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How the public sector can get smarter at solving complex problems

10 August 2017

News and media


The problems that the public sector is asked to solve are becoming more complex, often involving multiple actors and stakeholders, and without clear ‘right or wrong’ answers.

Yet solving complex problems is not recognised as a missing, or underdeveloped, skill or seen as something which can be improved by training.

Dr Nick Fleming, founder of consultancy firm Innergise and ANZSOG faculty member, says that the lack of problem-solving skills is causing huge waste in the public and private sectors, and means that many of our leaders are ill-equipped to resolve the complex problems for which they’re responsible.

“Effort placed into poorly defined problems is typically wasted effort, wasting money, eroding trust and impeding careers. Conversely, well-placed effort into well-defined problems is likely to be highly productive,” Dr Fleming said.

“Decisions are made without enough work to identify the problem, or ask revealing questions about it like: Is it worth dealing with? How will people react to our solution? How can we respond constructively to opposition and develop a genuine solution?

“Too often people just repeat what was done in the past. There is rarely a creative approach to problem-solving, which focuses on how we can reach success.”

A public sector responsibility

Dr Fleming said that, while poor problem solving was not limited the public sector, it was the public sector that generally had responsibility for solving dynamic, complex problems that involved issues of public value.

Issues such as transportation in cities, improving energy supply, or lifting education standards, where the private sector was increasingly contributing to public outcomes, were examples of problems that had increased in complexity.

“I think there is a lot of complacency in the private sector about change and their ability to adapt, at a time where change is coming fast.

“But there are some extra complexities for public sector organisations, that make complex problem solving even more important.

“Firstly there is the more complicated stakeholder environment, with more groups that need to be involved in finding solutions to problems. Secondly they are operating in a political environment which can change rapidly and constrain action. Thirdly they need to consider fairness and equity, in a way that the private sector generally does not.

Dr Fleming is teaching an upcoming ANZSOG course on Solving Complex Problems Well: Tools and Techniques, and believes solving complex problems needs to begin at the definition stage. Organisations need spend time trying to better define the problem, and pay more attention to creating the desired outcomes.

“Don’t just do what you have done in the past, or what comes most easily to your organisation,” Dr Fleming said.

“Planning and early-stage dialogue is not seen as real work. But there is a need for more of this to discern what the real problem is, and what policy levers can be used to get a good, enduring outcome.

“There is a bias towards action, but there is no point in doing things that try to solve the wrong problem, will never get approval or will be blocked by other stakeholders.

“We also need to recognise when we are responding to the symptoms, not the problem. It’s often necessary to respond to the symptoms, but we need to acknowledge that is what we are doing and make sure we tackle the problem as well.

“Complex problems are generally wide-ranging in scope, with a variety of actors involved. They are also dynamic – a change in approach to one part will lead to changes in other parts.

“The key action I recommend is to solve problems by designing solutions. Define the problem clearly and then define a very clear picture of what success looks like, and deliberately design your way to that success.

Solving complex problems is a teachable skill

Dr Fleming said that solving complex problems was a skill that could be taught.

“While many people have developed some problem-solving skills through life experience, they are often not developed to the level they need for their jobs, or improved by their organisation.

“One of the questions that I ask people is: What are the methods that you use to solve a complex problem? This is often a light-bulb moment – very few people can say that their agency has a consistent process in place to solve complex problems.

“What professionals typically develop are skills to analyse and answer particular classes of discipline-specific problems. Most people can’t explain how to resolve broader, less technical types of problems.

“Fixing a car is a complicated problem, designing a better transport system is a complex problem.

“I teach ‘systems thinking’ so people can examine the whole system they are dealing with, not just the bits that directly concern them.

Dr Fleming says that the public sector could be better at long-term thinking, particularly when short-term thinking is often governed by politics.

“We need to get better at anticipating issues that will come up in the long-term, and working out how our short-term actions – which can be influenced by politics – can also help us achieve our long-term goals.

“I also think that the public sector needs to be more positive about the potential contribution that stakeholders could make, rather than seeing working with them in negative terms. They have a right to be heard, but they may also be able to bring something to the table.”

Dr Fleming said that improving problem solving skills right through organisations, not just at the top, was vital for making the public sector smarter and more efficient.

Australia’s head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson stated last year that “we keep making the same sorts of mistakes and have to ask ourselves why”

“If we don’t improve our ability to solve complex problems, the capabilities of the public sector, and the people who work in it won’t be able to achieve their potential,” Dr Fleming said.

Find out more about Dr Fleming’s upcoming course Solving Complex Problems Well: Tools and Techniques.