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How can leaders make sense of complex problems to create effective actions?

As we navigate the future of work, what surprises are in store for us? What complex challenges await? And most importantly, how can we make sense of those complex problems to not just survive, but thrive?

According to PWC’s 2023 Future of Work report:

In 2023 we stare in the face of complex challenges, many of which are different to what they were twelve months prior. There are those who are tempted to sit back and wait for conditions to settle and for the next wave of disruption to pass. But if we've learnt anything in recent times, it's that we're living in a volatile environment and there will always be new challenges to deal with. And we need to tackle them head on.

We all face different challenges, some more complex than others. The key is understanding how to make sense of these problems and creating a map for practical action.

First, you need to clarify the context – ordered or unordered. Then, you need to choose an approach. But it’s not always that simple, as we illustrate in the following Case Study.

1. Clarify the Context

Not all problems are the same in scope and difficulty. Different types of challenges require different approaches. What worked on your last project might not work this time around.

The Cynefin framework helps leaders determine the context to make appropriate choices.

Ordered Context

The ordered world is the world of fact-based management.

Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on the facts.

This is the world of product, service innovation and design thinking.

Unordered Context

The unordered world represents pattern-based management.

Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered. That is, there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns.

This is the world of empathy, collaboration and design for complexity.

Organisations need to address both contexts. That is, the short-term goals of customer experience and new products and services. Balanced with long-term strategic goals to address the challenges of the workforce, communities, society and planet.

Classifying the type of problem is the very first step in defining the problem you are trying to solve. For example:

Is it Ordered Context? 

  • Simple problems with a clear cause and effect.
  • Complex problems with multiple causes and underlying issues which require deep understanding and a multi-pronged strategy.

Is it Unordered Context? 

  • Complex problems with multiple causes, solutions and stakeholders. They can be difficult to define, making it difficult to know when it is solved.

Use the table below to better understand the context of your challenge:

Ordered Context Unordered Context
Sequential Projects (Waterfall) Parallel and Agile Projects
Single discipline teams Cross-disciplinary teams
Products, services, and experience challenges Organisation, system, industry, community, country and planet challenges
Information gathering and right or wrong Information abundance and sensemaking
Intuition Evidence
Inspired Journey Informed Journey
Project briefs, templates and assumptions Open frame, emergence and assumption-free
Cause and effect journey maps Relationships and strategy patterns
Expert project and design teams within Communities of practice across
Solves contradictions Embraces ambiguity
Hierarchy, structure, strict roles and responsibility to make work happen Formal and informal networks are some of the most important levers that organisations have to getting things done - and to creating depth and quality in collaboration
Technical Skills Technical and soft skills

2. Choose an Approach

Several successful and appropriate methodologies for addressing those “ordered” challenges exist. For example, Design Thinking, Agile, and Continuous Improvement work brilliantly when there is a clear design brief and a defined customer.

But what if you haven’t got the information to develop a brief?

You’re not sure who the customer is, what they need and the multiple causes and effects? This is the domain of the “unordered”, the complex or wicked problem.

In these cases, you’ll need to unravel the threads to create a pattern that makes sense and indicates a clear starting point. That means you’ll need “Sensemaking“. (Sensemaking is the stage before problem-solving and innovation methodologies become relevant.)

The case study below demonstrates how we used this approach, including our DECODE process, to unravel a complex challenge in health.

DECODE is our six-step approach to problem-solving that harnesses creativity, collaboration, and innovation.

Unlike traditional methods that start with a predefined problem and outcomes, DECODE begins with a problem description. Working through the six steps (describe, engage, clarify, outline, determine and evaluate), DECODE unveils insights and practicable actions. Importantly, it engages all relevant stakeholders and employs various techniques, including analysis, perception mapping, idea filtration, and priority planning.

Making sense of a complex challenge for a global pharma company

(Note, some details have been removed for privacy.)

case study

The Brief

A global pharma company presented us with an open brief. How can we help improve access to a [specific] treatment across regional Australia to impact patient survival rates?

It’s a highly complex problem. With multiple stakeholders, including state and federal governments, private sector health providers, various public service agencies, support services and medical specialities, pharmaceutical companies and other agencies. The customer base includes patients, specialist doctors, paramedical providers, G.Ps, drug representatives etc.

On top of that complexity, the pharmaceutical company’s power is limited. It can’t redesign the system. At best, it can nudge the system to make improvements.

How can we make sense of the complex context and define actions that will make a difference? And the client needed to invest and act quickly.

Why Hargraves?

Step one was to identify the relevant knowledge holders in the system. These were the people who could share the reality of everyday patient experience across the various regions of our continent, multiple jurisdictions and diverse infection types. Eight medical specialists (one from each state and territory) were selected.

Understanding these specialists were busy people, the DECODE process was ideal. It allowed us to deliver the best outcome in the shortest possible time without burdening the client project team. The client invited these specialists to participate and made arrangements for the workshop.

In collaboration, we agreed on the details of the process, including:


With each specialist and online, to save time, our storytelling and question approach helped capture key information to understand the context.


In a 3-hour in-person workshop, we explored and clarified interview insights. Then, using several tools from DECODE, including Perception Mapping, we unravelled the issue to create a pattern.

The group identified three core areas and twenty-one theme areas.


Information was synthesised, and we developed six potential projects for evaluation by key stakeholders.

The outcome: our client’s project team has what it needs to create at least three design briefs and establish co-creation projects with the input of their key customers.

Next steps

Learn more about Sensemaking.

Download ‘Our Approach – Making Sense of Sensemaking’ to learn more, including how we’ve adapted it for our toolkit.

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