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22 Nov, 2010 – 24 comments

how to solve complex problems

suggest you view the slideshare in fullscreen, and then read the post below

I’m nervous. And when I’m nervous, it’s hard to push the words out, they bottle-neck in the back of my skull and tremble down to my fingers like marbles inside a drain pipe. I’m nervous because this feels like the most important post I’ve written here. Which, to be fair, the most important post of a fairly unimportant blog can’t be that important, but still. The nervousness. I should probably explain …

If you’ve been following the blog lately, you know that I’ve taken some time off to be with someone I love during a particularly difficult time in her life. And since I’ve been here, besides the odd freelance gig, I’ve been focusing on writing the book that over 200 people helped fund through the awesome invention of Kickstarter. If I hadn’t taken the time off, if I was still working in an office 10 hours a day, focusing on clients, office politics, and shiny new technology, the mission of the book would probably still be the same as it was when I first pitched the idea: a list of advertising/marketing best practices. But since I’ve had the time to ruminate, to read more books in 3 months than I’ve probably read in the last 3 years, and to dwell over my last 5 years in this business, the vision behind the book project has grown.

I met advertising at a very strange time in its life. As I came to know it, it seemed on the verge of self-destruction in order to remake itself, to realize the promise of technology, to tap networks of interconnected consumers, and to graft itself across the various organs of its clients. More than ever before, it wants to do more, to be more, and to mean more. And the people within the industry crave a greater understanding of how to change the world. It’s cliche, but it’s true: it’s a remarkable time to be in advertising and marketing. And we shouldn’t confuse frustration with cynicism – people are frustrated, change never seems to come quick enough, but its a productive frustration that permeates our community – consider the amount of creativity, experimentation, and innovation that’s being unleashed day-to-day.

With the opportunity to seek perspective has come a realization: moments like this are rare. Even beyond our industry, the sheer amount of creative power in the world today is unprecedented. As the powers-that-were stumble in this new environment, individuals feel empowered, and with that sense of empowerment has come something truly remarkable: they’re not afraid to care. People care about changing the world. But failure breeds apathy. If we want to sustain this moment, if we want to build a real movement, we have to help people translate their energy into action.

There’s an opportunity here.

In the future, I see a global network of 21st century problem solvers with the understanding and know-how to solve the most massively complex problems; challenges that face corporations, governments, and citizens. These individuals work together to unleash their passion and creativity towards ambitious objectives and tangible change. They undertake projects such as: increasing family retirement investing, ensuring the welfare of the poor, identifying new energy sources, protecting the world from terrorism, and making consumption more conscious – challenges that must be confronted, but have always been too complex for any single corporation, government, or voting block. And each objective, because of its complexity, results in a handful of simultaneous clients benefitting from the thinking and creating of this group (how or if this network charges for its work is a decision to be made by the group at a later date). This may seem like a fantasy today, but it’s nearer to our grasp than you realize.

I’m inspired by the collaborative experiments I see in our industry today:

  • The TED community and the explosion of TEDx events
  • OpenIDEO, created by IDEO to use design to help solve real problems
  • Piers Fawkes, PSFK and its Purple List of experts
  • Ty Montague’s recently founded co: collective which has established a network of problem solving shops
  • John Winsor and Victor & Spoils, which I had the pleasure of working with all too briefly
  • Josh Spear and the Young Global Leaders initiative of the World Economic Forum
  • Ben Kaufman’s Quirky, which brings product ideas to life
  • … and many many others

These experiments prove the potential for collaborative problem solving, the market demand for new thinking, and the will of the creative class to participate. I’m also inspired by Alex Bogusky’s and Rob Schuham‘s new initiative, FEARLESS, and its ambition to turn advertising into a force for consumer advocacy. In addition, I’ve paid special attention to Umair Haque’s call for a meaning-driven organization and Michael E. Porter’s vision of corporations creating shared value with the members of their local community. If you combine all of these existing ideas, you get something like what I envision for the future of the Bucket Brigade.

Of course, to ever achieve this grand ambition and vision for the future, there are baby steps to be made. First and foremost, to solve the most massively complex problems, participants in this network will need a foundational understanding of complexity itself. The challenges I mentioned above cannot be subdivided to be solved. We need an understanding of the interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics of the systems that produce those behaviors. For an example, you need look no further than the collapse of 2008 – every day we seem to be learning more about the systemic nature of that crisis. We need the tools to connect those dots, and to monitor fluid and dynamic environments. With a greater understanding of the system as a whole, we can select leverage points – the most important triggers on which to focus our attention. And with that attention well-placed, we can work together to generate an abundance of potential products and messages to impact the problem. The most effective solution for a complex problem is rarely ever a single solution, and this network will be able to swarm the challenge with elegant responses. Establishing this foundational understanding is the mission of the book now. The book, title still tentative, will establish a common understanding of complex systems for the reader – a vocabulary, mental models, tangible tools, and relevant case studies of confronting complex challenges. The goal of the book is to be a stepping stone for readers to join our network of complex problem solvers. Of course, if you simply want the knowledge and not the network, that’s your choice – but the value of that knowledge when connected with the experience and expertise of others seems, to me, to be too good to turn down.

