How to Simplify Complex Situations [Yes! And. Blog 162]

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it”

Alan Perlis – Computer Scientist

How might you have a team explore complex situations?
Rich Picture ExampleI was facilitating a workshop in August in which people had to explore a situation. I decided I would use Rich Pictures. Rich Pictures are used in the method known as “Soft Systems Methodology”. This is a method used to structure thinking about complex organisational systems.

I first came across the Rich Pictures technique in the Open University course on Creativity, Innovation and Change and have used it for many years with groups. The example  shows a Rich Picture. It represents just one perspective of the situation and would need to be brought together with other pictures to discuss and create an overall picture.

This is a technique that people sometimes misunderstand, so I put together an explanation and some guidelines for the attendees. I thought you might find this useful, though you might want to adapt the guidelines to suit your style.

People use Rich Pictures to portray complicated situations in a snapshot. A Rich Picture can help you summarise the situation using cartoons, sketches, line drawings, stick people, symbols and key words. I have also used photographs that people cut from magazines. In it you represent as much of the situation as possible e.g. its structure, how things connect and relate, what is important, what influences different aspects etc. This is all fairly objective, so it is also useful to include some more subjective aspects as well.


  1. To help interpret a situation, choose symbols, scenes or images that represent the situation. Use colour as necessary and draw it all on a large piece of paper.
  2. Put in connections you see between your pictorial symbols. Images that lack connections may be significant.
  3. Avoid too much writing as this defeats the object of using a different part of your brain and “Rich Words” is not the name!

Some guidelines

  1. Use large sheets of paper.
  2. Work in pairs or threes so that all are involved (if there are more than three, an individual might drop out as they struggle to find room to draw).
  3. Each person uses a large marker pen (have assorted colours).
  4. Discuss and draw – you can write two or three words to clarify the pictures but no more.
  5. Fall back on words only where ideas fail you for a sketch that encapsulates your meaning.
  6. A Rich Picture is an attempt to pull together the relevant aspects of a complex situation. That may not be possible with just one team; however, if you are using a number of teams, you will find that each team will illustrate different aspects of the situation.
  7. Don’t force any style or structure on your picture. Place the elements on your sheet instinctively. At a later stage you may find that where it has been placed is a message in itself.
  8. If you are unsure where to start, the following may help you begin:
  • First find structure in the situation, the parts of the situation that are fairly stable; the people, the organisation, the locations, perhaps. In the example picture, this structure is the people and the scales
  • Now look for aspects of process, those things that change e.g. the activities that are going on (for example, the trade in ideas represented by documents in the example)
  • Look for the ways in which the structures and the processes interact. (See the smiling faces, the handshakes, the thought bubbles).
  1. Avoid thinking in terms of systems. In the example picture, that might be a pharmaceutical system, a system of indigenous knowledge, a system of trading, etc. Two reasons for this are:
  • The word “system” implies that there may already be interconnections and it may be the lack of organised connections that is important
  • It may lead you to search for ways of making these systems more efficient rather than perhaps identifying different systems.
  1. Have your picture include the factual data about the situation, and the subjective information..
  2. Based on your picture, choose what you regard as the key information and record this as a set of bullet points on a separate sheet.
  3. After the exercise, have people view the pictures as in an art gallery. If there is a need to explain, have them describe the picture of another group. This produces more energy and humour than feeding back about your own picture. After the team has described it, the team that drew it can show their bullet points.
  4. Have a discussion about the different aspects of the situation that have been brought out.


Try using Rich Pictures on your own or facilitate them with your team.

To Close

Drawing is a great alternative to the endless talking that people are so good at. It stimulates conversations rather than monologues as people look for ways to represent their thinking. However, people tend not to be used to drawing, so I like to do a little drawing exercise before having teams draw Rich Pictures. One is to pair people up, give them some A5 card and a pencil, have them look at each other and draw the other person’s face. This produces a lot of laughter, especially when you display them afterwards. Explain the purpose of the exercise is to introduce them to drawing Rich Pictures.

Have a great week of removing complexity.


John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.

To receive regular articles, register at our website: and receive Section 1 of John’s book, “Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate”, with our compliments. We guarantee not to share your details. Or you might buy John’s book at Amazon now: “Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate.” 

Read: and Facebook

Talk: +44 20 8869 9990

Write: [email protected]


About the author

John Brooker is a former Senior Vice President of Visa and has used Solution Focus to facilitate multi cultural teams since 2004, working internationally.

John has developed the Team Impetus Model, based on Solution Focus, to help teams develop strategy and the impetus to implement it. This article is based around this model.

He is a Board Member of the international Association for Solution Focused Consulting and Training.