Podcast – Episode 0334 – Seven Steps To Solving Complex Problems

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In this episode, Joel and Antonia talk about the steps needed to solve complex problems in your personal life and the world at large.

In this podcast you’ll find:

  • In difficult times, problems come to the surface.
  • Traditional approach: quickly solve the problem and be done with it.
  • Problem-solving rooted in cause & effect versus system thinking.
  • What is system thinking?
  • “When we don’t see a system, we break it.” (Gregory Bateson)
  • Avoiding problem replication through accurate diagnosis.
  • System Map Drawing.
  • For any change in your life/area of dissatisfaction, start looking at the system that created the current emergent.
  • Meeting a problem at its actual complexity level.
  • Start thinking of your own problems as systems.
  • The ease of oversimplifying: even the wrinkles in our brains are becoming shallower (Book ‘The Shallows’).
  • We go between indulgence/negligence (during homeostasis) and impatience/un-resourcefulness (during crises). 
  • Use homeostasis to train our minds in finding personal satisfaction in problem-solving.
  • 7 steps in the lifecycle of a problem:
    • Inception (initial condition of a system)
    • Identification (awareness & pain)
    • Diagnostic
    • Solutions (actions)
    • Test-iterate (solutions)
    • Maintenance
    • Completion (integrated into lifestyle)
  •  “If I had 60minutes to save the world, I would spend 55 defining the problem.” (Einstein)
  • We replace bad systems with slightly better ones.
  • Vetting a solution’s effectiveness with time and scale.
  • The importance of not letting yourself off the hook when things start to feel better.
  • Real solutions involve behavioral change and maintenance.
  • The best place to start is with yourself – how to solve problems in your own personal life.
  • Connecting the dots with a Personality Type Example: “I am so different from my family”.
  • Applying system thinking to your own life.
  • Contributing to solving the world’s most complex problems through better thinking.


In this episode, Joel and Antonia talk about the steps needed to solve complex problems in your personal life and the world at large.

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Showing 11 comments
  • Linda S

    Thank you for this thoughtful presentation on ST. This resonates for me and is a subject I have long been interested in. These kinds of topics are, I believe, what your mission is all about, and as an INFP, I am most grateful for. I appreciate Erik Bland’s articulate comments as well.

  • J

    This was a fantastic podcast!

    I recently wrote to Joel and Antonia asking how my partner (ESFJ) and I (ENFP) could communicate better. We both listened to this and found it a revaluation.

    I get stuck on the diagnosing, researching and iterations. I never want to commit to a solution and boring problems slam my mind shut quite quickly.

    My partner tends to go for an obvious short term solution and isn’t great at working out how this could stress othe nodes in the system. And once a decision is made, it’s made. There is no alternative or backtracking.
    It’s a frustrating dynamic for both of us. So having a road map to work on solutions (like , say, should we send our kids back to school the rest of the semester?) that we’ve been glitching on has so far been way smoother.
    Thank you both for this. And also, I’m kind of glad you don’t bring day to day politics into this. I have so many other podcasts I enjoy doing that now and some of it is really clumsy and crowbarred in. I stick to the news podcasts for opinion like that. This podcast is my little escape.

  • Johannes

    Thank you, that’s a very helpful framework! I have been trying to use it to diagnose the problems I have in my life, not super successfully yet though.

    My small nitpick is that I don’t really see how there would not be cause and effect, like you assert every time you talk about systems thinking. A system to me seems like a network of causes and effects!

    By the way, I love that you continue to leave daily politics out of the podcast, and instead talk about something more universally applicable that you have a wise, unique and insightful perspective about. (I think almost everyone (myself included) sounds like an idiot when talking about politics.)

  • Steven Harris

    INTJ here and I literally see my mind saying “but what else is there….BUT WHAT ELSE IS THERE?!?” XD

    The problems of my personal life are somewhat easy to address, but addressing the systems of the masses are my issues.

