What’s the difference between a complicated and complex problem? And how should each type of problem be approached.
Researcher and knowledge management expert David Snowden has explored these questions. In his work on the nature of complex systems he describes four types of problems:
- Obvious, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the and we can apply best practice to solve problems.
- Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expert knowledge and we can apply good practices.
- Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect is often perceived in retrospect and we must use emergent practices.
- Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at the systems level and we must discover novel practices.
Our project is underway! We are setting out to solve what will likely be a combination of complicated and complex problems.
Our question: can we, along with our local partners, design interventions in health information systems in three African countries that improve data quality and decision making?
Our project will research challenges with paper based health information systems, prototype solutions to those challenges, test and modify them, and then implement new approaches to track their effectiveness.
We will begin our research in a matter of weeks – visiting health clinics, speaking with doctors, observing health workers as they care for patients and record their work.
We are also beginning our in-country design partnerships in earnest – collaborating with local researchers and health ministry officials to understand the challenges they face when making decisions (with data) about where and how to deploy limited resources.
The work will be a thrilling combination of the complicated and complex.
As Snowden illustrates, solving complicated problems requires expert knowledge. Solving complex ones requires the ability to offer emergent solutions and learn from what happens when they are placed in the world. There are few organizations that possess both of these skill sets equally well.
Addressing the complex and complicated requires collaborations across domains of expertise. As such we applaud our sponsor the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for pairing the Swiss Tropical Health Institute, a preeminent public health research institution and gravitytank, an experienced design thinking and innovation firm, together in this work.
We are excited to be working together and alongside our in-country partners. We are excited about the potential for learning and for impact inherent in the project.
Stay tuned and learn with us as we tackle the complicated and the complex — together.
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