02 Jun

Chapter 1, Part 2. Problem analysis at the highest level of complexity

Chapter 1

Part 2

High-Level Complexity Problem Analysis: Tips, Tools, and Considerations

Previously (click here), we discussed why it is crucial to map problems at the highest level of complexity. To summarize, careful problem analysis helps in identifying and understanding the root causes of issues, which allows for the development of more effective and sustainable solutions. Through this in-depth analysis, we can address not only the symptoms but also improve the underlying structures and processes causing the problems. This leads to better decision-making, more efficient use of resources, and ultimately, higher quality results.

In this article, Part 2, we will explore the subject of complex problem-solving in greater depth. By reading this article, you will get answers to the following questions: How do you map problems at the highest level of complexity, and what useful tools are available to achieve this? In the upcoming blog series, we will also discuss the approach and key considerations in analyzing such problems and provide tips and tricks as additional material for achieving an optimal approach. So keep a close eye on my blog, as there is much more useful information to come.

Now, let’s first look at the various tools and methods available to effectively visualize problems at the highest level of complexity. We will discuss the most commonly used tools that can be applied directly. However, in a later blog, I will also cover more advanced analysis techniques, software solutions, and strategic approaches that can help you better identify, understand, and solve complex problems.

Top 50 valuable tools for problem analysis

Extensive research and my personal experience indicate that the following tools are highly useful for analyzing complex problems. As mentioned before, it is crucial to understand the problem well before even considering solutions. The subsequent tools will help you in this regard, but remember that it is not necessary to use all the tools simultaneously. Often, combining 3 to 6 methods is sufficient to clarify the problem.

Selection of the Right Tools

Selecting the right tool for problem analysis is no easy task, as various factors such as budget, capabilities, and the scope of the problem play a role. However, it is wise to use at least one method from each category listed below to create a solid foundation for understanding the problem. Generally, it is advised to combine at least three methods to gain profound insight into what is actually happening and thus describe the problem effectively. Below is a list of handy tools, ranked from most to least used per category, each with a brief description. I will soon discuss my personal favorite tools in more detail in a future blog post.

1 Identifying problems and restrictions

First and foremost, it is important to map out problems and bottlenecks. For this purpose, the following tools are useful:

