Defining the Problems Leaders Must Solve

Without problems, there would be no need for leaders. Without problems, there would be no need for leaders to rally a group of people around a vision for a better future. Every effective change initiative and every compelling vision is a solution to a problem. Even in daily leadership, not only big organizational directions, wise leaders start with the problem, not the solution.

Max De Pree famously stated that the first job of a leader is to define reality. In other words, leaders must bring clarity to problems they face. So how can we think about problems? What is a helpful framework? 

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande says that all problems can be divided into these three categories:

  • Simple problems: A simple problem is one that can be solved by following a recipe. Baking a cake, for example, is simple. You just follow the recipe.
  • Complicated problems: A complicated problem is really a series of simple problems. It’s a bunch of simple problems connected. Sending a rocket into space is complicated, but a recipe can be developed and replicated.
  • Complex problems: A complex problem is one that cannot be exactly replicated or repeated. Parenting a child, for example, is complex. Just because you have raised one does not mean you can raise the next one the same way. Each child is unique.

If a simple problem emerges, you likely have a process problem. There is likely not a clearly defined system to attack the simple problem that keeps resurfacing. If the same simple problems keep reemerging, you likely have a people problem, as the right people will insist a checklist or process is implemented. If the same complicated problems keep reemerging, you may have a process or a people problem. It takes savvy and organized leaders to effectively navigate complicated problems.

Complex problems demand leaders to be humble enough to seek wisdom from others, passionate enough to keep searching for solutions, and savvy enough to apply solutions skillfully.

Because the complex is what needs our best thinking, wise leaders seek to systemize and operationalize the simple and complicated problems. The simple and complicated are not less important; they are absolutely essential in leadership. But they can be operationalized and systemized so that organizational energy is focused on execution and not continually recreating and forming steps.