Managing Complexity

A typical Design Thinking initiative can be overwhelming, due to a combination of ambiguity and lack of clarity of the problem statement, lack of overall information, a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities ahead, or  the sheer complexity of the environment and the tasks ahead.

A deep dive into a complex environment is likely to be overwhelming too: not being able to see the forest for the trees. Being too involved in the details to make sense on the level where sense is needed.

On the other hand, one cannot simplify a task by pretending it is, or just making it simple. An oversimplification will lead to a wrong understanding, wrong conclusions, and missed opportunities. (See Emergence).

Besides having the mindset and culture foundations, Design Thinking requires capabilities which, especially in conjunction with each other, tackle exactly this: reducing the cognitive load to avoid becoming overwhelmed, and still being able to manage the task at the level required.

The capabilities listed in the Capability Foundation focus on being able to manage and find a way forward in a complex environment. The goal is not to get overwhelmed and take shortcuts which may lead to costly corrections or even dead-ends.

When not equipped with these, it is easy to become overwhelmed, and as a result it creates the need and temptation for making unjustified ‘moves’, such as letting bias go unchecked, jumping to conclusions, shortcuts and the resulting pet projects..

Each of the Foundational Capabilities of Design Thinking help with managing, and progressing through, complexity:


  • Abductive Reasoning

  • Rapid Mode-Switching

  • Reflective Practice

  • Visualization

  • Abstraction

  • Exploration

  • Systems Thinking

  • (Re)Framing

Solutions can still be beautiful and simple, they preferably are, but often only in hindsight and after a few revisions. Simple processes can lead to simple solutions, but valuable solutions for complex problems in complex environments need a well balanced strategy to find and develop.

One needs to find manageable levels of abstraction for each and every sub-task at hand and be able to switch between the various levels, find a balance between not losing or negating understanding, and not becoming overwhelmed either.

One can simplify one’s understanding, but only after the complexity is understood. (See Abstraction Link)