    Sometimes I see myself as a node in the grand system of humanity with such a small sphere of influence that I definitely avoid implementation. This is my biggest hurdle. Will I build that app? Will I post a comment on this week’s podcast? What are the ramifications for blah? Is that the desired outcome?

  • Bob Johnson

    Ok. I am very out of line for my previous comment. I apologize. I truly love your podcast and i think i just felt deeply hurt that two people I have looked up to for so long are choosing to produce content during this period and not taking a stand.

    I am disappointed. But it is your platform, your business, and you can do what you like.

    I wrote that comment with the assumption that you actually like black people and believe that their lives matter. But how do i know? I don’t know you personally. For all i know, maybe you totally hate them lol

    My feelings and perspective haven’t changed from my previous comment. but i could have communicated better (and definitely used spellcheck).

    Again, I apologize for attacking you. Good luck with towing the middle line and trying to keep everybody happy.

    • Erik Bland

      I can’t speak for Joel and Antonia. I can only explain my own thoughts, which I expect may mirror theirs to some degree.

      I think some of us naturally focus on long-term solutions, whereas others naturally focus on ‘triage’, or rapid response. Both are important, but we may have trouble communicating from the perspective of the one we aren’t talented at.

      I personally look at long-term solutions. What fix can we apply that will keep working long into the future? I think of it metaphorically: if I get stabbed, my outlook is “What caused me to get stabbed, and how do I avoid getting stabbed again later?” But obviously, “How do I not die from this stab wound?” is an equally important, and far more urgent question.

      Admittedly, it’s hard for me to feel the emotions of others in the moment. That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize or sympathize with them. But it does mean that, atleast for me, offering emotional support in this time of need is not something I’m great at. I’m better at designing methods to help fix the problem “once and for all” after the bleeding has stopped. Maybe Joel and Antonia are similar, and they’re offering the advice that they’re best equipped to give (again, not trying to put words in their mouths, this is just my guess).

      Second, I think most of are are, unfortunately, not as sensitive to injustices that affects others as we are to injustices that affect ourselves. White people probably have a hard time imagining what it is like to experience racial discrimination. Just like males can have a hard time imagining what it is like to experience sexism. Just like younger people can have a hard time imagining what it was like to be an older person early in the covid-19 outbreak when lots of people were saying “Who cares about the virus? It only kills old people”, for example. Overweight people are probably subject to all sorts of unspoken inequalities that everyone else doesn’t even notice. All of these types of discrimination are probably far more prevalent in our world than we typically notice if they don’t affect us personally.

      I don’t think that lack of experience indicates a lack of concern. Just like I don’t think that a long-term focus indicates a lack of realization of short-term urgencies.

    • Steven Harris

      As an African American male what if, I was offended by your comments Bob? My Fi doesn’t flair up much, but it did when I read some of the comments on here.

      Simplified Systems thinking below. Strong Te users would probably see it like this.
      Question –> inputs + nodes = output –>desired output?

      The fact that people choose to use systems thinking gives you the space to use systems thinking. XD

      My dad past away due to CoVID-19 and part of my grieving process was understanding what an extrovert he is, and how many people he came in contact with because of his natural inclination to meet people, his eagerness to shake hands, give hugs, his job that made him travel around the state, the fact that he didn’t keep hand sanitizer in his car. All these things and more culminated to his death. Its just a way to process information that won’t leave you so triggered.

  • Bob Johnson

    You lost me on this one. You both are white right? This felt very cowardly to listen to considering everything happening in the United States.

    Hearing you talk about “systems thinking” when somebody was suffocated to death by having his neck knelt on by a whites person, and during such an important moment in the United States history was truly the essence of privilege at its finest.

    Do you think that black mothers that can’t buy you guns for their sons (for fear of what will happen when the boy plays outside with it) are in any position to be doing systems thinking?

    Do you think that Floyd’s family is in any emotional state to be doing systems thinking?

