The environment in which businesses operate is already unstable but is now threatening to become totally unpredictable or even incomprehensible.
Faced with disruptive events of severe complexity, decision-makers may feel overwhelmed by challenges that appear to be insurmountable: how do you hold onto clients in such an intensely competitive market? How can you hold out against disintermediation? How can you guarantee stable prices for customers at a time of galloping inflation? These are only a few of the questions that rush to mind when navigating the current markets and business contexts.
The degree of complexity inherent to these problems is such that professionals risk becoming paralysed, or locked into solutions which they know full well will not be sufficient.
For Violette Bouveret, the key to avoiding these pitfalls is for teams to acquire an important new skill: the capacity to resolve complex problems. She has developed a method to facilitate this learning process, based on her analysis of more than forty complex problems that have been successfully resolved, and drawing upon proven theoretical models.
The results are presented in a new book published in September 2022: Solving Complex Problems – A Handbook for Professionals in Search of Impact (DUNOD).
Executive Education sat down with Violette Bouveret, affiliate professor at ESCP Business School, to better understand her method and its origins. You can download the white paper with the full interview below.
affiliate professor at ESCP Business School
How do you spot a complex problem?
Violette Bouveret explains that “We need to start by defining what we mean by a problem. A problem always has three dimensions: firstly, there needs to be a sense of dissatisfaction, an awareness that the current situation could be better, a gap between the way things are and the way they could be. […]Secondly, there needs to be a clearly identified obstacle to closing that perceived gap. Finally, there needs to be a genuine desire for action – and thus, I argue, a method.”
But not all problems are created equal. On the scale of simple, complicated or complex problems, a complex problem is difficult to analyse, resistant to superficial solutions and comprised of interrelated dimensions.
To illustrate the difference, Violette Bouveret compares building a new type of aeroplane–a complicated, yet solvable, problem–with “getting aeroplanes to fly without kerosene and with zero environmental impact within twenty years.” Now, that is a complex problem.
Why create a method for solving complex problems?
Over the past fifteen years, Violette Bouveret has worked with multinationals, startups and NGOs where the one thing they all have in common is that they are not trained and ready to solve these kinds of complex problems, despite the fact that there are more and more of them.
Violette considers that “we are already living in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – and we’re now slipping towards a world which could perhaps be better described as BANI – Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible. In spite of it all, most companies continue to operate in the same way they always have done, with the same tools, the same five or ten-year plans, the same mechanistic way of thinking.”
In this new and destabilising context, willpower is not enough to find solutions. Violette Bouveret’s experience led her to determine that to tackle these seemingly insurmountable problems, developing a methodology is necessary that is also, as she says, “part of a broader cultural movement to properly take account of the social and environmental impact that businesses do and should have.”
A method with three approaches
Violette Bouveret’s method, detailed in her book, proposes three complementary approaches that, when combined, she calls “triangulated thinking”: “The first is a logical approach, seeking to understand the nature of the problem in order to come up with an accurate diagnosis. The idea is to isolate the problem through analysis effectively. The second approach is all about creativity, imagining new solutions. Look at what has been done elsewhere, look ahead to the future, innovate. The third approach is critical, bringing the solutions we have imagined to life.”
Preparing current and future managers to tackle complex problems
Increasingly, whether an organisation faces a complex problem is a question of when, not if. Understanding the method on a theoretical level is an essential first step to being ready to tackle this kind of problem. However, applying the method–its three approaches and key steps–to real business problems is truly how it comes into its own as it is for all those who are determined to take action.
For this reason, Violette recommends “that managers put together multidisciplinary teams of around a dozen employees and provide them with annual training on how to solve complex problems”. Having people who are used to tackling such challenges is how an organisation can transform perplexing problems into concrete action strategies.