refine

Correctly defining a problem is your fastest route to solving it. But ask yourself these questions: who has set you the task? Are they the only person involved in defining the problem, or are there other people’s perspectives to consider? And, does their problem have a logical progression of cause and effect?

The first thing you should be doing is gathering everyone’s definitions of the problem in writing. Keeping answers confidential can encourage more open sharing, and avoiding bullet points can give you greater depth of understanding of their concerns. If there are multiple stakeholders, ask yourself, ‘How do their responses differ – are there similar or different keywords?’ These can give you clues to alternative perspectives, as well as indications of how to structure your response, by using their phrases.

At this stage in the process, it’s also important to ask what’s missing from the definition of a problem. People often rush to work on the most obvious details before stopping to look at the bigger picture. Consider what people haven’t explicitly said, but perhaps suggested. It may also be helpful to challenge how people define the problem, even if that means following up with another set of refining questions.

EY’s Law team know all too well how to approach these tasks. Clients often come to us with complex sets of facts to analyse, expecting a legal and commercial solution that goes well-beyond the textbook. This requires us to be more than just lawyers; we need to ask them the right questions, analyse what they’re really trying to achieve, and find the less-obvious pieces of information that can provide alternative, but effective solutions. We even look at the tax and accounting information before taking a legal perspective, to get a bigger picture.

Whatever questions you raise with your clients or colleagues, you’re bound to generate new insights and ideas from the answers you receive. Whether you address them all, depends on the results want to achieve.

2.      Understand the impact of ‘you’

Since we’re all unique, opinionated individuals, we all carry a set of assumptions, biases, and even default responses with us. It’s natural to have preferences and preconceived ideas but sometimes we can get too attached to them, especially when solving complex problems. Before you approach the task, ask yourself, ‘What are my assumptions – about this business, industry, problem or even process?’

At EY, our Data & Analytics teams often have to handle big sets of data, which have boomed in the past three-to-four years, and it’s no longer a case of simply applying existing solutions to new problems. We have to continually re-think how to import a data set, script it for testing and present the output in a meaningful way to all audiences. We have to challenge our own assumptions and judgements, to meet our clients’ needs.

One exercise can be to make a list of all the biases or assumptions you have about a certain problem, task or even industry, then write an alternative list that takes the opposite approach. What does it reveal? What would happen if people or the industry functioned in the opposite way? Understanding that your original approach or idea might not be the only, or correct, one is a valuable lesson.

3.      Share a problem, multiply the insight

We all understand the benefits of collaborating with people to achieve a shared goal. But when a problem is connected with a number of interdependencies, do we always ask the right people for their help and ideas? Often, the most useful suggestions can come from people who have some distance from the problem, or who understand but are not fully part of your world. How often do you consider asking people who don’t work in the same area of expertise, for their problem solving ideas?

Start looking outside the box and get creative with the types of people you collaborate with. Whose skills or knowledge can be applied to the problem you’re facing? For example, NASA has started crowdsourcing via NASA Solve to get new perspectives and ideas from start-ups, other organisations, and even the general public. And at EY, we employ a range of tools that connect our people across the world to share ideas and solutions, which you can read more about in our article highlighting future collaboration trends, here.

One important thing to remember is that asking ‘outsiders’ for their contribution should stimulate alternative, less obvious answers, not give you an immediate, industry-leading solution. Ideally, they’ll show you a different angle that’ll spark new ideas. So take time to consider who you could approach outside of your department, within your company or even network, who’ll challenge the way you’ve been looking at a problem, or the solution you’re about to pursue.

Patience rewards

While the solution to solving complex problems falls into these three important categories, the key to successfully tackling complex problems is patience. You might not always get things right on a first attempt, but by refining your processes, collaborating in creative ways and being conscious of your self-judgements, you improve the way you tackle complex problems in the modern workplace.