Solve the Simple, Transition the Complex

If it’s simple, just solve the problem. If it’s complex, transition.

Whatever you do, don’t solve a transition as if it was merely a simple problem.

What does all this mean?

If the situation, issue or crisis before you:

  • is one for which you have plenty of power,
  • have plenty of capability,
  • fits your current base of power,
  • and only requires a new solution
  • to a relatively focused, well-identified and isolated “problem”,

then by all means direct your attention to solving it.

For example, if everything is humming along in your organization and there seems to be a “leak” of money in one department, by all means find out who or what the problem is and fix that. If someone is cheating there, or incompetent, or not following procedures that are working everywhere else in the organization, then it would be silly to overturn the entire organization in response to that situation, or apply its solution too broadly when the issue or problem is quite localized.

Not much needs to be said about problem solving. Most leaders, managers and workers are taught, whether by experience or training or both, to solve problems. There are also many systems available for how to identify the “root problem” and brainstorm and test ways to solve it. This area (problem solving) gets much attention and, in my experience, is least often how organizations get in real lasting trouble.

 The worst trouble organizations get into in the area of problem solving is often due to avoidance. Avoidance usually looks like not wanting to address the actual problem and stir up the political and interpersonal difficulties that go along with a change in that area. The worst case scenario here is that the problem continues to have the same negative effect. As we will see in a moment, things could be much worse.



Another beast entirely is what I am for the moment calling complex issues or transitions. These cut across people, departments, groups, divisions, and specialties. They involve the culture of the organization as well as its history and identity.

There is no one person, department, group, division or specialty that is obviously not doing his or her or its job. There is also no one place (though it often gets attributed to the CEO or COO) where the complex issue obviously belongs for resolution. In fact, it may not even be obvious why things that used to work, and even work well, no longer seem to have the same power. Nor is it clearly obvious what has changed.

These complex issues require a different kind of analysis than do simple problems. They also call for a different kind of resolution than do simple problems. I call the resolution of complex issues a transition. And the difference between a transition and a simple problem to be solved is that a transition requires an alteration of the very identification of the entity or entities involved.

There is a set of capabilities and methods that go with any particular identification. As long as that identification stays in place, the world and its challenges looks like the kind of “problems” and “situations” that call for those known capabilities and methods. Often, it looks like it must require merely better versions of them, or just more of them to be brought to bear, or be brought to bear more tenaciously.

  • But what if the current situation is of a different order?
  • What if it calls for an alteration of identification and the development of new powers and capabilities and methods?
  • What would that look like?
  • How would you know that is what you are dealing with?

The big problem is that the answers to those questions aren’t usually obvious.

Most often one of two things happens — either the organization deals with the new complexity as if it is just a big simple problem and solves it as best they can, or they see it as a huge problem they don’t know how to deal with and bring in someone who they think does. (This someone with a different skill set often brings a good deal that is at odds with the current organization’s culture. They often, however, do not bring sufficient competence to alter the organization to a new and more congruent culture). Both methods ignore the complexity and current call for a competent transition in contrast to mere problem solving methods.

Here are some signs that indicate a transition is afoot:

  • Those methods that used to work don’t work anymore
  • There is a lack of inspiration and enjoyment in working – it seems flat
  • There is plenty of blame going on with fingers pointing in many directions, however no real clarity nor effective action occurs with regard to resolving the situation
  • There is a sense that something major is called for even without knowing what that is
  • There is a sense of a lack of power in the face of the issue and a frustration that problem solving methods aren’t working

What differentiates a transition from a normal problem requiring solutions?

As mentioned before, what is up for resolution in a transition is the current identification of the entity (whether person or organization). The difficulty here is that one’s identity is often not only tied in with one’s history, it also seems to be the very source of success. As such, it seems like one would be risking the very thing that had made things work in the past in behalf of something new and untried.

This is an extreme fear that exaggerates many things:

  • The identity isn’t “true” – it is one view of how to interpret one’s history and power and there are others available.
  • That something worked in the past is no guarantee of it working as well in the present or future.
  • What worked before may have fit different times, or a different state of development of the organization, or of its industry.

Let me give a different picture and interpretation of the sensible fit of transitioning that may be useful here. Any organization, or person for that matter, that successfully navigates a particular stage of power and awareness will reach the upper limits of that way of being. At that point, they either settle for minor improvements within a level of power that is nearly tapped out, or they transition. A transition can be seen as the situation calling for an evolution of one’s identification and basis of power. A successfully met transition gives one both a new freedom and a new basis of power that can evolve well beyond the last few bits of power left in the old constellation and identification.

It helps to view an identification not as one’s self, or the self of the organization, but rather as one constellation at one point in time that interprets the basis and capabilities of oneself or the organization in behalf of something larger. This larger intent and reservoir of powers can be more fully tapped the more one develops a deeper relation with it. It is an evolutionary process — a developmental process — that does best when its front edge is kept alive and well, and when the call to be doing something inspiring is kept alive. It is key to have the truth be told when the inspiration wanes while doing repetitive iterations of what used to be inspiring yet no longer is. This is the sign of a need for a transition of identification — when the inspiration of work goes flat.

