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Daily Nuggets: A For Impact Blog

Do the Simple Things to Avoid Team Complexity


In his book The Checklist Manifesto, author Atul Gawande calls attention to 3 different kinds of problems: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.  

From The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right:

“Two professors who study the science of complexity—Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto—have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.

Simple problems, they note, are ones like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once these are mastered, following the recipe brings a high likelihood of success.

Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe. Success frequently requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination become serious concerns.

Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, the professors point out. Every child is unique. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient. Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one. And this brings up another feature of complex problems: their outcomes remain highly uncertain. Yet we all know that it is possible to raise a child well. It’s complex, that’s all.”

I want to relate this framing to teams and dysfunction. Building and leading a team is a complex problem. Like raising a child well – “It’s complex, that’s all.”  In our work at The Suddes Group, we’re often building or reconfiguring teams to create greater funding results. One of the things we’ve observed is the relationship between the simple and complex problems. When teams don’t execute on the simple problems, the complex problems are amplified.

Any funding effort is largely a function of simple problems:

  • Do we have a clear funding rationale?
  • Do we have a list of our best prospects in descending order of importance? (A Master Prospect List – it’s arguable that parts of this are a ‘complicated problem’ but the tasks to complete are ‘simple’.)
  • Do we have a funding plan?
  • Are we making visits?
  • Are we making asks?

When teams are not making visits and asks then it’s a good bet that a leader’s focus will be increasingly drawn toward complex problems related to team dynamics. When teams ARE making visits and asks a lot of the complexity seems to melt away. As Marc Cuban says, “Sales covers up everything.”