Addressing Complexity Requires Fresh Approaches

October 04, 2019

Case categories include: Founder’s Insights   Leadership   

By Paul Witkay, Founder & CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

I recently had the opportunity to explore two of the locations on my bucket list – the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu. Both were amazing examples of how different species adapted to dramatic changes in their environments.

Each of the Galapagos Islands were formed by undersea volcanoes at different times over a period of 20 million years. As a result, life on each island developed at different times in different ways resulting in unique animals who behave in ways not seen anywhere else. Personally, I loved snorkeling to watch dinosaur-like iguanas graze on the sea algae below me. About 10 million years ago, land iguanas learned to dive under water for 30 minutes at a time to feed on the abundant algae rather than the sparse vegetation on land.

We then visited Peru and learned how the Incan Empire, which existed for less than 200 years before the Spanish took over in 1532, was the source of numerous innovations. Machu Picchu was only one example of the Incas’ remarkable skill at designing and building communities that have survived the test of time. For example, they developed a 25,000-mile transportation network of roads along with communications and distribution systems that allowed emperors to receive deliveries of fresh fish from 250 miles away within two days. The Incas also developed advanced agricultural and astronomical technologies to grow food in the Andes. They experimented with growing crops at different elevations, developed terrace farming and charted the stars to learn when to plant and when to harvest.

The Problem with Experts

I can’t help but compare the rate of change on the Galapagos Islands over millions of years to the innovations created by the Incas over 200 years – and then compare both to the exponential rate of change we’re experiencing today. The convergence of so many technological advancements at the same time is adding not only to the pace of change, but to the complexity of the challenges we face.

When uncertainty, volatility and complexity increase, we naturally look for experts to help us feel comfortable that we’re on the right path. Unfortunately, challenges such as climate change, globalization, privacy and security, geopolitical instability and economic inequality do not lend themselves to simple answers put forth by individual experts.

Researchers have confirmed that experts are less creative than rookies when solving difficult problems. Rookies view problems with fresh eyes and ask a ton of questions. Experts, on the other hand, often view challenges through their pre-existing frameworks. Because of this, they often don’t ask enough questions to understand the unique differences with new situations.

As a result, experts can jump to flawed solutions and their status makes it difficult for others to offer different approaches. Although rookies may not have the answers, they often look at problems differently and enable others to think before jumping to conclusions.

Cultivating Fresh Ideas

We all have expertise in something. As leaders, how can we make certain our own experiences do not hinder our ability to address the increased complexity of today’s challenges? I believe it boils down to several principles:

  • Curiosity – Wise leaders begin with humility and acknowledge that they don’t know everything. As change continues to accelerate at exponential speed, we must learn constantly if we hope to keep up.
  • Openness to New Ideas – We must actively seek out fresh ideas. Whether they’re brilliant or absurd, new ideas force us to consider alternative approaches and often trigger even better ideas.

  • Asking Questions – Because we can never know everything about complex situations, developing an ability to ask probing questions has become a critical skill in an increasingly changing world.

  • Seek Out Different Perspectives – Surrounding ourselves with others who have different experiences and perspectives than our own is essential for managing complex challenges. A diversity of perspectives can be as valuable as diversity of knowledge.

  • Foster an Inquisitive Culture – It’s important to encourage others to challenge all assumptions including our own. Even when our solution is no different than our first answer, we gain confidence in the solution when it’s been fully vetted.


I don’t believe we can slow down the pace of change in today’s world. Disruptive innovations are being announced almost every day. New technologies are enabling scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to create a constant stream of innovations designed to make our lives better. However, almost all innovations produce unintended consequences and, as a result, complexity continues to increase.

If we can’t stop progress, we must develop our ability to deal with increasingly complex challenges by learning to take advantage of all of our collective wisdom to identify fresh approaches to today’s problems.