I can recall consulting a business unit that made custom integrated chips internally for the products of a Fortune 100 high-tech company. They were quite stuck and quite flat about their work, even while working hard to attempt to serve all the different needs of the other business units. They were looking for multiple solutions to their problems – problems that constituted a long list. (See post re: always and only one theme up here– this is clearly a red flag for being misguided.)

Overall, they felt badly that their unit was the scapegoat for the organization, always bleeding red ink based in changes asked for at the last-minute by various other business units. The negative effects of these last-minute changes were only counted against this unit’s bottom line according to corporate procedure.

It took a very short time to figure out that the flatness in the organization and the sense of defeat came from having a job that was impossible to manage or fulfill. This unit had been given and accepted four conflicting imperatives (possibly in the distant past under a different regime): make any custom chips requested at an agreed upon price, make changes as requested and neither say no nor charge additional for them, make a profit doing so, and do not go outside the company to do business. I wrote these on the whiteboard and said, “If I were to be asked to do this, I would say, ‘No, you can have any three out of four; pick three.’ And, I would be being responsible in saying so.”

It would be possible to deliver integrated chips and charge appropriately for changes including to business units inside the company, as well as go outside the company to sell specialized chips if need be to deliver a profit. Or, it would be possible to deliver chips and changes on one’s own budget, not go outside to sell to other companies, and forget about making a profit in that unit. The lack of profit could be deemed a cost of the overall company. It was not structurally possible to do both of these.

Why would it take an outsider to figure this out? Basically, this business unit had gotten used to an identity of being a service unit (something close to a “slave unit”) without a real say about their area and without the real power to change it structurally. Having to say “yes” to everything, and not being able to charge other units for their failures to estimate or design correctly, made them the whipping boy of the company – something all other units could support. Other units were glad to have all red ink flow to this service unit.

Two things were required to make a successful transition out of this complex situation. First, we appreciatively put to rest what had the Integrated Chip Business Unit continue to work and serve while enduring horrendous P&L statements and low respect. They were indeed dedicated to the success of the whole enterprise. That was one of their strengths. We noted how the old way of organizing their strength would not scale well, and in fact, really didn’t even serve the overall enterprise. Other business units would not correct their tendency to last-minute changes if they did not have the cost of their design and estimation failures flow to their own balance sheet.

Second, we called up a new identification of what a responsible and powerful unit channeling their particular strengths and providing custom integrated chips would be. There started to be some new life, and interest, and excitement as the leaders of the division saw they could, by doing their jobs and telling the truth about where costs belong, both deliver chips appropriately and make a profit. They could earn respect within the organization while putting their strengths to work. They recognized that they could lead the conversation about the importance of profit, and include the possibility of selling their talents outside the company if it wasn’t well used inside the company, all as an expression of their dedication to the success of the whole enterprise.

From this shift of identification, it didn’t take long for them to make a list of policy changes and, in an aligned way, convince the senior management of the company to back those changes. These policy changes included the ability to say “no” to design requests, the charge-back of the costs of any design changes to the business unit requesting the change, and reserving the right to go outside the company with their custom chips business to ensure a profit. When these directions were embraced, it became obvious that they fit well with the overall company policy of having each business unit manage their own business for a profit, as well as showed the potential to increase efficiency in other business units within the company by having each unit be responsible for the cost of their design process failures.

The Integrated Chip Business Unit went from being the low unit on the totem pole in the company to a very respected contributor to the overall bottom line. It also went from its former identification as a powerless server to a full-fledged business unit with the ability to set direction, say no when appropriate, and be properly paid for its product. That unit was now set up to be both effectively managed and led and to develop its capabilities.

The worst thing that could have happened in my consultation with them would have been to work on their laundry list of problems and solved them with some Rube Goldberg scheme that left the initial identification and powerlessness submerged and in place. A small improvement in efficiency would just not suffice. In fact, it would make things worse — making it seem as if more and more solutions would make a powerless server into a successful business. That would be what I would call a “hopelessly hopeful solution.”

When it is time to transition, when the issues are multiple and complex, even a wobbly, struggling real transition (which stabilizes over time) is better than some brilliantly executed problem-solving that pushes the issue underground and makes it seem as if things are working. The interim success hides the real transition that is called for and puts the sorely needed attention elsewhere. Soon, no one can tell why there is little sense of power or satisfaction even though everyone is working hard and solving issue after issue.

So, what is the worst thing that can happen? Attempting to resolve a needed transition as a complex problem needing multiple solutions. That leads to a failed transition. Which leads to a flat, uninspired culture of hard-working ineffectiveness and struggle.

Promise yourself not to mistake a transition being called for as if it is a set of complex problems to be solved. And learn to recognize the signs of the call for a real transition.

© Contegrity Wisdom LLC. Kenneth Anbender, Ph.D. 2015



About Ken Anbender

Kenneth Anbender Ph.D. has spent the last 50 years working with more than a hundred thousand people directly on the principles and methods that support the fulfillment of a human life -- in community and at work. He has developed a body of work that is licensable called The Contegrity Approach.
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