Problems solving simplified: chaos, complexity & sense-making!

It occurred to me recently that these concepts can be daunting and a serious turn-off for some. They are, however, very useful concepts, especially in the highly-changing and complex environment we live in. If we want to solve problems, it would be smart for us to understand them.

Pick-up Sticks

To attempt to explain these concepts, let us consider the game of pick-up sticks.

When we drop the sticks, they all fall in a heap, and there is no rhyme nor reason about the way they land. They are just a bunch of beautifully shaped sticks, randomly scattered on a table. It appears chaotic.


Problems at first seem very much like this – they are confusing and jumbled up – a little like life can be. We touch on something, and something else is affected. Just like the sticks, you attempt to move one stick, and other stick moves.

What one needs to do is approach the situation and look for the patterns, the leverage points, and the relationships between the sticks. We need to create meaning and make sense of the data (sticks) in front of us.

The sticks stop appearing to be chaotic because we have been through a process of sense-making and have ‘tamed’ the chaos. We have attached meaning to the relationships between the sticks, the spaces and gaps. We start to observe and spot the emerging points where action can take place.

‘Listen’ to the data

After ‘listening’ to the data – observation and learning - we start to tame the chaos. It becomes familiar, and we feel comfortable with the patterns that once were so strange and unfamiliar. Nothing has changed; all we did was go through a process of reasoning and sense-making.

Problems are very much like this. At first, faced with unfamiliar and a highly-interconnected jumble of issues but, as we slowly interact with the data, we learn and make sense. We start to be able to plot the landscape, and it becomes familiar.

At this point of the problem-solving process, we can develop a theory (story) that explains the situation, and we can identify solutions to the problem.

I have not explained what chaos, complexity, or even sense-making is because I have done so in many previous posts. In this post, I am using the game ‘pick-up-sticks’ as a metaphor to illustrate how simple these concepts can be and how they are interrelated.

The reality remains chaotic and confusing – the sticks remain a heap - all that has changed is that we can articulate and understand what was once nothing more than a mess. We tame it not by having changed anything; the only thing that has changed is that we have internalized and understand reality. Reality becomes familiar, and we can navigate through various situations.

A few posts will describe how we make sense of the world from a neurological perspective.