What's the difference between a catastrophic oil spill and a divorce? Not a lot.

They are both difficult and complex problems.  The CEO of a business consultancy wrote about the complexity of modern business problems and how our problem solving skills were not up to the task.

Divorce and a catastrophic oil spill - there are similarities
Now, complex problems and the need to find an acceptable solution is what the divorce process is all about.  Maybe divorced and divorcing people could learn something from how the business world deals with the problems it faces.  Maybe, the corporate titans could also learn a bit from those struggling with the divorce process and its aftermath.  Take a look at these ideas to see just how they might help.

complex problem oil rig on fireThe nature of the problem
The hallmark of these modern complex problems is that they cannot be explained by a single cause.  Their complexity arises from the interconnections between different aspects of the problem.  The information that we need to make sense of this complexity is buried in a lot of noise and we are not good at digging them out or even recognising them if we did.

That's all sounds like a bit of business geek speak but you could easily write the same about 21st century relationships and the problems that beset them.  Here are three thoughts about the nature of complex relationship problems from the business perspective.

Complexity is different
Problems that are made up of many interacting parts and have no obvious single cause driven solution are definitely complex.  In the business context this entices executives to force-fit simple mental models onto complex problems, resulting in those problems being oversimplified and misunderstood.

Which relationship problems do not fall into this area?  If your spouse has an affair then that is often only the physical expression of a complex and interrelated number of serious problems within the marriage.  

Perhaps there are more lessons to be learnt by business executives from the divorce process than the other way round.  No marriage breakdown is ever a caused by a single event, nor indeed is any catastrophic oil spill.  Both of these events need to be recognised as being created by multiple interrelated causes.  When it comes to blame neither of the couple is blameless, both are responsible (albeit to different degrees) to bringing about the collapse of the marriage.

In a recent major oil spill disaster BP took legal action against both the owner of the drilling platform (from whom BP leased the platform) and the drilling company operating on their behalf when sued by the US government.  In the event all the parties blamed each other for the disaster.  Bit like the two parties in a divorce case.  However, if the complexity of your problems requires a divorce you will only need one good lawyer whereas BP probably had hundreds!

Complexity cannot be rushed
Business leaders must resist the temptation to hurry through the exploration of complex problems and just as importantly, resist the pressure of management teams and boards to rush to a simple consensus solution.  The human brain needs time to unbundle the information cues that make complexity intelligible.

This is also totally true of the process of repairing or dismantling a marriage.  It takes time to see how best to proceed and where you want the process to go.  Your instincts want a quick solution but patience and a thoughtful divorce process will produce a better result.  If the solution is rushed the outcome will be poorer for it. 

Complexity does not accommodate certainty
If certainty is applied to complexity the result is often false confidence because certainty eliminates the possibility of alternative outcomes.  In the business world the brilliant facilitator (often the company CEO) creates the kind of tension that generates high quality problem solving and encourages a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

In the divorce process certainty and uncertainty coexist.  There is the certainty you will be living apart, the financial position has been settled (often to the perceived disadvantage of one or both of you) and parenting arrangements have been made for the children.  Then there is the massive uncertainty of how these arrangements will work in practice.  And finally there is the most uncertain part of the whole thing, what will my life after divorce really be like?

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