top of page

The Only 3 Problem Types You’ll Ever Encounter

Do this with me: Think of a real-life person who you believe is a good problem solver.

What projects have they worked on?

What kind of questions do they ask?

What problems have they solved?

Was the solution sustainable? Did it endure, or fade away after a few weeks?

Maybe you're picturing your mom, Barack Obama, or your boss. Personally, I'm picturing my friend Warren, a 30-year-old UX designer.

Of all the people who landed on this blog post, I'm going to bet our selected problem solvers are a pretty diverse crew solving a pretty diverse set of problems. So if it's not their degree, professional status, or IQ, what do these people have in common?

Well, I have a theory: The best problem solvers out there know what type of problems they’re solving. And fortunately for us, this actually isn’t that hard to figure out.

As much as you might like to, you cannot live a problem-free life. As human beings living in community with other human beings on a shared planet, there will always be problems to solve. Whether these are personal, professional, ethical, operational, medical, all of the problems you’ll encounter in the world fall into 3 different categories: simple, complicated, and complex.


A simple problem is like baking a cake.

Simple problem type

Let’s say today is your brother’s birthday. But there is no birthday cake. Your problem to solve is baking him one. How confident are you that you can solve this problem?

Answers may vary, depending on how comfortable you are in the kitchen and whether you have the budget and access to purchase a box of cake mix. Let’s say you do. What will you do first?

Well, once you get your hands on the box of cake mix (or for my overachievers, a from-scratch recipe), you’ll start by reading the instructions. What ingredients do I need? What tools should I use? How hot should I preheat the oven? What order do I mix things in? What size cake pan should I use? All of these answers are provided to you step-by-step in the recipe.

And you, having made cakes before and knowing the basics of kitchen safety, know that you can reliably produce a birthday cake at the end of your efforts.

Problem solved.

A simple problem is one that has a prescriptive solution. We’ve seen this type of problem before. We know how to deal with it. In fact, there’s a tried-and-true method (perhaps multiple!) for getting it solved.

And simple problems don’t mean that they don’t take some training to solve - or that there isn’t room for error if you’re not paying close attention. In healthcare, a simple problem might be ‘How do I administer a safe dose of Tylenol to a pediatric patient?’

Children’s Tylenol is sold over-the-counter. Administering it safely requires an accurate patient weight, ability to read instructions, and knowledge of how to open a child-proof bottle. Sure, a pediatric registered nurse can more confidently - and efficiently - administer a safe dose. But parents also do this all the time; it does not require much expertise.


A complicated problem is like sending a rocket to the moon.

rocket as problem types

Obviously, this is more to rocket science than baking a birthday cake or even administering a life-saving medication. However, its problem solving process is still somewhat formulaic.

Humans have successfully sent rockets to the moon before. And we know that we could do it again – probably cheaper, faster, and more reliably than before. If we can get the right experts in the room with all the materials, data, tools, and calculations that they need, how confident are you that humanity could solve the problem of sending another rocket to the moon?

I feel pretty good about it. Maybe even better than I do about my brother’s birthday cake. (Sorry, Jon.)

A complicated problem is one that requires proven formulas employed by experts. However, with appropriate calculation and testing - and a proven track record - we can have a very high degree of certainty that it will be solved.

In healthcare, a complicated problem is surgically removing a cancerous tumor. You don’t want just anybody operating on you; you want a qualified surgeon with hundreds of successful similar surgeries under their belt. You want to know there’s an OR team with solid training taking care of you while you’re under. And if these qualifications are assured to you, you’ll feel optimistic about the outcome of your surgery.


A complex problem is like raising a child.

raising a child is a complex problem

You can read every parenting book ever written. You can implement every framework to the best of your abilities. You could be co-parenting with a child psychologist. But nothing we do as parents can reliably dictate how our child will grow up. A child’s development is too multifactorial, and the majority of these factors are outside of a parent’s control.

In fact, we see this variability play out all the time. Two children raised in the same household with the same parenting style (perhaps even twins!) will develop into completely different adults. They were born with different genetic sequences (except perhaps the twins). They had different teachers. They made different friends. They faced different types and degrees of hardship. There were a thousand contextual factors that influenced these two people’s development.

Complex problems are problems where we have an imagined outcome, but we really don't have a ton of control about if or how we're going to get there. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t worth addressing. Billions of people choose to raise children, despite the uncertainty of the outcome. They remain hopeful that they can raise a good human.

In healthcare, a complex problem is caring for a patient with Type 2 Diabetes. Neither healthcare provider nor patient can be assured of the outcome. There are too many complexities at play. But still, we have approaches to try and tools to use and hope of healing, so we try.

And this is a perspective that people who want to invest their time and energy in making large-scale systems change share. The outcome - and our success - is not certain; but change makers believe trying to solve complex problems is worth it.

As our world becomes more connected and our goals more advanced, the problems we face are increasingly complex. But simple and complicated problems still exist. In fact, our conventional approaches to problem solving often stop at ‘complicated’.

Unfortunately, we can’t solve complex systems challenges like climate change, pandemics, poverty and homelessness, or healthcare inequality with a conventional problem-solving toolbox. Oversimplifying these problems either doesn’t help, wastes resources, or makes them worse.

If we want to effectively solve the problems that we’re up against, we need to know what we’re dealing with. We need to honor the complexity of the serious challenges we’re up against - and communicate this to other people. And we do this by becoming systems thinkers.

Ready to level up your problem-solving skills as a healthcare professional? Join the next live How to be a Systems Thinker Workshop. In this 2-hour session, you'll identify the conventional thinking traps to avoid, discover your cognitive habit archetype, and leave with your personal action plan to become a systems thinker. Don't miss this opportunity to tackle complex healthcare challenges effectively. You can register to join us here.

16 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

3 Career Myths that are Holding You Back

Are you, like so many healthcare pro's, in a professional rut? Maybe you're entering your last year of grad school and preparing for a career transition. Maybe you're ready to move on from your curren


bottom of page