    What is the point of your platform if you cannot speak directly and openly on tough issues? Wait wait. Let me guess “you don’t like to date your podcast because you want it to be evergreen”

    Yes, we realize that systems thinking is the way to go. But surely you also know that humans are fundamentally *emotional* creatures first and foremost.

    You had / have a chance to influence real change by speaking to the HEARTS of your audience on a matter that is so urgent.

    But no, you are here speaking to the brain and the mind. Where are the Te users on your team? Why did they not advise you that this episode is truly bulllshit (assuming your intention was to help)

    Are you really going to let your child grow up in a world where black people get killed for jogging? Or have their necks squashed in the street for not apparent reason? Maybe you are doing something to effect change offline but honestly it was so irritating to listen to this podcast episode KNOWING it was your feeble attempt to make a contribution.

    Next time, be authentic. Have emotions. Show empathy. Talk about the issue. Or just keep quiet and enjoy the privilege of having the mental space to think systematically.

    Even in the episode, you said triage is ok. now is the time for triage. where is yours?

  • Michael

    Amazing. I love when you guys just capture my thoughts, of which I have only grazed the surface of understanding, and flesh them out in an elegant way as you do in this episode. I have not had the vocabulary to convey the points you brought out in this episode, so it was a very cathartic experience listening to your discussion.

    I’m an ISTJ and when I was younger , I would tend to look at things with very black-and-white thinking. It created a lot of discomfort to say the least. I worked at becoming more tolerant and “holding space” for others, and with that, the black-and-white thinking dissipated. When you introduced me to systems thinking, I was able to put a name and develop a greater understanding of that think in terms of cause and effect.

    I appreciate you for introducing me to systems thinking in the earlier podcasts because it’s helped me develop both my Te (Effectiveness) and Fi (Authenticity) by enabling me to connect to people without labeling them as only “good” or “bad.” Idk if this all makes sense, but essentially, you’re awesome, and I love your insightful perspectives each week. Thank you!

  • MJ

    Another amazing and insightful podcast.

    I think a lot of society’s problems and our seeming inability to fix them tie back into the absence of systems thinking. I’ve seen this even at the interpersonal level, especially on social media. There are many instances where I have observed people who either can not detect or are not willing to consider the different nodes in a person’s behavior. And I’ve noticed this can have dangerous repercussions. A recent example of this is as follows:

    One of my friend’s and I have very similar backgrounds on paper. We’re the same age and gender and our racial, ethnic, socio-economic, religious, and political backgrounds are identical. However, as young adults in our 20s, we have reacted to and been shaped by external factors in two separate ways. External events led to my graduation from the political paradigm of my youth, while these same events more or less led my friend to rationalize the behavior and rhetoric I found unacceptable.

    Essentially, I re-evaluated my beliefs from the outside, but I don’t believe she ever has. Thus, in my view, she has at times accepted attitudes and positions that I don’t believe are truly representative of who she actually is.

    In college (though we attended different schools), the overarching social paradigm and view of reality shifted among our peers who now came from a wider range of backgrounds. As an ENFP, my Ne provides a natural sense of curiosity that allows me to enjoy and thrive in these scenarios. My friend had Ne too, but it’s her tertiary position, so it’s not as confortable of a place. Plus, with some of the intricacies of the social Fe environment shifting coupled with insecurity and emotional instability, she was not able to thrive socially and felt like she was an outcast, a sentiment she had expressed to me as well as another mutual friend on several occasions

    In regards to recent controversies, my friend makes a post supporting Black Lives Matter. The initial post was absolutely a genuine harmless statement that my friend, even though she is white, stands with and cares about the movement and racial minority groups. However, with knowledge of her more conservative views as well as my friend’s tendency to speak without thinking, several of her peers from college more or less attacked her. One girl basically called her a white supremicist, which understandably angered my friend (who is not a white supremicist). My friend lashed out in response and said some very bad things. I don’t support what she said, but I think she didn’t consider the social repercussions in a new environment.