So maybe now you understand my anxiety. I’m not hiding or hoarding any bit of this vision. I’m putting it out there, warts and all, for you to review, criticize, and/or to embrace. I can do this because I believe in this idea, I see myself, regardless of how many or how few of you join me, embracing the goal of helping people solve their most complex problems long after the book is finished. But admittedly, to fulfill the full vision I’ll need help – publishing the book, spreading the thinking inside of it, establishing an online presence with the tools for collaboration, and partnering with existing problem solving networks to assemble a truly interdisciplinary force. I want to see this network come to fruition, but I don’t have any obsession with owning or controlling every aspect of it. So if you’re reading this, can help, and feel inspired, think about connecting.

So what do you think? Of course, drop your opinions in the comments. ALSO, if you’re keen to learn more and stay in the loop, I urge you to visit this form and submit your information. I’ll think of submissions to the form as votes for the idea. Also, if you have feedback specifically about the book, what should go in it, someone to interview, or a case to study, there’s a form for that, too.

Wish me luck.

P.S. I want to extend my deep gratitude to the founding members of the Bucket Brigade, the editorial board, who have not only supported the project with their dollars, but have offered invaluable advice and guidance throughout the process.

In no particular order, thank you to: Neerav Bhatt, Ana Andjelic, Stephen Walker, James Sherrett, Mark Pollard, Dino Demopoulos, Ian Lyons, Carl Panczak, Phil Gillman, James Denman, Eugene Chung, Mark Gallagher, Mike Arauz, Matt Creamer, Helen Klein Ross, Casey Flanagan, Dave Daines, Faris Yakob, Balind Sieber, Dan Weingrod, Mark Avnet, Mark DiCristina, Michael Monello, Anjali Ramachandran, Bo Damgaard, Neil Perkin, Graeme Wood, Patrick Syms, Jason Oke, Andy Sandoz, Brian Jeremy, Matt Jones, Gareth Kay, Eva Hasson, Gavin Becker, Regan Meador, Johnny Vulkan, Josh Ehart, Fi Bendall, Mel Exon, Josh Boston, Brent Dixon, Laura Chavoen, William Shunn, Duane Brown, Patrick Berry, Ian Alexander, Darrell Whitelaw, Sarah Blue, Derrick Bradley, Tobias Wacker, Robin Grant, Mike Zeederberg, Adam Corney, James Robertson, John Sumser, Patrick Simkins, Jamie Wilkinson, Anne-Mette Jensen, Scott Bullard, Heather LeFevre, Erin Dorr, Tim Leake, Stephen Cox, Hugh Weber, Kimberly Carroll, Tobias Peggs, Sara Williams, Matthew Don, Carmel Hagen, Jane Friedman, Jabe Bloom, Sara Ashton, Johannes Kleske, Stuart Eccles, Utku Can, Robin Wong, Sean M Aaron, C.C. Chapman, Len Kendall, Terence Reis, Adam Wohl, Richard Nevins, Heather Ann Snodgrass, matt gierhart, Stuart Foster, Shaun Abrahamson, Ted Sink, Tim Malbon, Gavin Heaton, Cameron Maddux, Jurandir Craveiro, Jonathan Hopkins, John V Willshire, Mark Earls, Gabriel Puerto, Avin Narasimhan, Dave Castelletti, Mark MacSmith, Ben Abramowitz, Greg Christman, Ben Kaufman, APFIND, Gerrie Smits, Michael Ferdman, Arthur Alston, Rufus Winchester, Marisa Zupan, Gary Ellis, Ian Fitzpatrick, Chris Stephenson, Grant McCracken, James Cooper, Darryl King, Sabrina Caluori, Michael Kantrow, Tom Kelshaw, Emma Jenkins, and Ryan Jacoby


  1. Alexander Chung
    Alexander Chung November 22, 2010 at 10:44 am .

    Love the causal loop map. It demands that we keep track of a problem in its entirety. Here, we are not worried about picking sides but instead testing the viability of another option. It skips the realization that most people come to after a bit of discussion: no solution works in isolation, it’s about picking a community of things that work together.

