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Solving complex problems: forget what you know!

Solving complex problemsType “solving problems” into Google and over 153 million results will pop up in milliseconds . This is both an indication of the digital age; and the sheer scale and complexity of the problems facing our modern society.

Be it diminishing governmental budgets, climate change, the global financial crisis, or even the ageing population, in a digitally connected world, we are able to understand the interdependent nature of our problems better. We also understand that our communities are beset by wicked problems – problems that are difficult or almost impossible to solve because there are just too many variables.

For an engineering services provider, this should be an excellent opportunity. We are inherently problem solvers and our value should increase as the complexity of the problem increases. Why, then, aren’t wicked problems being solved, particularly when we have so much data analysis capability? Is there something else confounding the issues?

Solving Complex Problem (story pic)Typically, when engineers secure a project, as small a team as possible is assigned to undertake the project in order to minimise costs and deliver the project efficiently within the accepted fee. Everyone assigned to the project will invariably come from within the industry related to the client project, and this team is often working across a number of other projects at the same time. The measure of this project team’s success is how quickly they can arrive at a single tried and proven (previously implemented) solution which meets the brief. A project programme is then established, including project meetings. Client interaction is limited to organised meetings and end user contact is minimal to non-existent.

This process, which is widespread within the engineering profession, is actually contributing to the elusiveness of finding a solution to wicked, complicated problems. The process of putting a limited number of minds on a project with a drawn out programme is simply too few minds with too long a time frame to consider the full range of the variables likely to be encountered in wicked problems.

What if problems could be addressed in a different way?

Here’s how:

Forget what you know…

We need to forget what we know and re-engineer the way we think about solving problems . As an industry, we have to change. Communities and corporations are relying on it. We need to adopt the mantra: admitting you need help is the best way to innovate.

A meeting of minds…

Bringing more people with a diverse skill set into the earliest stage of a project for a very short, sharp period of time creates an intensity of idea generation needed for innovation. Creating a ‘design jam’ environment allows teams with diverse skills to consider a problem from all angles and to generate more ideas, quickly. Generating multiple ideas is the key to arriving at an optimised solution to complex problems.

Take on a 360º view of the problem…

Importantly, the perspective of the ‘professional’ team isn’t the only input required when solving a wicked problem. Client participation in the idea generation phase, and an end user focus when considering solutions, should be commonplace. This environment, which could be referred to as a ‘brewing room’, allows a professional team to ‘brew’ many ideas, and test the ideas generated against one another to build even better, more valuable solutions.

If we are to have any chance of solving wicked problems, or what should actually be termed ‘exquisite challenges’ or ideal opportunities for innovation, the engineering profession must redefine many of the projects we work on as wicked problems and use this approach as a methodology in itself.

5 replies »

  1. errr, we already do that from concept and throughout the project: as an Electrical and Automation Engineer I’ve provided different ideas to Civil, Process and Mechanical Engineers and encouraged clients’ to reconsider the whole idea of why he wants a project. And, they have done the same for me – as engineers we’ve been doing that since the first design meeting / site meeting took place at a Roman sewer.
    We then bring in plant operators and maintenance right from the start and involve them at all stages.
    We just need to promote this to those that don’t; experience saves re-inventing the wheel on every project. No need to forget, just promote good practice and approach problems with an open mind.

  2. Mark, it sounds as if your processes tick all of the boxes…but how could even your processes benefit from a diversity of views? Could non-technical viewpoints be included? That of the ultimate end-users?

  3. Looking at the way many people in Australia discuss problem solving, I think the solutions is far less complex. A surprising number of professionals work like headache pills. Instead of tackling the problem at the root, they fight the symptoms. At the surface the problem seems solved as the symptoms are gone, but the root of the problem continues its malicious work. A solution would be to analyse what makes a problem complex, to consider all the modules adding to the issue, and then to try and find ways to simplify the process, taking away the complexity. Simple and modularised processes add transparency and help future analysts to quickly gain an idea of the “big picture”.

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