    So another girl basically starts a cancel culture campaign against her, which in equal parts horrified and confused me.

    I also don’t think either girl (or the other commenters) had any concept of the systems at play in my friend’s life. She came from a different background than them. Although our backgrounds are similar on paper, I believe I was exposed to and absorbed significantly less prejudices than she did. And I was also more inquisitive and open to challenging my preexisting worldview. So, what we have in my friend is a young woman who is still growing and learning at a level that has been apparently deemed unacceptable.

    Not everybody grows up as equally “woke.” It took me several years to grasp principles of social justice and how inequality impacts people’s lives currently. It just wasn’t on my radar as a child. And even now, I can’t say I am completely confident in my understanding. It’s going to take my friend time to fully examine her own internal thoughts and biases, which I don’t think is something she’s ever felt compelled to do.

    To be fair, these girls and others did claim that they had been attempting to educate her for years. However, I seriously doubt the quality of these attempts. If what I have seen online is any indication of the whole picture, their attempts very well could have been and were seen as attacks. Therefore, my friend felt bullied and like she wasn’t accepted as a person. So, she doubled down on the more toxic aspects of the political paradigm, which was fueled by a social media echo chamber.

    Long story short, no one was in the right. Considering the systems at play might have convinced the other individuals that what was happening was the outgrowth of many nodes. This encourages empathy and understanding. We’re my friend’s actions wrong? Yes. Should people have tried to actively ruin her life? Given the systems at play, I don’t believe so. She needs to be given an opportunity and space to grow.

    After the cancel campaign was initiated, my friend made a few comments that sounded rather suicidal. I don’t think she actual is suicidal, but what if she were? A person could have died when trying to understanding the systems to identify an effective way to communicate with her could have prevented the situation entirely.

    Then again, I’m an ENFP and I’m aware that I have an impulse to see the best in people and to expect them to live up to their potential. And I have more patience with certain personalities and worldviews than one might argue is warranted. I see my friend’s potential in her compassionate and caring side. So, I fundamentally do not see her as hateful or mean-spirited.

    My point with this rather long-winded story is that I strongly believe systems thinking gives us a better approach to solving micro-level problems, such as interpersonal relations. This will help east the rampant tribalism in society, which I think is really the only way we can create sustainable solutions that benefit everyone. Otherwise, we’ll be too busy going after the “other” to identify and work towards fixing the flaws and broken nodes in the system. The energy that went into this feud could be put to many activities of a higher caliber that don’t threaten to cause an actual severe mental health crisis in another person.

  • Erik Bland

    I like Antonia’s description of our behavior as being impatient during a crisis but negligent during peace.
    I think a lot of times people refrain from making changes because it is quite difficult, and often takes longer than we anticipate (so when a change fails to produce good good results immediately, we may give up on it prematurely).

    As a personal example, I could see from my previous career direction that the most prominent path for advancement and success would be in increasingly extroverted roles, such as management.

    I considered my options and have since switched to another field that I anticipate will allow me to perform at a high level but in roles that fit better with my talents and personality. However, I expect this change will require several years (or more) to fully realize, which is frustrating at times now that I’m in the middle of the process.

    I think one challenge our societies may have is simultaneously utilizing both ‘triage’ (rapid solutions during urgent situations) and systems thinking, when appropriate. Triage may be over-used in modern society, but it does have its place as well. And different people may have either of these as a strength.

    As an example, I tend to think more in long-term solutions, while my wife is better at dealing with urgent situations. I noticed that, during the beginning of the current pandemic (before lots of people were infected in my country), I took the disease more seriously than she did, perhaps based on its long-term implications. However, I also noticed that, once we started dealing with the presence of higher infection numbers locally and nationally, my wife was more vigilant than I was at recognizing immediate threats for disease transmission and taking appropriate preventative actions.

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