    Good luck & looking forward to the book. Miss your mind here in New York!

  2. Vince LaVecchia
    Vince LaVecchia November 22, 2010 at 10:48 am .

    Hey man, if you haven’t yet, read “Cognitive Surplus”. I think it’s right along your lines. Have fun.

  3. Brett T T Macfarlane
    Brett T T Macfarlane November 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm .

    I am always intrigued by the failure to recognize how we go about solving a problem is a strategic choice in how we are going to find the very strategy we need to solve a problem. Your slide 5 is bang on. Strategy has to elevated up a level. I would add too that budgeting, which remains deeply immersed in the silo world, is also a strategic decision. It is amazing how many problems, have their answers pre-determined by how money is allocated to solve them.

  4. edward boches
    edward boches November 23, 2010 at 8:11 am .

    Logical yes. Thoughtful yes. Hard to implement. You will need masterful persuasion, a razor sharp understanding of individual and group motivation, and a carefully curated crowd of problem solvers.

    Clay Shirky does argue this is possible and shares many examples in Cognitive Surplus re women’s rights and transportation and others. But most were small scale, opt in, and even those with big ideas, i.e. the health care one (forget the name of it) where people share their disease progress has very few participants.

    Zeus Jones attempted a great idea as part of Phizzpop a couple years ago at SxSW. I never came to fruition because of red tape with local government. Adrian Ho can share that nightmare with you.

    And finally, we are seeing lots of crowdsourcing platforms (Genius Rocket) slowly disappear or amount to little because of the wrong crowd participating or not enough of the right crowd.

    Problems are still solved with small teams of smart, focused, committed people who have some kind of vested interested. Not necessarily based on extrinsic rewards — purpose is a great motivator, too — but a motivation that is self-directed. (Read Pink if you haven’t.)

    Anyway, excited to see where this goes and to try the tools. But a little skeptical that the tools alone will be enough. The idea you have is great. But ideas are easy. Execution is everything.

    Hope I get to help this succeed.

  5. Bud Caddell
    Bud Caddell November 23, 2010 at 9:46 am .


    Thanks for the well reasoned comment, and I appreciate the mix of skepticism/intrigue.

    “Problems are still solved with small teams of smart, focused, committed people who have some kind of vested interested. Not necessarily based on extrinsic rewards — purpose is a great motivator, too — but a motivation that is self-directed.”

    Well put and I couldn’t agree more. This is why the right model, for now, feels like a network and not a community or corporation. A network is able to shape itself, activate in clusters, and doesn’t wait for top down activation – which is what most crowdsourcing platforms rely on.

    I wouldn’t call this crowdsourcing for that reason – crowdsourcing is focused on production and this work will require some heavy cognitive lifting before any execution – this is a make-tank, or a kind of institute where members just happen to communicate mostly through digital means (like most do now, anyway).

    I’m reminded by something John Winsor says, “the first response to anything new is always ‘It’ll never work.’”

    Having said that, the future is shaped by people who show up – and care.

    To have any chance of working, there’s a few things that have to happen first:
    - the notion of systems thinking, of seeing the world as the complex system as it is, needs help spreading, so it’s on my shoulders to pen a motivating book and find the right levers to inspire people to spread it
    - we (the bucket brigade) need to find outside support or internal motivation to develop simple methods for collaboration that add value and spur people to think of problems as interconnected, and interrelated (creating some value here to further motivate people to read/spread the book/thinking would be nice, too)
    - and then we need to put this thinking, inside a network, to use, we need to identify a challenge and work together to address it, that’s when we’ll truly find out the challenges to a group like this

    I have zero illusions that this is a walk in the park. It falls into the category of ‘stupid ambition.’ If I were doing this alone, I’d also say ‘it’ll never work.’

    But I’m counting on the people that have chosen to assemble. I’m counting on our collective frustration with the dysfunction in the current problem solving strategies. I’m counting on our productive frustration to do something about it.

    Your skepticism is welcomed, but your participation is demanded, Edward. I’d urge you to sacrifice the safety of simply dipping your toe into the idea once it’s fleshed out. You’re a thought leader that deserves that title, so put your thinking to work with us. Join. If you think that there’s a better way to go about solving the most complex problems, help us find it or get started on your own endeavor – because whether it’s the Bucket Brigade to confront them or not, complex problems are kicking our asses.

    P.S. One of my favorite comments from the 60 or so people that have used the form so far is, “life’s to short to work on boring stuff.”

