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How Magical Leaders Approach Problems - Tips Part 1 - Problem, Puzzle or Mystery?

This begins a series of posts that describe in more detail how Magical leaders approach problems in new ways. You can read more about that here. This post focuses on how they fit their approaches to their contexts.

Are you solving a problem, a puzzle or a mystery?

New approaches start with problem identification into one of four quadrants: simple (now called obvious), complicated, complex or chaotic, according to complexity expert Dave Snowden. Snowden's Cynefin framework (pictured below) shows how problems in each quadrant shift based on how to classify the problem and the response leaders should choose.

  • The simple quadrant is the domain of "best practices," meaning your response as a leader is to identify the problem (sense), categorize it and apply a best practice to it. Examples are inconsistent call center calls or safety issues that have clearly defined solutions, standard operating procedures, or best practices already defined.

  • The complicated quadrant is the domain of "good practices" and "experts." Your job is to identify the problem, analyze what is known and respond with a "good practice." This is because complicated problems have many possible solutions, so it's natural to consult experts to help decide the best course of action. Because there are many possible solutions, there may also be many causes and effects, making the problem complicated. An example is an automobile; there are many causes and effects and many solutions. The key here is that in spite of complications, there are "knowable" solutions.

  • The complex quadrant is the domain of "emergence," where there are many unknowns, and attempting to apply a traditional problem solving approach isn't going to be useful. Complex contexts are often unpredictable, and the best approach here is to "Probe – Sense – Respond." Cause and effect can only be deduced after the fact. Rather than trying to control the situation or insisting on a plan of action, it's often best to be patient, look for patterns (probing various aspects), and encourage a solution to emerge by running experiments, learning and experimenting again. A single solution may never be found; what is emerging may only be contained by pulling independent levers and assessing results. The stock market and nature's ecosystems are great examples, as is "corporate culture."

  • Finally, the chaotic quadrant is the domain of "rapid response," as in the case of crisis situations. Leaders have to act fast and first to contain the crises as much as possible (sending people home in a pandemic right away) by establishing boundaries around the crisis. The goal here is to look for places of stability and instability and take whatever action is possible to increase stability, so you can shift the problem from the chaotic domain back to the complicated domain.

The more complex the problem, the more leaders need to exercise different "sensing" capabilities. Journey to Results helps leaders develop the sensemaking skills to even see a problem in a new context or quadrant, manage biases to avoid a premature leap to a solution and expand their ways of thinking (mental models) to support acting quickly and decisively as needed.


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