  1. Abstraction ladder: This is a conceptual model that distinguishes different levels of abstraction, from concrete facts and data to abstract principles and concepts. It helps in understanding problems at varying levels of complexity.
  2. Wicked problem analysis: This approach is used to understand complex problems without clear solutions. It involves exploring the various dimensions of the problem and understanding diverse perspectives and interests. This analysis helps in identifying possible approaches and adaptive solutions for problems that lead to unexpected consequences.
  3. Fishbone diagram (Ishikawa diagram): The Ishikawa diagram, also known as the fishbone diagram due to its shape, is a tool used to identify possible causes of a problem. The diagram is structured with a central line representing the problem, with branches resembling the bones of a fish. These branches represent different categories or groups of possible causes, such as human factors, methods, materials, machines, measurements, and the environment. The Ishikawa diagram is an effective tool for systematically analyzing problems and identifying their underlying causes.
  4. Stakeholder analysis: Stakeholder analysis maps out complex problems by identifying and analyzing the interests, expectations, and influences of all involved parties. By gaining an in-depth understanding of the diverse stakeholders, including their perspectives and priorities, organizations can develop more effective strategies to deal with the problem.
    • Sometimes, Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships are also utilized, involving collaboration with different stakeholders, including governments, businesses, and civil society organizations, to achieve shared goals and solutions.
    • Inclusive Design is often employed as well, involving diverse user groups in the design process to create products, services, and environments that are usable by everyone.
    • As the world evolves rapidly, we increasingly see the use of Ecosystem Thinking. This approach focuses on understanding complex systems such as ecosystems, with a focus on the interdependence and mutual influences between the different components.
    • Transdisciplinarity is another useful tool to use during stakeholder analysis (Transdisciplinary). This approach integrates knowledge and approaches from various disciplines to understand and address complex problems from different perspectives. Often, this is simultaneously done using the Open Innovation methodology, where collaboration with external parties takes place to utilize ideas, technologies, and expertise to solve complex problems.
    • User Feedback often also falls under stakeholder analysis. With User Feedback, it is possible to actively collect feedback from users to identify areas where they experience problems.
  5. Meta-analysis: In meta-analysis, various results are combined and analyzed based on different studies to identify patterns, trends, and overall effects when evaluating interventions or policy measures.
  6. The 7W questions model: This model includes questions that start with Who, What, Where, When, Why, In What Way, and By What Means (how). It provides a structured approach for exploring, analyzing, and understanding complex situations, problems, or projects, where each aspect of the issue is thoroughly examined and considered. Previously, the 7W model was also known as 5W1H analyses.
  7. Benchmarking: Benchmarking allows for the comparison of the performance of a process or system with that of similar organizations to identify potential bottlenecks. This involves comparing performance with that of competitors or industry standards to discover areas of underperformance.
  8. Performance Testing: Performance Testing is a crucial process for mapping out problems at high levels of complexity. It evaluates the performance of systems, applications, or components under various conditions to assess whether they meet the required performance criteria. By conducting tests under expected loads and peak periods, response times, throughput, scalability, and stability can be measured. Techniques such as load testing, stress testing, spike testing, and endurance testing are applied to identify potential bottlenecks and optimize performance, which is invaluable in addressing complex high-level problems. This approach is often applied during the development phase of software applications, websites, and hardware to ensure their reliability and efficiency in environments with complex requirements.
    • One aspect of performance testing is Workload Analysis. This involves analyzing the workload of different parts of the system to identify where most delays occur. Through this analysis, specific parts of the system can be identified that suffer under heavy load or inefficient workload performance. This helps in locating potential bottlenecks and optimizing the performance of the system as a whole.
  9. Action Research: Action Research is an approach where problems are investigated in practice, and solutions are implemented simultaneously. This is done to learn and improve through iterative cycles. This methodology involves actively involving stakeholders and systematically collecting and analyzing data to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed solutions and to adjust them if necessary.
  10. De Bono’s Six Action Shoes: De Bono’s Six Action Shoes is a creative thinking technique that represents various action-oriented perspectives through six symbolic “shoes,” including Planning Shoes for strategy, Risk Shoes for risk management, Benefit Shoes for benefit identification, Design Shoes for creative thinking, Teamwork Shoes for collaboration, and Action Shoes for concrete implementation, thereby enabling individuals or groups to make more effective decisions and develop innovative solutions.
  11. Six Thinking Hats: Six Thinking Hats is a thinking technique that encourages different perspectives through the use of six symbolic “thinking hats,” each with a unique focus, such as facts (White Hat), emotions (Red Hat), criticism (Black Hat), and creativity (Green Hat), allowing for a more balanced and holistic approach in decision-making and idea generation.
  12. SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats): SWOT analysis examines the internal strengths and weaknesses of an organization and also maps out the external opportunities and threats.
  13. Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS): VTS aims to create a deep understanding and stimulate discussion through the use of visual art to explore complex concepts and perspectives.
  14. Blue Economy Approach: The Blue Economy Approach addresses problems from a sustainability perspective and emphasizes efficient use of natural resources to develop innovative solutions.
  15. Holistic Thinking: Holistic thinking approaches problems from a wide perspective, recognizing and investigating the interconnections between different aspects.
  16. Futures Thinking: Futures Thinking explores future trends, scenarios, and possible outcomes to better prepare for uncertainties and disruptive changes. Various approaches can be used to gain a clearer view of future trends, including:
    • Strategic Foresight: Anticipating future trends, disruptions, and possible scenarios to develop proactive strategies prepared for uncertain futures.
    • Futures Design: A design approach focused on creating desirable futures through scenarios, visioning, and innovation across multiple domains.
    • Backcasting: A planning method where future goals are set and then back-translated to the present to identify the steps needed to achieve those goals. A similar approach is outcome mapping, where the focus is on the desired changes and outcomes one wants to achieve, and then working backward to identify the necessary actions.
    • Scenario Thinking: A strategic planning process that explores alternative future scenarios and develops strategies to adapt to various possible outcomes.
    • Simulation Models: Sometimes, simulation models are also used to test future scenarios. With simulations, it is possible to understand the effects of changes in processes or systems before they are implemented in reality.
  17. Causal Layered Analysis (CLA): With this methodology, problems are analyzed at different levels, from superficial symptoms to deeper underlying structural causes.
  18. Asset-Based Community Mapping: It is a participatory method where communities identify and map their own resources, strengths, and social networks to inform local development strategies.
  19. Fault Tree Analysis (FTA): FTA is used to identify and analyze the possible causes of an undesired event. FTA employs a tree structure to model the causal relationships between various events and conditions leading to failure. This enables the identification and analysis of potential failure mechanisms, allowing for the implementation of preventative measures to reduce risks and enhance the reliability of systems.
  20. Time Study: A Time Study is a method for analyzing and measuring the time required to perform a specific task. This technique involves observing and recording the activities carried out during the completion of a task, along with the time spent on each activity. Through Time Studies, organizations can gain insights into the efficiency of their processes, identify bottlenecks, and implement improvements to increase productivity and shorten throughput time. This technique is widely used in manufacturing environments, logistics, and operational management to optimize workflows and reduce costs.
    • This is where the so-called System Dynamics comes also into play. System Dynamics is a method for modeling and simulating complex systems over time, examining the interactions between different variables to understand behavior and feedback loops.

