The pains of a problem lover— attempting to make sense of complex issues.

Single-point interventions and the obsession for solutions to interconnected challenges are the problem lover’s pain points. What if we lean more into the messy world of complex problems? — sharing my encounters making sense of them, accepting there will never be enough information and the attempt to work more out in the open, and sharing experiences with others.

by Wadim Baslow (@w_baslow)

by Cottonbro from Pexels

Looking at messy (complex) issues

In spring my colleagues and I authored a study titled “Bangladesh Green Growth Study” for the Danish embassy in Dhaka. Putting a debate about growth and the notion of green growth aside for a moment, the study asked

  • What if Bangladesh’s increasing economic prosperity emerges within the regenerative capacity of its environment and fosters a healthy, inclusive, and just society?
  • What are the widespread challenges, constraints, barriers, and risk drivers in Bangladesh?
  • Is there an effective demand for sustainable growth and if there is, where is it? What is the opportunity space?
  • How can a Danish engagement in Bangladesh foster a transition to sustainable growth in Bangladesh?

The study was a balancing act between human development aspirations, Danish commercial interests, and the complex context in Bangladesh. I got started on the research: from my perspective the situation in Bangladesh is messy. The environmental challenges in Bangladesh are many, vast and severe, affecting the country’s life-sustaining ecological services, health, human wellbeing, and economy. Despite the remarkable progress in human development over the past decades in Bangladesh, the social and socio-economic issues are grand, too. My interview partners in Bangladesh paint a grim image of the current situation and the prospect of altering the course as the country is set course to more growth, even if it comes at a social and environmental expense.

It becomes evident that an answer to “what is going on” is not easily found. What might one — in this case the Danish embassy in Dhaka — do facing this “messy situation”? If this seems difficult, then defining action steps appears out of reach.

Change of time, location, and case. I am in Nairobi in December 2019 supporting a two-day workshop developing a deeper understanding of the waste management concerns in Makuru, an informal settlement in Nairobi. I work on the symptoms, driving factors, and root causes together with a team of staff and volunteers from the Kenya Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross. They work for the innovation teams, the urban resilience program, as frontline staff in the informal settlements of Nairobi, or as volunteers and community leaders. One community leader introduced himself as a rapper and coined the term ‘artpreneur’, which I find so cool.

We try to look at it from different angles and use system mapping tools. I remember it was pure luxury (from my viewpoint) to have the time and resource for the only purpose of exploring and defining the challenge at hand. The internal innovation fund of the Danish Red Cross encourages local teams to deeply explore difficult issues to stimulate new approaches to tackle them.

The waste situation in Makuru is detrimental to the environment and people. We discover that the situation persists and is worsening through many re-enforcing feedback loops creating “it’s getting worse, and worse” dynamics.

My job was to guide the team and facilitate the system mapping exercises through smaller steps leading up to a rudimentary issue and system map. The workshop was as much about understanding the problem as learning the tools to do so. I felt that my job included also the exercise of keeping the workshop focused on the problem. The tendency to start working on solutions or bake in solution formulations into the problem formulation reigned strong. “Why is this a problem” — my question would be, gently directing the conversation back to the issues in focus.

On other occasions working in a human development context, I sometimes got frustrated complaints after I lead a set of stakeholders through a similar process of exploring the problem. “Why are we talking only about problems?” “We need solutions!”

A problem lover’s pains

For me, the two projects are exemplary for the problem lover’s pains. They are examples of the tension between the adequacy of traditional modes of addressing problems and the complex, unclear, and uncertain nature of societal challenges. The Cynefin Framework helps meanwhile to pay attention to the distinction between complex, or complicated, chaotic, or clearly defined problems. As much as the problems endure, the approaches to them continue to persist, too.

No 1. A narrow, reductionist perspective to interconnected matters delivers single-point interventions unsuitable to create effective change.

The scope of the Bangladesh Green Growth Study was set broad by intention. The study was designed to support navigating the landscape of challenges, policies, and actors as a knowledge basis for strategic decisions.

At the same time, the study navigated multiple expectations from the client-side, of which some focused more on humanitarian angles and others on commercial interests. Each silo perspective hoped for detailed, deep insight and analytics that provide clear instructions on what to do (isn’t that what you would expect from consultants?).

Research along these siloed interests would have produced disconnected knowledge sets and suggestions for action that are again disconnected from each other. In real life, this might be a portfolio of programs and activities that pursue different objectives and metrics, overlap, or pull in different directions. Each program might be in itself successful, but together a coherent direction is hardly recognizable.

Certainly, each nested interest would be served, but after all the initial ambition was to identify expedient pathways to help to alter course towards more sustainable outcomes.

