Complex problem solving is the most important skill we need this century…* But what is ‘complex problem solving’?

*2017 OECD and WEF reports.

Both the World Economic Forum and the OECD have released reports in recent months that put complex problem solving at the top of the list of the most important skills we need this century.


Because things are more interconnected now, and that makes them more difficult to understand, predict, influence and control – complex.

But what is complex problem solving?

Perhaps we should start with what it isn’t. It isn’t the linear (step-by-step) problem solving process most of us are familiar with. It just isn’t sufficient to do some research, perhaps some analysis, develop some options and evaluate them, make a recommendation then implement it. The world is too dynamic, interconnected and uncertain for that now.

Complex problem solving is a dynamic and iterative approach for determining how to bring about outcomes for a complex challenge. It requires a range of higher-order thinking skills and relies on five concurrent activities (rather than sequential steps).

However, beyond this, there is not much practical guidance around on what complex problem solving means in practice. For example, what should we actually be doing to rigorously think things through, to think strategically, critically and to apply systems thinking? At Ponder we believe there is a huge opportunity to make more progress with the challenges of the 21st Century by making complex problem solving skills more accessible, tangible and practical. It’s the gap our 20 Questions aims to fill. There is a pattern to the questions we should ask ourselves when problem-solving is complex and difficult to navigate. We’ve captured that pattern into 20 Questions for complex problem solving and strategy development (and practical techniques to help answer them). The 20 Questions don’t give you the answers, or do the thinking for you, but they remind you of what you need to think about. They prompt your thinking, and, the practical techniques help you to answer the questions and do that thinking.

The 20 Questions and their techniques are a very unique collection of valuable ideas from a range of disciplines, including engineering, logical reasoning, outcomes-focused strategy, systems thinking, behavioural insights, evidence-based policy, complexity science, interdisciplinary perspectives and learning and adaptive design.

The 20 Questions and their techniques embed the eight higher-order thinking skills, so that if you are asking (and answering) the 20 Questions, then you are complex problem solving. The 20 Questions bring structure to a messy issue, and help you to generate insights, to assess ideas, to provide guidance, direction and feedback to others, and to develop rigorously thought-through strategies for achieving outcomes for complex challenges.

Complex challenges require contemporary thinking.

You’ll find an overview of the 20 Questions on our resources page.
Ask about our seminars that share the practical techniques to help answer them.