  6. tokko
    tokko November 23, 2010 at 11:42 am .

    i hate this leadership premise. what “we” need is more democracy, not experts, even if they are generalists. in my opinion, this movement could replace the old media. in my imagination it would be about giving people a voice and bringing them together at a discussion table, hinting at the connectedness of things, growing the spectrum of feasible “solutions”. strengthen democracy, give people hints of how their actions influence others, highlight patterns.

    this is my opinion, i hate it when new elites are being bred out of old ones. we need more information, not power. make love not war :)

    we need more knowledge of connectedness, that would be the correct answer to the figure of “information overload”. it’s all in the links, not in the bits.

  7. Bud Caddell
    Bud Caddell November 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm .

    @tokko – there’s two kinds of leaders, those who chase it and those who accept it. Understanding is not elitism – and systems thinking isn’t a political ideology. Information overload, or what Clay Shirky calls filter failure, isn’t the sole problem. Reduction isn’t the right answer. I’d ask you to look past your immediate and emotional response here.

  8. Read this! :
    Read this! : November 25, 2010 at 10:51 am .
  9. Jack
    Jack December 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm .

    You need to read Martin Heidegger’s works, start with his Meta Physics and then move on to the beast Being and Time. What you are describing is how we (Dasein) are always in a relationship (way toward) our world.

    What I see you endeavoring to do is zoom OUT to capture the high level complexity of these relationships, capture their cognitive power, focusing it and directing at similarly complex issues. Issues that have evolved out of this complexity that never existed before, a complexity that has not been accurately documented, studied, or addressed.

    Heidegger has great philosophy on how this existence works that fits this model of thinking you are undertaking. The hermeneutic circle, concept of Being (Dasein), and that our existence is fundamentally fed through other beings helps pave the way for showing the need for a BETTER WAY to CONNECT to the best beings for a given situation.

    A network that reacts based upon needs and requirements and doesn’t have to wait for a top down order. We need a system that lives how people live. A network with subnets that “grow-up” and “mature” under guidance and slowly gain autonomy, to then break off and spawn more advanced networks.

    I think what we are feeling now is the coming of a maturation. It is in the air. The technology is there, there are systems that support these human networks extremely well. There is a burgeoning intellect in their twenties right now that see the world in a way that intellect in their 40s can’t comprehend.

    All around us we see top down corporations struggling and smaller businesses and armies of contractors filling the void. No company can respond as fast to market demand as an individual. A highly flexible group of individuals can tackle more complex and numerous issues than a single corporation with a few or one directive or vision.

    Again, Dasein have many interests, talents, and unique connections to OTHER individuals. Until now those connections have not been seen as having intrinsic value to problem solving in any defined way. “Networking” with other people has been taught and documented but never really harnessed as it should be.

    That is where I see this leading, Bud. Identify, study, the complexity of our world and its issues but then how Dasein’s (Humanity’s) endless individual connections that caused this complexity can be harnessed to solve complex issues that have been born of the very complexity that has led Dasein (Humanity) on an upward spiral of a grand hermeneutic circle.

    We have been creating problems in our pursuits and reaping rewards at the expense of others because of shortsightedness, shortcuts, and miscommunication born out of not identifying and accepting how complex the interconnections of our world have become. Once we study those connections, understand them, and harness their true potential then the issues born of those complexities will melt away as a spiderweb put to a flame.

  10. James Deakin
    James Deakin December 3, 2010 at 4:39 am .

    Hi Bud, great post. What do you think the challenges will be? How much of the solution is about technology? How much about people?

  11. Rowan Hetherington
    Rowan Hetherington November 15, 2011 at 1:05 am .

    Hi, I recently posted about a similar concept, which I called ‘Agile Progress’:

    Delighted to have just stumbled across your work (via Happy to collaborate / brainstorm if you’d like. I’ll be in Sydney from December.

    Good luck!

  12. Jörn Hendrik
    Jörn Hendrik December 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm .

    Very good points, I would like to refer to this kind of network that definitely has the potential for fundamental change as a fluid one. Inspired by the master thesis of Trevania Henderson (the next agency model) I came up with a startup from the betahaus Hamburg, a Coworking Space in Hamburg, Germany.

    I lile the idea of recruiting freelance experts on new media, strategy and web development to work on big projects. It’s fair any how since most of these freelancers are working for big clients and big projects. But with the huge disadvantage of working at an agency that works for the client.

    We don’t need that anymore, cutting the dealer, delivering better ideas and work to clients that prosper from learning and growing through a natural workflow that isn’t executed in meeting rooms is just a fantastic vision.

    I would love to stay in contact and share my experience. ffluid greets the bucket brigade!
    Keep on rocking!

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