Engaging With Complex Systems

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Russell Ackoff – an iconic pioneer in systems thinking – called them messes.”[N]o problem ever exists in complete isolation,” he wrote in Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems (1974). “Every problem interacts with every other problem and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems. Furthermore, solutions to most problems produce other problems…”

Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, professors at the University of California, called them wicked problems in a seminal paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” published in the Policy Sciences journal in 1973. Their language stuck, and wicked problems are now getting a lot of press. Everywhere we look it seems there are deeply complex problems that are devilishly hard to resolve.

Never mind planetary challenges. Wicked problems lurk at a grassroots level in our organizations, communities and neighborhoods. The world is constantly getting more complicated and problems seem to multiply. There are wicked opportunities as well — deeply complex systemic changes we could make that would have positive consequences for the world.

Rittel and Webber described ten salient characteristics of wicked problems. I have paraphrased them below:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. The scope of the problem to be tackled is shaped by the chosen solution. Problem and solution are intertwined.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. It is impossible to understand the full complexity of a problem and all of the interactions between systems. We can always discover new ways to do better.
  • Solutions are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. There is no definitive outcome. Stakeholders differ in their beliefs, values and interests. In the end, they will judge solutions as good or bad.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution. Consequences unfold over time – often indefinitely – and the full repercussions of a chosen solution may never be known.
  • There is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error. Every solution has consequences, and once a choice is made it cannot be undone. Attempts to correct create a new set of wicked problems.
  • There are no well-defined solutions. When problems are ill-defined, solutions are ill-defined too. Choice of a plan of action relies on judgment, creativity, and trust in the planner.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. While a problem may appear to be similar to others, it may have particular characteristics that argue against using the same solution.
  • Every wicked problem can be a symptom of another problem. The problem may be the consequence of another problem at a higher level, and that problem in turn may be a consequence of one still higher.
  • There is no way to determine the root cause. People choose the explanations that are most plausible to them; that reflect their own intentions and ability to act.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions taken, regardless of the ambiguity of problem boundaries and the complexity of causal webs.

The Cynefin Framework

Consultant and researcher Dave Snowden has developed a more nuanced way of thinking about complex systems that bases interventions on a deeper understanding of system behavior. With co-author Mary Boone, he described this in “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” an article published in Harvard Business Review in November 2007. He called it the Cynefin Framework.

This sensemaking framework describes two ordered domains (where a system acts in ways that are simple or complicated); two unordered domains (where a system behaves in ways that are complex or chaotic); and a fifth domain — disorder — where it is unclear how a system functions.


In the simple state:

  • the system is stable
  • there are clear cause-and-effect relationships
  • there is an obvious and undisputed right answer
  • outcomes are predictable and repeatable
  • intervention is based on “best practice”
  • the most effective approach is to sense, categorize, and respond
  • categorizing bases action on a reliable set of rules

The leader’s job, Snowden and Moore say, is to ensure proper processes are in place, and to delegate and avoid micro-management. The greatest danger is the belief that what has worked well in the past will continue to work well in the future. To avoid complacency, leaders need to create ways for people to challenge orthodoxy.


In the complicated state:

  • patterns are relatively stable
  • cause-and-effect relationships are unclear
  • there is no shared understanding of the right approach
  • there is increased reliance on expert opinion
  • intervention is based on “good practice”
  • the most effective approach is to sense, analyze, and respond
  • analyzing attempts to clarify cause-and-effect

The leader’s job is to engage experts and cope with conflicting advice. People need to be encouraged to think outside the box and challenge expert opinions. The greatest danger is overconfidence in experts, dismissal of non-expert viewpoints, and ‘analysis paralysis’ that forestalls taking action.


In the complex state:

  • system behaviours cannot be predicted
  • root causes of patterns are unknowable
  • right answers can’t be identified
  • there is no ability to rely on categorization or analysis
  • action is based on “emergent practice”
  • the most effective approach is to probe, sense, and respond
  • probing makes thoughtful interventions to see how a system reacts

The leader’s job is to foster discussion and dialogue, and create conditions for experimentation and innovation. Time is needed for reflection. The greatest danger is the temptation to make a knee-jerk response rather than allowing patterns to emerge, and to fall back habitually into using command-and-control.


In the chaotic state:

  • the system is turbulent
  • there are no manageable patterns
  • events are not comprehensible
  • intervenors have to rely on intuition
  • intervention is based on “novel practice”
  • the most effective approach is to act, sense, and respond
  • acting makes quick instinctive interventions to see how the system reacts

The leader’s job is to identify what works rather than looking for right answers. There is an urgent need to restore order. Command-and-control is used to move from chaos to complexity. The greatest danger is continuing to rely on charismatic leaders who use top-down control long after it is needed. The directive approach may ignore opportunities, and if chaos continues solutions may be short-lived.


The disordered state is a place of “not knowing” what type of causality exists. Until this uncertainty is resolved, actions taken may not match the reality of the situation. Snowden says we normally inhabit this place, essentially flying blind. We need to improve our understanding of a system so we can engage effectively. We can then choose a way of acting that is based on how the system works, rather than defaulting into using our own preferred style.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on February 20, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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