Alfonso Morcuende

re-new Orleans


There are unknown unknowns

The Apollo 13 mission lifted off at 14:13:00 local time (19:13:00 UTC) on April 11, 1970. Its objectives were:

  • Land in the Fra Mauro Highlands.

  • Conduct two four-hour Moon walks.

  • Deploy a new nuclear-powered seismometer to measure “moon quakes,” an improvement on the earlier solar-powered units.

  • Set up a heat flow experiment and a device to measure Solar protons and electrons.

  • Photograph candidate future landing sites.

Two days after launch, the mission faced a series of catastrophic problems: an oxygen tank exploded, severely jeopardizing the astronauts’ lives. This crisis redefined the mission’s goal: to safely return astronauts Jame Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise to Earth. NASA confronted a truly challenging problem – was it a complicated or complex problem?

Complicated problems or complex problems?

Complicated problems appear difficult to solve, often having a clear, predictable structure conducive to analytical breakdown. Specialized knowledge and specific technical skills are required for their resolution, and despite the significant effort involved, the path to a solution is typically straightforward. Examples include optimizing industrial or design processes.

In contrast, complex problems are challenging due to their non-linear dynamics and the interconnection of multiple factors, making it difficult to discern their relationships with other, often unknown factors (unknown unknowns). Direct actions on one factor, without knowledge of its, as yet unknown, supporting relationships, can have catastrophic consequences. Solving complex problems involves addressing the entire system and considering relationships between its elements. These problems often lack a single, clear solution, and implementing one may have unpredictable ramifications on other aspects of the system.’

Another way to explain this difference between difficult and complex is to understand the concepts of Puzzles or Mysteries, based on military strategies. Goodness, I wrote that entry ten years ago!

With this distinction between problems, we could argue that the Apollo 13 crisis was a complex problem due to the dynamic interrelation of factors and the unpredictability of the event. The oxygen tank explosion not only affected the oxygen supply but critically compromised other systems, such as power generation and navigation. This interconnection of elements contributed to the complexity of the problem. Moreover, the lack of protocols for the oxygen tank explosion added a layer of unpredictability, making it challenging to anticipate all possible scenarios in resolving this crisis.

The constant dynamism and change of the situation were evident throughout the entire crisis. The NASA team had to adapt quickly and make real-time decisions as new challenges arose, such as the loss of oxygen and the need to modify the original trajectory to ensure a safe return.

The limitations of resources, from oxygen to electrical power, also characterized the problem as complex, requiring careful and strategic management of these scarce resources.

A creative solution, such as adapting the carbon dioxide filter and developing a plan to return to Earth by leveraging lunar gravity, underscores the need for unconventional and creative approaches within a global framework to address the underlying problem.

Finally, the necessary interdisciplinary approach, involving experts in engineering, space navigation, and medicine, highlights how complex problems demand comprehensive collaboration for their resolution.

The Apollo 13 crisis encapsulates the inherent complexity of unique and dynamic problems in space, where the interrelation of factors, unpredictability, and the need for creative solutions define the complex nature of the problem.

Why complex problems now?

Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve heard the concept of complex problems; there’s a growing interest in these challenges. We have no shortage of reasons:

  • Globalization and connectivity, which have increased interdependence among companies, have led to problems that require holistic and coordinated solutions worldwide, such as climate change, economic crises, and challenges in globalized supply chains.

  • Rapid technological advances, especially in areas like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, have posed complex challenges that encompass ethical and social considerations, not just technical aspects.

  • Awareness of the importance of these types of problems. The emergence of global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, has underscored the need for problem-solving strategies that address multiple dimensions and consider diverse variables.”

  • Social and cultural challenges, changes in contemporary society, including advancements in diversity, inclusion, and values, have generated complex problems related to equity and social justice.

  • A new and growing environmental awareness has directed attention towards complex problems associated with sustainability and the management of natural resources.

