How to Solve Complicated Problems

Complicated problems may seem like they have no solution. The author of the new book, “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts” explains in this excerpt how we’re likely to react when faced with a complex problem.

When faced with complex problems, we typically respond in one of three ways. Often, our initial reaction is to feel overwhelmed. We may feel anxious and despair of our ability to respond effectively. This motivates our attempts to deny or avoid a problem. We might fail to recognize it altogether, or acknowledge the issues while simultaneously refusing to engage them. This characterized Anthony and Kasha’s initial approach to their divorce proceedings, when they chose to leave discussion about their vacation house until the end of the process. This strategy can have short-term benefits, such as the temporary management of anxiety, and long-term negative consequences, such as a missed opportunity to deescalate the conflict. It could even intensify the problem.

A second common response to complex problems is to prematurely simplify the problem. The demanding nature of these situations understandably attracts us to simplification: to thinking that circumscribes their intricacies by focusing on very few aspects. When situations offer contradictory information, simplification often involves a cursory comparison of different sides of the information, resulting in a polarized decision that one side is right and the others wrong. Such responses help alleviate our anxiety, cope, identify what to do, and begin to feel a sense of efficacy and control over the problem. But they can also lead to a misreading of the problem, resulting in what cognitive scientists label the revenge of the unjustly ignored.

In other words, premature oversimplification can lead us to actions that result in unintended negative consequences — consequences regarding important but neglected aspects of the problem. For example, some have argued that the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians, despite their merits, failed because they neglected to address many of the key concerns of marginalized factions in the conflict and other serious issues voiced in the streets.

The third type of response to complex conflicts, much less common than the others, is to actively engage with complexity. This can take different forms but typically entails an iterative process of differentiation of the relevant aspects of and perspectives on the problem. And then an integration of this information within some coherent framework that makes it comprehensible and useful. This does not mean getting lost in the nuances and complexities of problems or prematurely simplifying them. It means doing both in an iterative, ongoing fashion. In other words, we break it down and then put it together before and after we decide.

Research on this type of information processing, called integrative complexity, has been conducted on the writings of a variety of effective decision makers, including diplomats, presidents, revolutionary leaders, and Supreme Court justices. Generally, higher complexity is associated with reaching mutually beneficial compromise agreements, successful diplomatic communications, employing cooperative tactics during negotiations, and increased managerial effectiveness. Additionally, leaders with high levels of complexity are more likely to be open minded, more effective in highly turbulent environments, and less likely to jump to conclusions too quickly when facing ambiguous situations. Although this manner of problem engagement can be demanding and requires certain skills, and is unnecessary with more mundane problems, the benefits of employing it with the 5 percent will greatly outweigh the consequences of denial, avoidance, or oversimplification.

Clearly, complex problems like the 5 percent present daunting challenges to our human capacity for comprehension and effective action. Determining the relevance or irrelevance of the countless aspects of such problems can overwhelm even the most careful, rational thinker. Under normal circumstances, we must locate the problem at an appropriate level and scope, mindful of how our point of view affects what we come to see as fact. We must struggle with limitations to our cognitive processing of information and remain open to how important unfolding changes may impact the situation. And if we face conditions of protracted threat, the demands on us are further exacerbated by anxiety, impaired cognitive functioning, a chronic concern for safety, and a context that provides contradictory and politically consequential forms of information. Like athletes who play extreme sports, we must be aware of the challenges the 5 percent present to our perception and judgment, and respond accordingly.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts by Peter T. Coleman. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

© 2011 Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

Author Bio
Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.

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