Complex One-Factor Problems Do Not Exist

One factor problems are always simple. My friend Max Ma has simple answers to one factor problems. A) Just fix it. The other side of the question B)  occasionally appeared with the observation, “That’s not a problem, that’s impossible.”

In either case, there was an answer. Change the world or learn to adapt to the world.

Complex problems have many factors

It’s possible to describe such a problem in simple terms, but when you try to solve it you find it is like a bag of individual problems within. Some of the pieces can be addressed, but that may not mean the whole problem is solved. Many complex problems have conflicting elements. You cannot solve both at the same time.

Other problems have different constituencies with their own version of what is the most important part of the entire package. Frequently each group has their own facts and choose not to learn about other possibilities.

Take climate change

If you listen to one group it is an urgent,. existential problem. Solve it immediately or humanity and most other life is doomed.

If you listen to another group, it is a problem but over the future we will deal with it so we are not severely harmed. The IPCC estimated that by 2100, global GDP will be 10% less than it would otherwise be. Bjorn Lomborg suggests that the methods to solve the problem don’t even exist yet and humanity tends to be very good at solving slow moving problems.

Each side has talking points and is unwilling to accept the other sides arguments.

How would you carry on from there if you had to pick the method?

The solution set involves more than solutions

The first big part of any solution is knowing what exactly you are trying to do. I vividly recall Lyman MacInnis suggesting to a proponent of an expensive program, “What we have here is the solution to no known problem.”

Be sure you know there is a problem. There is nothing more wasteful than solving imaginary problems. Similarly there is a huge cost to not address something that matters.

As you answer questions about the situation, you may find there is a process that works and which both sides can accept. You will find most ideological problems are poorly defined. Logic is not a powerful motivator. Emotion is though. Most emotional positions are weakly supported.

Why is that? Because if they had data and reasoning, they wouldn’t need the emotion. People would choose to act on the situation. Rhetoric usually means absent reasoning.

Things to think about

  1. How the problem comes to be. How sure are you of the data? How sure are you of the interpretation of that data? If you can’t tell be sure could your solution changes as facts become known. Would people let you?
  2. What are the costs if it is unaddressed? Money, social, lifespans, other species. law and order.
  3. The advantage to address it. That includes how you cope with the unresolved parts.
  4. The resource allocation choices. You cannot spend any dollar twice. If you spend on problem A, there is less to spend on all other problems. What happens if those problems are under-addressed?
  5. The time frame for a solution to work. Rome wasn’t build in a day and it wasn’t destroyed in a day either. Problems that take a long time to  create, take a longtime to solve. Many have attitudes built in and some will take generations to change. You cannot command an answer, any more than you can plant tomatoes in your garden and expect them to grow faster if you shout at them or spend money to please them.
  6. Who will be in charge? Do they have other motives than solving the problem? How will you limit those?
  7. How will you measure achievement as you go?

Every challenging problem and every opportunity works out better if you create process that acts towards a solution. You can change processes more easily than redefine your goal. Processes adapt to changing techniques and inventions. No problem solves the way people thought it would before they set out to solve it. First looks are highly unlikely to be the final solution.

Two sides of one coin

It’s not all about problems. The answers to solving problems and seizing opportunities are identical in form. How do you use existing resources and those that may appear in the future to create a desirable answer? How rigidi is the answer you expect.

The bits to take away

You get better answers when you know the problem better

Data, knowledge, experience and sound reasoning methods will keep you from following emotionally pleasing, but failing paths.

No complex problem has a simple answer.

Most social problems cannot be solved with money alone.

Every life problem is closer to solution if you use good information and sound thinking

Help me, please. Please subscribe. If you have found this article helpful, forward it to others.

I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at

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