I rather liked this delineation of the three different types of problem in the world, featured in a paper on reform in the healthcare industry by Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto, and quoted in The Checklist Manifesto:
- Simple problems are ones like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe.
- Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe. Success frequently requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination become serious concerns.
- Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, the professors point out. Every child is unique. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient. Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one. And this brings up another feature of complex problems: their outcomes remain highly uncertain. Yet we all know that it is possible to raise a child well. It’s complex, that’s all.
Zimmerman and Sholom go on to contend that we (in the context of the paper they are talking about healthcare experts) often:
'...implicitly describe complex problems as complicated ones and hence employ solutions that are wedded to rational planning approaches. These often lead to inappropriate solutions because they neglect many aspects of complexity. We are reminded of the old joke about the drunk who is stumbling around near a lamppost. He is asked what he is doing and says that he is looking for his car keys.
“Oh, where do you think you lost them?”
“Down the block near my car,” he says.
“So why are you looking for them here?”
“Because the light is better.”
The sophistication of our models, theories and language for complicated problems can be as seductive as the lamplight. They provide better “light” and clarity and yet can lead to investigations that are ill-equipped to address complex adaptive systems.'