Solving Complex Problems: Systems First, or Individual First?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 08-31-20

Some problems in your organization permeate so thoroughly that you don’t know where to start. The problem statement usually starts with something quite broad, and of course, must be broken down to be solved. However, some of these large and complex problems are so invasive that the perspective we start exploring makes a big difference, and this is especially true when the problem is both systemic to the organization and also owned by each individual. 

For an example of this look no further than your email inbox. An organization’s policies, habits, and even programming will have an impact on email overload, and that might be a great place to start. But will that solve email overload? Unlikely. Therefore, personal practices of how to manage your email inbox can also have a great effect. So where do we start? The system, or the individual? 

Here’s a few examples I’ve had the pleasure of engaging on recently: 

  • Waste elimination: There is no doubt in most organizations there are wastes that exist at a systemic level. So if people are complaining about waste, you could go after that organizational waste. However, every individual can and should also be in a position to find and eliminate waste in their own work, particularly for knowledge workers. Do you go after one aspect, or try to initiate progress in both? 
  • Cybersecurity: At a systems level, you look for weaknesses in hardware, code, systems, and policies. However, one of the biggest threats is email phishing attacks and other malicious email practices where the individual is the main vulnerability. Most cybersecurity strategies now focus on both the system level and the individual level. 
  • Manager burden: Are the managers in your organization booked solid in meetings and backlogged in emails? Perhaps you could systematically reduce the burden by eliminating or repurposing meetings, simplifying reporting needs, and eliminating tasks. But the individual could also be better at understanding and managing their own priorities, and without that, they may not be more effective. 
  • Back to work practices: Organizationally you de-densify the office, set up hand sanitizing stations, write new policies, and improve airflow. But at the individual level, if people congregate in large groups and wear masks under their chin, it might not matter. 

These examples serve to make a point that some problems really require you to work at both the systems and the individual level, others require that you eventually get to both but you might start on one, and for other problems that you’re only trying to make progress you might select what avenue you want to pursue. How should you evaluate that choice? These criteria will help: 

Will solving one dimension actually change the result? This is a key question that I suggest starting with and maybe the only one that matters. Selecting the manager burden example above, if you simply focus on removing systemic waste from the equation, then you will free up manager time. However, will it reduce the burden? In most cases, no. Here’s the test: if a two-hour meeting was suddenly canceled, would the manager (a) jump into their email inbox and start catching up and generating emails for others, (b) attend the other meeting that was on their schedule for the same time, or (c) go work on their top priority objective? If the answer is (a) or (b) then you won’t make real progress unless you also work at the individual manager level. 

Will solving one dimension generate learning about the other? This is key for which one to pursue first because it allows you to solve the second more easily. Waste elimination serves as a good example of this premise. If you decide to focus on the individual first, helping every individual identify and eliminate waste in their span of control, then they will develop competence and behavior around waste elimination. That learning could prove very useful when trying to go after more systemic wastes across the organization. 

Which dimension do you have control or influence over? Another way to ask this is: which dimension is easier? You have to look at how easily you can control or influence the systems, or the individuals, that are the leverage for the problem. In the above example of cybersecurity most, IT or IT Security organizations have plenty of control over the hardware and software, a little less over policy, and relatively little over individuals. As a result, this has affected how cyber strategies have evolved, focusing on what these groups had the most control over. Ultimately, this question became less relevant because after much progress on the hardware and software side, then the biggest vulnerabilities were at the individual level, and so training and probing strategies have been deployed, but these acknowledged to be more difficult to close the gap. 

Use these questions to help you frame these complex problems. Don’t just jump in and assume you should solve the system or the individual first. Understand the relationship between the two. And then get to work tackling the problem.