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Recognize CIDNI problems | Powerful Problem Solving
Strategic thinking

Recognize CIDNI problems

The 737 is Boeing’s best-selling plane, with over 10,000 of them sold. Its latest version, the 737 Max, was introduced in 2011 to respond to Airbus’ new generation of more efficient planes. However, after two fatal crashes, regulators have grounded the Max, its production has been halted, Boeing’s CEO has been fired, 40% of travelers say they would be unwilling to fly on it after its flight status is restored, Boeing’s network of 600 suppliers are suffering, and it is unclear how the company, with mounting losses since the grounding, should move forward. In short, Boeing is facing a CIDNI problem.

We all solve problems every day. How much effort we dedicate to solving each depends on the problem: Simple problems might require little more than following our intuition while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, CIDNI ones require in-depth analysis. But what exactly are CIDNI problems? Here’s a short introduction.

First, let’s define “problem” as a gap between where you are and where you want to be. In that sense, a problem isn’t necessarily a negative, it can also be an opportunity.

“CIDNI” stands for complex, ill-defined, nonimmediate but important, and it’s pronounced “seed-nee.” CIDNI problems are your most challenging problems. Examples include the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, a group of fourteen initiatives that include advancing personalized learning, making solar energy economical, and enhancing virtual reality.

Similarly, the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals are also CIDNI; these include eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring good health and well being for all, and avoiding waiting water.

But CIDNI problems aren’t limited to global issues. They also are present in organizations—for instance, for Boeing, deciding how to move forward with its medium-range narrow-body airliner or, in pretty much any corporation, figuring out how to increase profitability for next year. And we also face CIDNI problems in our personal lives when we decide which job to take or which house to buy.

CIDNI problems are complex

Complexity can arise from various sources. Chief among those is when a problem has several interdependent and dynamic variables. This might be the case if you have multiple objectives: Yes, you want to find a job that pays well (objective 1), but you might also want it to be interesting (objective 2), in an organization that matches your values (3), in a good location (4), etc. And these objectives are linked, creating some trade-offs whereby you will need to give up a bit of something (say, salary) for something else (a more interesting work environment).

CIDNI problems are ill-defined

Well-defined problems (or “well-structured” problems) have clearly specified initial conditions (where you are), final conditions (where you want to be), and paths between these two states. Any problem that lacks one or more of these properties is ill defined.

A critical property of ill-defined problems is that they usually don’t have one “right” solution and, in fact, they may not have any solution at all, which implies that there is no objectively perfect answer to ill-defined problems.

To illustrate, think of it this way: Writing a word is an example of a well-defined problem problem: there’s one right way to do it. But writing a paragraph is an example of an ill-defined problem: You can do it in many different ways, and which is better depends on many factors, including what’s important to who reads it. In other words, which version of the paragraph is the best is subjective.

I can’t stress this enough: In many cases, there isn’t just one answer that all stakeholders will agree is best. For instance, you might be looking to buy a house with your spouse and agree that what is important to the two of you is the location, size, and affordability of the house. But each of you might not weigh each of these criteria equally. Maybe for you the affordability is most important while your spouse privileges the location. As a result, when you evaluate options, you might not agree on which is best. 

CIDNI problems are nonimmediate but important

Finally, nonimmediate means that you, as the solver, have some time to identify and implement a solution, at least a few days, weeks, or months. But the problem is important: its stakes are high.

Having recognized that the challenge you’re facing is a CIDNI one, you can then take appropriate action to overcome it, and the purpose of this site is to give you tools to improve how you solve CIDNI problems.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 5–8.

Gelles, D. (2019). Boeing Can’t Fly Its 737 Max, but It’s Ready to Sell Its Safety. The New York Times.

Gelles, D. and N. Kitroeff (2019). Boeing to Temporarily Shut Down 737 Max Production. The New York Times.

Gelles, D. and N. Kitroeff (2019). Boeing Fires C.E.O. Dennis Muilenburg. The New York Times.

National Academy of Engineering. “Grand Challenges for Engineering.” Retrieved January 1, 2020, from http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/challenges.aspx.

National Academies of Sciences, E. and Medicine (2017). A new vision for center-based engineering research, National Academies Press, p. 22.

United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goals.” Retrieved January 3, 2020, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/.

Yaffe-Bellany, D. After Boeing Halts Max Production, Suppliers Wait for Fallout. The New York Times.

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