Six Steps to Conquer Complexity

People yearn for simplicity.  Whether it’s inside or outside work, contending with a multitude of obligations, considerations, opportunities and challenges can be overwhelming.

When we feel bogged down and are greeted by more complexity around every corner, simple answers are alluring. This is a phenomenon that’s not gone unnoticed by people who want to make a quick buck.

You may have met charismatic consultants who appear brandishing a silver bullet to turbo-charge your business, whip up a frenzy of excitement, but then disappear with no fanfare when the bullet starts to miss any of its multiple targets.

Being human is complex, dealing with humans is complex, running a business is complex, and there are no ‘miracle cures’. The folks here at Core Catalysts cannot remove complexity, but we can try and help you conquer it. In fact, many of our engagements involve helping clients conquer complexity to make better, quicker, more focused choices.

Bringing in help from the outside will give you valuable experience and perspective; but it’s also good to challenge your teams first so that you can at least describe the issues.

Here are a few thoughts, steps to follow, and questions to ask your team, when you are facing complexity, suitable for a broad range of circumstances:

STEP 1 – Frame the question

Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”.

In business we are addicted to (and rewarded for) action, which means carving out time and space to define problems is tough. Therefore, spend at least five minutes to ask and answer the following questions:

  • Why does this (issue/problem/opportunity) matter?
  • Are we clear about our ‘context’? What is influencing or is influenced by this issue?
  • Can we define what we’re trying to achieve? *
  • Who’s important in this issue? Who are the stakeholders, and why do they matter?
  • How will we know that we’ve solved the problem, or been successful?

*   Doing this precisely enough is easier said than done.

Answering these questions will really help you assess any potential solutions as they come up.

STEP 2 – What do we already know?

In my experience, people within organizations often know more answers around complex issues than they think they do. Whether it is research hidden in archives, insights hidden in available data, or knowledge within the collective experience of the team, the bones of the answer often exist within the organization, even if implementing the solution is beyond their current capabilities. The bigger the company, the more prevalent this is, but it holds for smaller companies too.

So, make sure you ask the following questions before you ‘reinvent the wheel’:

  • Have we looked at this before?
  • Who (or what) might be able to provide a historical context?
  • Do we have learnings from other similar problems?
  • What information and opinion can we filter out / discard? *

* See Step 1: the better defined the problem is, the easier it is to purge irrelevant material

Uncovering what already exists can make the process of solving any complex issue quicker and easier.

STEP 3 – What don’t we know?

The converse is also true: nobody can know everything, and sometimes key things are unknown.

Some organizations can get a little paralyzed when they don’t have all the details and lack the confidence to judge when what they have is ‘good enough’ and it’s okay to at least start or proceed and see what happens. Others have the opposite problem, deliberately ignoring significant gaps due to a fear that momentum will be lost. And we have all seen situations where people have been selective in the information they gather and use, using only what supports their agenda.

Therefore, be open and honest in asking these questions

  • What knowledge gaps do we have?
  • Which gaps matter and which ones don’t?
  • How can we fill the gaps?
  • Do we need more data and information, or can we get by with some assumptions?

Answers to these questions will at the very least give you a road map to the information you need to gather in order to start tackling the issues you are facing.

STEP 4 – Synthesize and loop back

Thought processes are often illustrated as straight black lines, but in reality, they are more like lots of messy, squiggly, multicolored lines and blotches. Therefore, the key is to allow yourself enough time to both synthesize thoughts and information, and to allow for some iteration and development.

As you do this, make sure that you:

  • Refer back to the original issue as you defined it; do any obvious ideas or hypotheses jump out at you that could help solve the problem?
  • Ask yourself if there are possibilities to test these ideas and hypotheses?
  • Identify potential solutions that, for whatever reason, are ‘nonstarters’ (but be honest with yourself on what the disqualifying reasons are)
  • Consider if more information is required to test out the more promising ideas / hypotheses

Success during this stage means you have made real progress.

STEP 5 – Options and Recommendations

Again, the better defined the problem, the more chance that credible options will appear, and the quicker it will be to either progress or discount them (because you’ve been clear about the benchmarks you’re using to evaluate them).

You are now ready to build a short-list of options and to start developing recommendations, and should try and do the following:

  • List out and rank all the options you have
  • Consider the pro’s and con’s of each option, versus each other and also versus the status quo (also known as the ‘do nothing’ option)
  • Remove options that are unfeasible or that should be discounted based on their con’s
  • Identify the best option (or options) that solve the problem, have the fewest con’s / undesirable consequences, and that’s are most acceptable to your stakeholders
  • Think through how best to secure the support and resources needed to drive your recommendation into action
  • Think through how best to demonstrate the thinking and process that has led you to your recommendations

You now should be in a good position to write your recommendations!

STEP 6 – From Thinking to Action

Simplicity can be the key to getting stuff done. The better the process used to get to a plan, the easier it is to later articulate the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” simply.

Make sure you come up with simple and coherent messages that will guide people through the complexity you have tamed, and get both the decision-makers and ‘doers’ on board, to ultimately get you the action and results you desire.


At Core Catalysts, we love helping clients to ‘conquer complexity’ in their businesses, enabling them to get to better, quicker, more focused choices. If you think you or your team might benefit from help walking through and working on these six steps, give us a call!

Mark Jacobs, Client Service & Delivery