Everyone who claims they have a simple solution to a complex problem lies. To spot the lie, you need to know if a described problem is simple or complex. Understanding if a problem is complex is not that easy. We usually try to determine that by the description of a problem itself. The approach is misleading, though. The problem’s type depends on the context and agency of a person (or organisation) that wants to solve the problem.
First, let’s consider the context. Imagine a problem of “I need coffee”. To most readers, this problem will seem simple. And the solution would be “go and get one!”. When I run out of coffee, I buy one: as beans or I visit a local coffee shop.
Now consider that you have all the resources (time and money), but you are in a remote location during severe weather, and you are lost. Then getting a coffee becomes a complex problem because even though you have agency, the context makes it super hard.
What if you are near a coffee shop but have no money to pay for it. The context is in favour, but you have no agency due to a lack of resources.
Finally, consider a person living in a remote location without resources. Then getting a coffee becomes a complex problem. It could require policy, economy or societal changes to enable the person to get a coffee.
The truth is that most problems that we deal with in big organisations and societies are complex ones, even if leaders put them behind problem statements that seem simple.
Stating that a problem is complex is not enough, though. To spot if someone understands the problem’s nature, we need to notice if they see a difference between context and agency. What is more, we should be able to hear some hypotheses on how to divide the complex problem into simple ones, or at least where to start, and what would be the next steps depending on the outcome of the first simple problem hypothesis.
Last but not least, be very cautious when someone makes you responsible for solving a problem. Always consider the problem’s context and what agency you were given to find a solution. After all, a problem can be simple for a person with an agency, but for someone without an agency, the same problem can be complex.