Technology companies and business consultants are the first ones determined to bring ‘Complex Problem Solving’ solutions to the market for clients. This allows them to stand out in terms of strategy and innovation – if you can tackle complex challenges, you can offer unique solutions in the market.

Sustainability, health, and data management have created a growing market for solutions based on advanced technology. Companies placing technology at their core will seek to capitalize on this emerging demand.

Additionally, there is the incentive of purpose and positive impact on society by contributing to the resolution of significant problems. In a constantly changing business environment… Just when we thought we were VUCA, it turns out we are now BANI. Adapting and solving complex problems is essential. Positioning oneself as a leader in complex problem-solving will attract clients, investors, and highly qualified talent.

And doesn’t design have anything to contribute to all of this?

Indeed, we have two critical elements where we can contribute when participating in a group of experts for complex problem-solving.

Vision, interdisciplinarity, focus, mindset, and creativity

Firstly, solving complex problems often requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Organizations aspiring to tackle complex issues should form collectives of experts from various fields addressing challenges beyond technology.

Experts from different areas will form teams for solving complex problems, and this is good. However, these experts will be affected by known limitations and biases:

  • Lack of holistic perspective

  • Disciplinary bias

  • Resistance to paradigm shifts

  • Deep focus on specific solutions

  • Difficulty integrating diverse perspectives

This is the second time I’ve done it in this text, but I was already talking about the limitations of experts back in late 2013

The ‘out of the box’ vision allows designers to consider the problem from multiple angles, fostering a more comprehensive and holistic understanding. They can visualize the entire landscape, identify interconnections, and propose solutions that encompass different aspects of the problem.

The innovative mindset of designers favors adaptability and the acceptance of change. They can introduce new perspectives and approaches without being limited by existing paradigms, helping to overcome resistance to change that may exist in a group of experts.

The creativity of designers allows for exploring a variety of solutions before reaching definitive conclusions. They can expand the range of options and avoid limiting themselves to specific solutions by approaching complex problems from multiple angles and levels of detail.

Design professionals, with their ability to integrate diverse ideas, can facilitate collaboration among experts with different perspectives. Their inclusive approach can help overcome barriers that hinder the integration of diverse opinions and experiences.

Method and methodology

Secondly, design professionals can provide practical strategies for understanding and solving complex problems. We can present process frameworks for effectively breaking down complex problems. Don’t call it design; if you don’t like the word design, call it Design Thinking.

Design Thinking, an approach centered on creativity and the user, allows adding value at various stages of the complex problem-solving process.

Empathy and User Understanding: Design Thinking emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs and perspectives of the user. Integrating this empathy into the definition of the problem can lead to a deeper understanding.

Ideation and Creative Solution Generation: Design Thinking techniques can be applied to foster the generation of creative ideas during the problem definition phase, exploring diverse perspectives and approaches.

Prototyping and Rapid Testing: After defining the problem, Design Thinking emphasizes rapid iteration through prototypes and testing. This can be applied to gather feedback before committing to a definitive solution.

Systems Thinking: Design Thinking advocates for systemic thinking. Understanding the interactions between elements of the problem and their effects on the overall system is essential.

Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Work: Integrating Design Thinking can facilitate multidisciplinary teams, leveraging diverse skills and perspectives.

Iterative Approach: The Design Thinking methodology has at its core an iterative approach. The problem definition can be adjusted as progress is made, allowing for adaptations to new understandings and findings.

The importance of design is not dictated by designers themselves.

Look at this book”Cracked It!: How to Solve Big Problems and Sell Solutions Like Top Strategy Consultants“. Written by Bernard Garrette, Corey Phelps, and Olivier Sibony, who are professors at the INSEAD business school…

Solving complex problems requires structured and creative approaches. For instance, the methodology proposed in the book ‘Cracked It!’ provides a robust framework, and the integration of Design Thinking adds layers of creativity, empathy, and adaptability. By combining different approaches, the inherent complexity of current challenges can be addressed more effectively.

New challenges are approaching, new configurations are emerging, and it seems that many of them will bear the label of complex problems, and design will be there.