2 Deeper understanding of the problem and the context.

To gain a deeper understanding of the problem and its context, various tools can be employed. After mapping out the issues, it is beneficial to explore the underlying causes and contextual factors. The following tools may prove useful in this endeavor:

  1. Brainstorming: This is a creative technique through which a group generates ideas to explore potential causes of a problem.
  2. Narrative Inquiry: Here, complex problems are explored through stories and personal experiences, with the aim of developing deeper insight and empathy.
  3. 5 Whys methodology: An iterative technique in which you repeatedly ask “why?” to discover the underlying causes of a problem.
  4. Socratic Questioning: By asking critical questions, deeper insight is gained into the nature of the problem and alternative perspectives are explored.
  5. Contextual analysis: Studies the environment and context in which the problem occurs, including relevant factors, trends, and influences.
  6. Trend pyramid: The “trend pyramid” is a concept used to visualize and understand trends and developments on different levels of abstraction and impact. The idea behind the trend pyramid is that trends manifest at various levels, ranging from broader, fundamental shifts to more specific, immediate consequences.
  7. Root Cause Analysis (RCA): A systematic approach to identifying the underlying causes of a problem and to develop sustainable solutions that address the problem at its core.
  8. Fishbone + Causal Loop Diagrams: Combines the fishbone diagram technique with causal loop diagrams to better understand the dynamics of causes and effects.
  9. Fault Tree Analysis (FTA): Identifies all possible causes of an error or problem, along with their interrelationships, in a tree structure.
  10. Cognitive Mapping: Uses psychological models to visualize the mental models and perceptions of individuals or groups, making complex thought processes visible.
  11. Behavioral Insights: An approach that utilizes insights from the behavioral sciences to understand and influence behavior, thereby developing more effective solutions for complex social issues.
  12. Multivariate Analysis: Analyzes multiple variables simultaneously to identify interrelationships and patterns within complex datasets, thus yielding profound insight into underlying structures.
  13. Social Network Analysis (SNA): Analyzes the structure and dynamics of social networks to understand patterns of connectivity and influence when addressing social problems.
  14. Gamification: Gamification can map out complex problems by increasing motivation and engagement, breaking down the problem into manageable tasks, facilitating crowdsourcing of solutions, and enhancing data analysis with interactive visualizations. This encourages participants to actively contribute to the identification and resolution of complex problems in a more participative, creative, and effective manner.
    • Game Theory is also part of the gamification tasks, but it is more a mathematical approach that analyzes strategic interactions between different parties. This assists in informing optimal decision-making in complex situations with conflicting interests.
  15. Theory U: Theory U is a conceptual framework developed by Otto Scharmer, utilized in organizational development, leadership development, and social change. The model is founded on the concept of “presencing,” where individuals and groups become aware of their deepest sources of knowledge, creativity, and intention. Theory U encompasses several phases, including slowing down, observing, and perceiving with an open mind (Co-initiating), deepening awareness and insight (Co-sensing), creating new perspectives and solutions (Co-creating), and implementing innovations in practice (Co-evolving). Through Theory U, organizations and leaders can achieve transformational changes by gaining a deeper understanding of themselves, their environment, and the systems in which they operate.
  16. Chaos Theory: Chaos Theory studies complex, dynamic systems that are sensitive to small changes in initial conditions, leading to unpredictable behavior in the long term. It focuses on understanding seemingly chaotic phenomena in natural and man-made systems, such as turbulence, weather, and financial markets. The theory emphasizes that seemingly chaotic systems often contain hidden order and patterns, and small changes can have significant implications. Chaos Theory, with applications in various fields such as mathematics, physics, and economics, provides a framework to comprehend the complexity of systems, which can be useful in addressing complex problems.

