If you’ve been involved in communities for long, you’ve probably run into something like this. A problem arises – say, a spike in crime – and officials do the things they’ve always done to tamp it down. Only this time it doesn’t work. Why?

Or maybe it happens like this. Your city has a big decision to make, but no one is worried. Your city has a long history of making difficult, even controversial decisions successfully. Yet nothing in the decision-making process works as it normally does. Instead of coming together, public opinion splinters, bloggers have a field day, and politicians who’ve been allies turn on each other. What happened?

The answer may be that the context of the problem has changed, turning what were once simple issues into complicated or complex ones. And according to a important article in the Harvard Business Review, as the context of problems changes, your decision-making process must change with it.

Actually, we’re seeing a lot of context shifting going on these days. The places where it’s most obvious are in the suburbs, which have changed dramatically in the past two decades. What were once white, middle-class residential havens have become major business locations with residents from an astonishing array of ethnic groups and income levels.

As a result, nearly everything about the suburbs is changing: economics, politics, housing patterns, transportation needs, human relations, lifestyles, social issues, public safety. And they’re changing not only in scale (greater traffic congestion, for instance, or more crime) but in kind (a different attitude about transit, a different relationship between police and residents). Suddenly, what worked 20 years ago doesn’t work anymore. Multiply that across all the things that communities care about – education, quality of life, community appearance and pride, and on and on – and you get a sense of how, yes, chaotic things seem in some suburban areas.

And chaotic is not always the wrong word, say the Harvard Business Review authors. Writing about business decisions (but with direct application to communities), they say that problems tend to fall within four contexts: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. And the context of the problem, they continue, should determine the elements and sequence of decision making.

What distinguishes a simple problem from a complicated, complex or chaotic one is “the nature of the relationship between cause and effect,” David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone write. If one thing happens (let’s say, an increase in children in a community) and another thing happens as a direct result (a greater demand for public classroom space), that’s a simple problem. The cause and effect are direct, proportional and apparent. But as communities grow more complicated, the causes and effects become harder to trace. To understand why, it helps to know a little about the field of complexity science.

Complexity science is based on the idea that all systems (ecosystems, economic systems, organizations or human communities) are made up of elements that interact. Simple and relatively uniform systems behave in fairly predictable ways. But as you add more and different kinds of elements (plants and animals, commercial trade, specialized workers or ethnic groups), the interactions can become more and more erratic. You can see it most clearly in our wildly gyrating economy today. What worked in one era to stimulate growth (public works projects or tax cuts, for example) doesn’t work nearly as well in another.  The reason may have to do with our deepening global connections, which make it harder to know where the U.S. economy ends and the global one begins. So a debt crisis in Greece (Greece!) ricochets around the world and upends the U.S. bond market.

On a smaller scale, it’s what’s happening in America’s increasingly complicated communities. What look like small changes in one area set off big reactions in another, for reasons that aren’t apparent. And, not to state the obvious, it’s important to know the relationship between cause and effect because . . . well, it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know what’s causing it.

So what’s a local leader to do? Snowden and Boone offer two thoughts that may help. The first is that the causes of problems aren’t unknowable; they’re just unknown at this time. Later on, you may know exactly what caused the issue. In the meantime, all you know is that the traditional responses failed.

Their second thought is that, as you try to figure out what’s going on, there are things you as a leader can do – if you understand the problem’s context. I urge you to read the entire article (you can download it from Harvard Business Review for a price by going here), but here’s a thumbnail version of Snowden and Boone’s description of problem contexts – and how leaders should proceed in each.

Simple context: The cause of the problem is direct and apparent, and responsible officials know how to deal with these problems – or should. An example might be a water main break, something any competent water authority can handle. This sort of problem, Snowden and Boone says, is in “the domain of best practice.” In this context, the leader’s job is to sense the problem, categorize it correctly, and respond appropriately.

Complicated context: For problems in this area, the relationship between cause and effect are direct but . . . well, complicated, and not everyone can see it. For that reason, you’ll probably need to consult experts in order to proceed. Instead of a water-main break, imagine a water authority dealing with a sustained water shortage. Conservation measures might be the solution or new sources of water or even a system of recycling water – or all three. But before proceeding, leaders should consult people with deep and wide experience in water-availability issues.  (Caution: Experts sometimes disagree, so consulting them doesn’t relieve leaders of making decisions. Also, most important decisions have costs and other consequences, and these must be managed, too.) Snowden and Boone characterize problems in the complicated context as the “domain of experts.” The leader’s job here is to sense the problem, analyze it (with the help of experts), and respondappropriately, usually choosing among alternatives that experts have suggested.

Complex context: Here the relationships between cause and effect are not clear at all – and may not be clear for a while. These problems are usually caused by a change in some fundamental condition (say, a major shift in the local economy or demographics), with the result that the usual solutions don’t work. Again, it’s not that the causes of these problems are unknowable but, as Snowden and Boone write, “we can understand why things happen only in retrospect.”  This is what they call the “domain of emergence,” meaning that we can’t be sure what will work, so we must try things and see what emerges as a solution. Leaders in a complex context should probe for possible solutions, sense good and bad results from these solutions, and respond by investing in the good results.

Chaotic context: This is a leader’s worst nightmare: a riot, natural disaster or catastrophe similar to the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. There are multiple things going wrong at the same time, and it may be impossible ever to know their causes and effects. Besides that, you don’t have time to probe or analyze: the key is to restore order immediately. This context, then, is the “domain of rapid response.” The right decision-making process in these crises is to act to restore order, sense where stability emerges, andrespond by supporting the stable areas. Your aim isn’t to solve problems but to move them from chaos toward a complex context, where they are manageable.

There are three big lessons that civic leaders can take from Snowden and Boone’s groundbreaking analysis:

  • When dealing with a problem, focus on cause and effect. How clear is the relationship between the problem you’re dealing with and its causes? If it’s clear, direct and proportionate, congratulations. You have a simple problem; look for the best practices and apply them. If the causes aren’t clear and proportionate, consider the problem’s context – and the decision-making process that best addresses what you’re facing.
  • Don’t apply the decision-making process that works in one context to another. Turning to the water authority during a water shortage and saying, “just fix it,” won’t work. Likewise, responding to every complex problem by acting like it’s in chaos won’t work either.
  • The greatest peril for leaders comes during a shift in context. Snowden and Boone use the example of Rudy Giuliani, who won great praise as mayor of New York for his cool-headed response to the Sept. 11 attacks. But he quickly lost favor when he tried to use the same command-and-control style to argue that his term in office (which ended the following January) should be extended. What followed the attacks were complex problems, the citizens knew, but they weren’t chaotic. And they didn’t need Giuliani – and only Giuliani – to solve them.

As Snowden and Boone write: “. . . A specific danger for leaders following a crisis is that some of them become less successful when the context shifts because they are not able to switch styles to match it.” I would argue that the same happens when problems that have been simple suddenly become complicated or complex.  Very quickly, we learn that we can’t use simple decision-making processes to solve complex problems.