Andy Gordon

Senior Innovation Designer

Navigating complex problems: From Whack-a-Mole Tactics to Systems Innovation

Related post categories Digital products
5 mins read


Problems come in all shapes and sizes. It's important to figure out what’s really going on and choose the appropriate response. Often, we tackle problems by breaking them down, but this approach falls short with complex or unpredictable challenges. We need to understand the whole system and act swiftly for the best chance of success. This enables us to drive lasting, impactful change.

Illustrative design of a figure playing whack-a-mole


Playing a game of whack-a-mole?

Social Innovation can sometimes feel a little like whack-a-mole: address one problem and another can surface elsewhere.

The intuitive, human response might be to get more players or use a multi-pronged hammer. But why not pull the power or, better yet, prevent the machine from being manufactured altogether?

Although this metaphor might seem lighthearted, the work that nonprofits and charities engage in is anything but. They strive to drive meaningful impact and systemic change.

When addressing an urgent challenge, we can often find ourselves becoming fixated on the immediate issue. We overlook the need to step back, reflect, and broaden our viewpoint to pose pivotal questions.

What is really causing this? What if we channelled our energies towards unearthing the root of the problem? Where could our efforts yield the most for both short and long-term impact?

Reimagining how we solve problems

The quote, often accredited to Einstein, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" holds more relevance in today's complex world than ever before.

The predominant way that the Western world approaches problems is through a mechanistic, or reductionist, approach. One that analyses problems by breaking them down into their constituent parts.

It derives from the scientific revolution and was popularised by philosopher and physicist René Descartes in the seventeenth century. Descartes believed all of nature works according to mechanical laws.

Since then, this worldview has influenced the underlying fabric of much of our society. Everything from our economic model to our education systems.

The approach has proven to be hugely effective in the development of many areas of science and technology, contributing to incredible advancements.

But it's been less effective for the complexities of ecological or social systems. Where outcomes are a result of the underlying dynamics at play. We know the properties of the whole are more than just the sum of its parts.

Taking the widely accepted but wrong approach can often have huge negative second-order consequences. We can end up solving the symptoms of a problem with another popping up elsewhere. Any biologist or doctor will tell you that treating the symptoms of a problem is ineffective. We need a systemic approach to finding solutions to what has emerged.

Changemakers striving to drive systems change need to approach problems in the same way. Within complex, adaptive systems, the relationship between cause and effect is intricately intertwined, with a myriad of factors playing a part in this dynamic. It’s non obvious and the root cause is often invisible without deeper exploration.

So, where to begin?

5 Problem Domains

Before deciding on the right approach to the challenge, we first need to know our starting point. Understanding the situation we are in, or about to enter, is crucial.

Contrary to common perception, there isn't a universal approach to finding a solution to every type of problem.

The Cynefin (kuh-nev-in) framework, created by David Snowden, serves as an excellent starting point to identify which type of problem you're tackling. Used across various sectors and use cases, it helps individuals or teams to understand the nature of their challenges and the suggested approach to tackling them.

Cynefin framework

An illustration of the Cynefin Framework. A framework for effective decision-making and problem-solving, delineating five problem domains: clear, complicated, complex, chaotic, and confusion.

Upon initially encountering a challenge, we often find ourselves in a state of disorder, which is quite an unsettling and confusing place to be. So let's start there…

The Confusion Domain

The Initial state of uncertainty faced at a project's inception or when we’re moving from one domain to another.

Example: A nonprofit might be experiencing a decline in donor engagement, volunteer retention issues, and internal disagreements among the board members all at once.

It's unclear whether these issues are interconnected or how to prioritise them or how to address them.

The Clear Domain

Problems that are well defined and understood with solutions that are evident.

Example: Filing a yearly financial report to maintain compliance with regulatory authorities. The steps and requirements are clear, and the process is well-established.

The Complicated Domain

Problems that require analysis or expertise, but we know solutions exist.

Example: Designing an efficient digital legal workflow or process. It’s complicated but a subject expert with the right knowledge can guide you to the solution.

The Complex Domain

Problems that have many interconnected elements and unpredictable outcomes.

Example: Managing a diverse team in a rapidly changing market. There are many interconnected factors at play that can contribute to a multitude of unpredictable outcomes.

The Chaotic Domain

High uncertainty problems with no discernible cause-effect relationships.

Example: Responding to a crisis like a natural disaster or a sudden funding withdrawal by a major donor during a critical project.

From problem to approach

If there's still a sense of confusion, it's probable that we are still in the confused domain or we’re transitioning from one problem domain to another.

We need to pause, evaluate and clarify whether the problem is clear, complicated, complex, or chaotic before moving forward.

If we have a clear understanding of which domain we’re operating in we can then identify a suitable approach. Each domain has a distinct decision-making and problem-solving methodology:

  • In the Clear domain, employ best practices.
  • In the Complicated domain, analyse the problem with experts to derive solutions.
  • In the Complex domain, probe, sense, and respond. Experiment, responsibly, to see what works (and what doesn’t).
  • In the Chaotic domain, act, sense and respond to understand and strive to bring the situation under control or identify opportunities for innovation.

Innovation: Complex and Chaotic Domains

In Social Innovation, our focus is often on the complex or chaotic domains. At the heart of both approaches to these problems lies a need for experimentation and systems thinking. We need to align action with sense-making to generate creative solutions for our challenges.

Systems thinking helps us decipher complex problems by understanding why outcomes are emerging - the relationships between elements, underlying patterns and what behaviours might be driving them.

This approach enables a shift from a linear to a holistic perspective, in order to identify crucial leverage points for creative solutions.

Experimentation is the red thread that runs through everything.

The goal of an Experiment is to learn, as quickly and as safely as possible. An experiment can be as small as a word tweak on a website or as big as piloting a new government policy. We’ll be unpacking the details around experiments in upcoming posts.

From Cynefin to Systems Innovation

A mechanistic approach still holds great value, yet, when trying to mitigate or eliminate systemic problems, we need to combine this with a deep understanding of the properties of the whole.

Innovation, underpinned by systems thinking, imagination, design and tools like the Cynefin framework, can empower changemakers to effectively navigate and tackle complex and chaotic terrains. Ultimately, significantly enhancing our likelihood of impact and contributing to lasting positive change.

Witnessing these challenges unfold firsthand underscores the imperative for innovation, which has led to the inception of the Innovation Team at Torchbox.

We’re on hand to collaborate with teams, navigating through challenges to drive impactful solutions and strategies. Find out more about how we can support you with Innovation that accelerates positive change, get in touch with Director of Innovation Edd via Calendly.