Three things that helped me deal with a complex issue

A new project on strengthening youth work taught me a lot about dealing with complex issues. Three practical insights that could also be of value for others.
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May 2, 2023

By Mark Snijder

A few months ago, I started a nice new assignment with a rather open question. The Netherlands is participating in two European partnerships aimed at strengthening youth work. So far, those partnerships have received little implementation in our countrey, but that needs to change. Will you take care of that?

My first thought was: yes, interesting! And my second: but how am I going to do that?

In recent years, I have learned a lot about how to deal with complex issues. That there are no blueprints, for example. And that the parties involved should as much as possible develop and implement an approach together, in small steps and with continuous adjustment.

But how do you do that? Three practical insights and tools helped me: the ARE IN principle, the Complexity Navigator and working with polarities.


From the Future Search methodology, I learned the principle of ARE IN, which helped me identify stakeholders. If you want to have ‘the whole system in the room’ around a particular issue and collectively take action, you need different people. You need people with Authority and people with Resources. Their involvement increases the chances that something will actually happen. In addition, you need people with Expertise and people with Information. Their involvement makes it more likely that the right things will be done. And you need people with Needs. These are the people who ultimately need to experience the effects of what you do together. They provide a reality check on the outcomes of the approach, including the unforeseen and unexpected effects.

In the case of strengthening youth work: not only managers in youth work, but also youth workers in the field. Not just youth work educators, but also youth work students.

Complexity Navigator

So I had the right group of people together. But where to start next?

Here it helped to use the Complexity Navigator: nine building blocks that you need when working with a complex issue. And which, sooner or later, you have to deal with. Sense of urgency for example, and shared ambitions. Vital connections and mutually reinforcing actions. But also adaptive learning, responsive leadership and a backbone that facilitates the process.

I put the nine Navigator pieces on the table and we started talking about them. It became clear which building blocks needed attention at that moment. Where is everyone’s urgency to further strengthen youth work? What ambitions do we have? And which activities are we going to set up in the coming year that will help us achieve our ambitions?

We like to make dealing with a complex issue manageable. We then tend to break down the issue itself into small, separate topics. We no longer focus on strengthening youth work, but we focus only on sustainable funding from municipalities for youth work. Or on measuring the effects of youth work. But the point is that all these separate topics are interrelated and influence each other to a great extent. The lesson I learned: it is better not to break down the complex issue itself, but to break down the approach. By using the Complexity Navigator’s nine building blocks, for instance.

Working with polarities

Finally, an insight that plays an important role in the theory and practice of Deep Democracy: dealing with polarities. Complexity is full of polarities: apparent opposites or two sides of the same coin. Youth workers must identify themselves with the lives of young people, but must also be able to deal with the ‘systems’ of municipalities. A youth worker has to work methodically and systematically. No, a youth worker must respond to what a young person asks for and needs at that particular moment.

The point of polarities is that it is both. Both sides have value, and they need each other. There is a tension between them, and the trick is to make that ‘tension work’. As it is formulated in Dilemmalogica: creating playgrounds in which we can move freely between the two elements.

In the project on youth work, two things presented themselves as a contradiction: the European partnerships have grand ambitions that require a lot of time and commitment, but at the end of the year we should have achieved something with limited resources. Do we go for grand ambitions, or small-scale activities? Suddenly I realised that this doesn’t have to be a choice, and that we can use both to strengthen each other. A long-term movement with grand ambitions fuels small-scale activities in a community of practice. And those activities help the long-term movement grow and thus bring the grand ambitions closer, step by step. It can be done together: think big and act small.