3. Structuring and visualizing problems

After the problems have been mapped out and the context of the problem has been clarified, structuring and visualizing the problems can be helpful. The following tools are useful for this purpose:

  1. Risk Matrix: A risk matrix is a risk management tool that sets the probability of risks against their impact in a matrix. This allows risks to be identified, assessed, and prioritized based on their potential effects. It offers a structured approach to making decisions on risk management and mitigation within an organization or project.
    • Risk analysis and management (RAM) are also included here, applying a systematic method for identifying, analyzing, and limiting risks.
  2. Pareto Analysis: The 80/20 rule can be applied to determine which bottlenecks have the most impact. Here, the focus can be on the 20% of the bottlenecks that cause 80% of the problems. By focusing on the critical issues, more effective solutions can be devised.
  3. Event Mapping: This visualizes the series of events that have led to a problem to identify patterns and critical points.
  4. Statistical Analysis: This applies statistical methods to analyze data and identify patterns in bottlenecks.
  5. Cause-and-Effect Matrix: A matrix that visualizes the relationships between different factors and their influence on the problem.
  6. Interrelationship Diagrams (ID): Interrelationship diagrams enable us to investigate the relationships between different problems and potentially bring to light cause-and-effect relationships that are not immediately apparent.
  7. Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH): A methodology for critical reflection on complex social systems and identifying possible interventions to address unwanted situations.
  8. Gantt Charts: With Gantt Charts, project timelines and dependencies can be planned and visualized, making bottlenecks and possible delays clear.
  9. Process Mapping (Value Stream Mapping): Visualizes the steps in a process to identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks that can cause problems. This is also referred to as a process flowchart, where the workflow or process is visualized through sequences and operations. In this way, mapping processes helps isolate problems in a step or series of steps within a larger process.
  10. Visual Management: Visual aids, such as signs and charts, are used here to track progress, identify bottlenecks, and improve team communication.
  11. Perceptual Mapping: This maps out consumers’ perceptions and preferences regarding products or brands to gain insight into complex market dynamics.
  12. Mind Mapping: This visualizes complex information and maps out the interrelationships to discover patterns and new insights.
  13. Kanban Boards: With Kanban Boards, workflows and process steps can be visually organized and managed. By moving tasks and process steps on the board, teams can identify bottlenecks and improve flow.
  14. Current Reality Tree (CRT): CRT makes it possible to map out cause-and-effect relationships responsible for current problems.

Of course, there are many other useful tools available that can help map out highly complex problems. For example, there are also numerous technical tools for identifying problems, which I will cover in a separate blog soon. However, the most important ones are listed above. In my next blog, I will discuss in more detail my top 10 favorites and describe how they can help bring the problems into sharp focus step by step. I will also explain soon how one can move from a problem to an effective solution, and which aspects need to be considered. More information will follow.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch.


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