Don’t use a capacity solution to fix a complexity problem

If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, every problem looks like a nail.

Successful problem solvers often struggle to identify the root cause of the problem they’re trying to fix.  Ron Ashkenas, the author of a new book called Simply Effective, offers up an interesting way to define organizational challenges, seeing them as either capacity problems and complexity problems.

Capacity problems require more, fewer, or different resources to solve them.  Complexity problems require new thinking and a creative approach, says Ashkenas in a recent Harvard Business blog posting.

Too many executives decide their problems are “capacity-based,” and focus on the resources they need to solve them.  All too often, they find themselves solving complexity issues with a capacity solution.

Ashkenas uses President Obama’s decision to send troops into Afghanistan as a potential capacity solution to a complexity problem (i.e., the need to leave a functioning and secure country behind when we leave).  I believe a lot of companies have similarly used layoffs (a capacity solution) because they couldn’t figure out how to deal with changing customer demand for their products, increased regulatory oversight, or competitors who developed a better mousetrap.

Some might argue that they lacked the will to find a complexity-based solution.  Perhaps.  But it’s been said that if a hammer is the only tool in your toolbox, than you’re going to see every problem as a nail.

Think back to the last few problems you’ve had to resolve.  Would you have dealt with them differently if you had taken the time to consider whether the problem was capacity or complexity?


2 thoughts on “Don’t use a capacity solution to fix a complexity problem

  1. A useful way to think about issues, but of course most problems don’t neatly fall into one category or the other. Complexity and capacity are in fact very different concepts. Complexity is an issue of scale and perspective. Any system (e.g., ecological, market, technological, etc.) can be viewed at different scales (e.g., market, firm, unit, product, etc.). The organization and relationships at any given scale influence other scales. If the issue is simply that the system at one scale (e.g., market) is demanding more from the system at another scale (firm), it simplifies to an issue of increased capacity. But in many cases, other factors are coming into play that change the system (new firms, new technologies, etc.) that require changes to not just capacity but strategy, organization, etc. So, I would think you need to start with the notion that any problem of real interest exists inside a complex system. One can then look at how the problem manifests itself at different scales and develop appropriate solutions – capacity being one. I think if you look President Obama’s decision in that light it would become clear that in fact there is multi-scale thinking and more than just a capacity solution.

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