Untangling complex problems

untangling complex problemsThe Christmas lights were horribly tangled. How does this happen when they are just sitting in a box for the year?  As I started from one end, created some slack, gave some random shakes accompanied by some frustrated words, I started to think about how we approach complex organizational “tangles.” You know, the issues that are years in the making, fraught with politics and personalities, history and policy?

Here’s my shortlist – and reminder to myself- for tackling complex tangles. In no particular order:

  • Determine whether this is a problem worth solving. First, I plugged in the lights. Had they been burned out, then it would not have been worth spending the time to untangle them. It might have been easier to replace the string or to consider other alternatives.
  • Relax. This is going to take some time so settle in. The problem didn’t happen quickly so acknowledge that the solution won’t be quick either. Like the Chinese finger traps the more you tug and struggle, the tighter the snare. While difficult and counter-intuitive, you need to relax.
  • Take the long way ’round. The path is rarely linear. Sometimes you have to loop backwards or work on a different section.
  • Just try something. Sometimes you just have to start somewhere. You may not be sure if your approach will work but there’s no harm in trying – it’s already tangled. Could you make it worse? Perhaps but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Don’t pull! Adding tension to the problem only makes it harder to solve. Especially where people are concerned. Are people tugging on different parts of the strand and exacerbating the problem?
  • Question your intent. Are you focused on a solution for its own sake or are you in it for yourself? If it’s the latter, could this be a source of resistance from others? If the solution is for the greater good, can you involve others?
  • Ask for help. Could someone give you a different perspective? Do they see the problem differently than you do? Do they know any special tips or tricks? Or could they just give you a little moral support? Successful and lasting change involves many people.
  • Explore options to avoid new tangles. As you make progress, explore options to avoid new tangles. How would you do things differently to avoid being in the same place a year from now?

On this last point, if you know how to avoid Christmas light tangles I’m all ears. Happy holidays and may all your days be tangle free!

Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “Untangling complex problems

  1. Dominique – “Don’t pull!” – I think that point is right on! When faced with complex problems it is soooo tempting to just start pulling in different directions to make things happen. Most of the time it just results in making the situation even messier.

    Thanks for the excellent reminder!


  2. Some wonderful problem solving ideas. When I think of tangles, I think of Obamacare. I’m not sure whether “taking the long way ’round’ is the answer in that case. But “exploring options to avoid new tangles” definitely is. Best of luck from a fellow problem solver.

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