No 2. Solution-dropping to interconnected issues is a recipe for unintended consequences.

This is nothing new. It is worthwhile to repeat that the [development and humanitarian sector has] chosen to dodge politics, self-censor and focus on technical solutions, all the while knowing that no technical, single-point solution will fix climate change or prevent another pandemic. The blog post by Millie Begovic reminded me recently of the issue of “solutionism”.

There are plenty of examples of indeed well-intended projects in human development that turn out to be problematic for they did not pay enough attention to the entangled dynamics of the context, the situation, or the problem.

The workshop on the waste challenge in Makuru is an instance from my experience when the apparent need to steer the group away from suggesting solutions showcased the ingrained tendency for “solutionism” in a human development context. I agree with Millie Begovic that pointing it out does not neglect “the urgency and need (in governments, donors) for having the answer”. Nevertheless, I guess we need to have an ongoing conversation on what we mean by “answer” and how we arrive at one.

In this workshop, I sensed that stripping “solutions” from the conversation, caused feelings of “being lost”, “stuck”, “confused”, and “out of answers at times” among the group. It is difficult to bear these tensions and uncertainties. I know. I believe that it is worth going there though because leaning towards them might create an open space that holds the possibility for truly different and creative answers to complex issues.

Making sense of messy issues

It appeared to me that it might be of little help to propose detailed and concrete action steps when the aspiration is to influence multiple systems to set a course towards more sustainable pathways in Bangladesh. The study, as a result, employed a process of sense-making rather than collecting a set of single analyses. The sense-making process knitted together different strings of insights and knowledge types into a narrative designed to instill a sense of direction.

It allowed us to accept the complexity of the situation and how difficult it is to enact any big change in the face of it. This is an unpopular approach because it leaves the dis-satisfactory feeling of not having enough information to act. Still, as systems are dynamic and ever-changing, there won’t be any moment of complete information. The study’s focus was on enabling action and provide a sense of which pathways to take.

Concretely, the “Bangladesh Green Growth Study” proposed a set of diverse approaches such as:

  • Begin and support a process that connects multiple and different stakeholders on green growth. A collaborative multi-stakeholder approach corresponds to the demand for it, the lack of such practices in Bangladesh, the level of incoherence across domains, and the need for a coordinative measure.
  • Integrate the embassy’s existing strategies and instruments in a ‘directional’ portfolio that focuses on achieving a clear ‘joint mission’ in focused sector areas but through different available means and instruments. The strategic portfolio approach is geared towards effective change in an overwhelmingly complex and challenging context.
  • Support the innovation ecosystem of pioneering non-governmental agencies and social entrepreneurship to improve visibility for creative and innovative green growth solutions, support diffusion and scale of green growth solutions, increase the likelihood of spillover effects and increase the innovating abilities towards green growth in Bangladesh.

The first aimed to use different perspectives to understand the challenges better. The second suggested using the various available instruments to attend to a clear mission from different angles. The last is an invitation to amplify system changing ventures and those working to make a difference. In all three, learning plays a central role: Learning through the “eyes, hands, and minds” of many and different others, learning by doing and action, learning through experimentation, and, by the by, gaining a deeper understanding of what is going on.

To admit, I was opportunistic when presented with the chance to work together with a team from Kenya and the Danish Red Cross on digging deeper and going underneath the surface of the challenge. Practically, it meant to explore how far we can go using system mapping tools when the group had no or little experience with system mapping approaches.

From my perceived experience, the method became increasingly difficult to grasp so less practical. I am responsible for that. Developing a system map does require more time. Yet, I felt the exercise helped to create a conversation around how we look at problems, and what it means for the used solution later.

A problem lover’s confession

None of this is meant as a description or prescription of how to make sense and work with complex problems — the suspicion to do so exists, I assume. My background is in sustainability sciences, where system thinking plays a huge role. Yet, to admit, I feel it is a continuous learning journey, and at the same time as I attempt to advocate for more systemic approaches, e.g. in my team. I do not claim to be an expert on system thinking or sensemaking approaches. I attempt to lean on these approaches, experiment, learn from the experience and from others, who are better at it.

Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent interview that “A big part of innovation is saying, “You know what I’m really sick of?”. So perhaps, this is a way to share what bugs me and the little steps that I take to do something about it and work differently. Part of that is working out in the open and sharing experiences with others.

Thank you,

Wadim

If you are interested

  • to join a conversation/discussion with me on the topics I touched upon; I welcome and appreciate any feedback, comment, critique,
  • to explore big problems and develop efforts designed for the long-term and impact;

then just connect with me on Linkedin, follow me on Twitter, or write to me at wadim@quercus-group.com to start the conversation.

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