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ATD Blog

Complex Problems Require Complex Solutions

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

As I write this, many states are beginning their "reopening" plans as the next step in their various responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus and our nation's response to it continue to affect our lives in countless ways. Most of us are asking questions like, "How will the pandemic end?" and, "When will things get back to normal?" or even, "What does normal look like anymore?" I certainly don't have any answers to these questions, and my heart goes out to the public officials struggling to answer them. But in times of crisis and confusion like this, I'm reminded of a key principle of human performance: Complex problems require complex solutions.

Think of the challenge facing our healthcare workers. Society has goals to address the pandemic, such as minimizing the number of cases and resulting fatalities. To achieve these goals, we need our healthcare workers to do some things differently, such as rapidly increasing the number of tests for the virus, changing the types of personal protective equipment they wear, treating more patients on ventilators, and treating as many non-COVID-19 patients away from hospitals as possible.

But there are many factors that make these goals challenging. There are “people” factors, such as insufficient knowledge of how to work under wholly new expectations or skill in using the new types of testing and safety equipment being deployed. But there are also “system” factors, such as a lack of needed supplies, rapidly changing guidelines, staffing shortages, and concerns about reasonable and fair compensation.


Any single solution is insufficient to address all of these challenges. The problem is complex, so the solution—or rather multiple solutions—must be complex. We've already seen many tactics being brought to bare. Upgrades to collaboration software are being rapidly rolled out and more broadly adopted in healthcare. New international supply chains are being negotiated to stem supply shortages. Vaccine research is being accelerated and certification requirements for new tests and treatments are being relaxed. When the number of new cases per day has dropped significantly and the nation does begin to return to “normal,” it will be the result of a huge number of solutions applied to address the many challenges associated with the current pandemic.

My ATD Virtual Conference session, What to Do When Learning Is Not the Answer, relates to the principle described above, in that learning professionals are often asked to provide simple solutions (often learning interventions) in hopes of solving complex business problems. For example, an IT manager may request a communication skills course to address a fall-off in productivity in their software development teams. Low productivity is not a tragedy like a global pandemic, but it's still a complex problem. Again, there are likely “people” factors to address, such as gaps in skills or necessary attributes. But “system” factors are also involved, like incentives, access to information and tools, or prevailing culture. Any one solution (like communication skills training) is likely insufficient to fully address the problem. Learning professionals should help our clients, like this IT manager, to better understand the complex problems they face and select appropriate and effective solutions.

About the Author

Chris Adams is a performance consultant and instructional designer with more than 20 years of experience helping clients engage people, apply processes, and implement technology to improve human and organizational performance. He is currently a senior consultant for Handshaw Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chris was co-inventor of Handshaw’s award-winning software, Lumenix, one of the first content-managed platforms for e-learning. He has been a featured speaker for a number of ISPI and ATD chapters, and has presented at regional and international conferences such as Training Solutions, The Performance Improvement Conference, and the Coast Guard Human Performance Technology Conference. Chris holds degrees in mass communication and instructional systems technology and is currently a doctoral student in the instructional design and technology program at Old Dominion University. 

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