Should panels be asking for complicated rather than complex problems?

A popular type of question to ask job applications concerns solving complex problems. This question can arise as part of the written application as well as during interviews. Such a question can be asked of people at lower levels in the public service.

My question concerns the use of the word ‘complex’. Do staff at lower levels deal with complex problems? They may certainly deal with complicated problems. What panels need to be clear about is the difference between the words complex and complicated so they can:

  • Ask a question appropriate to the level of the job
  • Recognise when an applicant is talking about a complex or a complicated problem.

Let’s first be clear about what a complex problem is.

A problem is simple if the solution is easily knowable, the relevant goals and methods are known, is possibly recurring, and can have a right answer.

A problem or project is described as complicated when it can be hard to understand, has many parts, is difficult to unravel, yet is ultimately knowable. The underlying cause-and-effect relationships exist and require expert diagnosis.

A problem or project is complex because it is never fully knowable, is not easily analysed, the goals and methods are unclear, there are many parts in an intricate arrangement. There is an unpredictability of effect, and it is influenced by and adapts to the environment. There is no right answer.

Based on these distinctions we can say that organising a major, three day, international conference is complicated. The health system is complex. Fixing a system breakdown might be complicated. Designing a whole-of-government online system is complex.

Capability frameworks identify four ways in which the level of complexity of a role increases:

  • Future focus – shifts from considering the longer-term implications of actions to developing a vision and direction for the future.
  • Breadth of contact – stakeholder interactions become more frequent and the range of stakeholders increases.
  • Breadth of impact – shift occurs from an impact on one’s self and the team, to an impact on a business unit, the whole organisation and then an impact on the whole of government.
  • Breadth of responsibility – clear shift in responsibility that develops from a responsibility for achieving individual and team outcomes to a responsibility for achieving organisation wise outcomes.

Based on these distinctions a problem that qualifies as ‘complex’ would have to have a clear link to some strategic goal, involve lots of stakeholder contact, preferably a leadership or at least management element and have a result that impacted on at least a team, but preferably wider.

Work can vary in complexity along a continuum from routine, repeated tasks, bound by set procedures, under close direction, through to one-off, new, tasks, with high ambiguity and risk, plenty of scope for discretion and wider impact.

Based on these distinctions my question is: at what level does a staff member become involved in complex problems? While there will be some variation depending on the agency and opportunities provided to staff, is it reasonable to expect an APS 3 to give examples of solving complex problems? If the chances of them being exposed to such problems is zip, then clearly this is an unreasonable request.

So when tempted to ask about solving complex problems (or anything else described as complex), give some thought to what you mean by the term, is it reasonable to ask, and if it is, what aspects of complexity are critical to your assessment.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.