Complex problem solving is the most important skillset we need this century…* But what is it?

*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.


World Economic Forum article: What are the 21st-century Skills Every Student Needs?

Why is complex problem solving so important?  And what is it anyway?

In the 21C things are more interconnected than ever before, and that makes them more difficult to understand, predict, influence and control – they’re complex.

Our traditional problem solving and strategy development processes (the linear (step-by-step) problem solving process most of us are familiar with) aren’t as effective on these types of problems.  We need to update how we go about solving complex problems. 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 (strategic thinking, systems thinking, analytical thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, structured thinking, design thinking, futures thinking) and relies on five concurrent activities (rather than sequential steps):

  1. Build a deeper understanding of the issue…. so you have insight about what to do, rather than having to guess;
  2. Re-design the system and rigorously think ideas through…. to achieve the outcomes you want effectively and efficiently, and to anticipate the unintended consequences;
  3. Take an evidence-based approach…. so you have a strong case for, and confidence that your ideas will work;
  4. Learn and adapt to what changes and what you learn along the way about what works and what doesn’t…. so your strategy maintains its relevance in a dynamic and uncertain world;
  5. Engage others…. to inform, test and build support for your ideas.

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, to ‘learn’ and ‘adapt’, 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 where you can learn the practical techniques to help answer them.