Why are complex problems complex?

Why are complex problems complex?

Complex problems are often considered difficult to solve as implied by the term but why?

Harry Sayers
0 min read
April 4, 2023

First we need to investigate the reasoning behind problems of such nature. Unlike simpler problems, complex problems tend to be multi dimensional and carry the weight of many facets and require a deep understanding of the underlying systems that contribute to them. Additionally, upon deeper inspection of a complex problem one will be led to smaller complex problems, making the process of solving them an iterative and strategic mission.

One reason that complex problems are difficult to solve is that they tend to be highly interconnected. Social, Economic, Political, and Environmental issues are vital to consider when attempting to solve problems of this kind. In many cases, these factors are deeply intertwined, making it challenging to isolate and address them independently. For example, solving the Global Warming crisis has an almost innumerable amount of smaller complex problems that range from the financial impact on the poorest in society to the scientific and engineering complications of making biodegradable materials or electric and hydrogen powered vehicles.  

One of the key reasons why complex problems are challenging to solve is their often paradoxical nature. They do not exist in a vacuum, but rather they are usually closely related to other issues that are constantly ever evolving. Complex problems are deeply affected by the pragmatism of the approach. Therefore, incremental and adaptive strategies that seek to address the problem at its core in small pieces are vital; A popular methodology for this is ‘First Principles’ Rooted in physics and philosophy, First Principles thinking allows one to understand what is true or false at the most granular level and work our way up to the surface of the problem. John Boyd, a renowned fighter pilot created a thought experiment which can show how to apply First Principles thinking.

You’re in a room with the following three items:

1. A motorboat with a skier behind it.

2. A military tank.

3. A bicycle.

Now, if you break these items down to their base components like such: 

1. Motorboat: motor, the hull of a boat, and a pair of skis.

2. Tank: metal treads, steel armour plates, and a gun.

3. Bicycle: handlebars, wheels, gears, and a seat.

What solutions could you create with these parts? A potential option is a snowmobile. This in simple terms demonstrates First Principles thinking; Deconstructing the components of a problem until we have certain truths and using them to construct a solution. This process can be applied to any complex problem to deconstruct the plethora of factors into manageable truths that can be connected with each other.

In conclusion, complex problems present several philosophical difficulties that prevent their easy resolution. The interconnectedness of disparate issues, the abundance of varying perspectives and values, the presence of uncertainty and ambiguity, and the approach are the main challenges affecting the ability to solve complex problems.

If you have a complex problem you need to solve, maybe regarding an internal system, a new app, or an existing product, get in touch to tell us more about it!


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