What’s the biggest problem you currently have? Is it the one you can’t stop thinking about? Or is it the one you’ve managed to sweep under the carpet for the time being? Either way, ask yourself what ‘type’ of problem it is. Because if you can’t answer that then it’s likely the size of your problem just doubled – at least. Without knowing what type of problem you have, you can’t know the type of thinking you need to apply to it. Which means you’re more likely to come up with a dud solution.


I categorise problems four ways:

  1. SIMPLE: It’s straightforward and there’s a relatively easy process to follow.
  2. COMPLEX: It’s likely to be non-linear, have more components than a simple problem and require some technical or professional expertise.
  3. MESSY: These problems ALWAYS involve people. They’re unique. So off-the-shelf solutions won’t work. They require something original to be created. Logic doesn’t work where people and their emotions and motivations are involved.
  4. HYBRID: A mix of all of the above.


What type of thinking/problem-solving is required for each type of problem?

  • SIMPLE: Process thinking
  • COMPLEX: Systems thinking
  • MESSY: Creative problem-solving (because we need to create something original)
  • HYBRID: A mix of all of the above.

The majority of messy/hybrid problems occur in organisations where there are multiple stakeholders who can’t agree on the problem, let alone a solution. Sound like yours? If the answer’s yes it might be worth reflecting on how skilled you/your staff are in the process of creative problem-solving. This might provide some insight as to why there are so many dud solutions being rolled out.

Carol Harding

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