“New Eyes” Required


October 30, 2017


Problems come into existence in one of two ways.  Either they make their presence known by  disrupting our lives to such a degree that, unless we choose to deny what is happening, we have no choice but to deal with them.

The second way is that we go looking for them.  Sometimes we are bored, or curious, or sensitized to a particular issue, or we just stumble on to something that seems worth exploring more deeply.  And then we redirect our attention, lean in, and drill down into things that seemed either settled or commonplace but now have become problematic.

Moving toward problems begins in earnest when we are surprised or thrown off stride. Something doesn’t make sense. Something is off-kilter or slightly skewed, a realization usually triggered by discrepancies, anomalies, contradictions, or paradoxes.  And as we explore these gaps between what we expect and what we experience, we arrive at a decision point: Either we conclude that what we are noticing is merely interesting and not worth exploring further; or we look more closely and decide that there is something here worth learning more about.

It Matters That Some Problems Are Tame and Other Are Wicked

Even though our daily experiences are profoundly different, as human beings we have one thing in common.  Every day we all face problems of one kind or another. And we will be expected, and at times even required, to solve them.  Most of the time we are not surprised by this. As we mature, we inevitably learn that a large part of our lives is an endless struggle with problems, some simple, some complicated, and others beyond our abilities to understand.  Some of us are more fortunate that others. We are able to take most of our problems in stride.  And many of us – the most fortunate – have the resources to solve our daily problems and make them disappear, at least until they reappear once again.

Most of our work with problems is done on autopilot.  When we run into a problem, we first recognize it (or think we do), then believing we know what needs to be done, we fall back upon previously-tried remedies and set about implementing them.  Only rarely do we go beyond the current problem and think about what we are doing or wonder about the nature of problems themselves.  And why should we?  After all, during our lives we have solved hundreds and hundreds of problems.  We take one look and decide that, “I know what this is – it’s a problem.” And we activate the autopilot.

Once in a while, however, we are surprised and then puzzled. No matter what we do, this problem doesn’t get solved nor does it go away. This  experience may be the first step toward an important awareness. All problems are not alike.  If this happens often enough we begin to see a pattern: some problems can be solved while others can only be worked on.  And some take one more step forward when they learn there are names  attached to these two different kinds of problems – tame and wicked.

This understanding is a entirely new way of seeing problems and deciding what to do about them.  People who gain this perspective experience what is often called a “raised consciousness.”  Adding “wicked” to the mix that makes up their world of problems makes grappling with problems more difficult and challenging, yet at the same time more interesting.  Gaining a different perspective about the nature of problems – that some are wicked –  and adding to that an awareness of what this means turns out to be among the most important things we can learn.

“I’m Speaking Prose”

An example of seeing things from a different perspective is at the center of Moliere’s play, The Bourgeois Gentleman, first performed in France in 1670.  The Bourgeois Gentleman is a satire about a member of the middle-class who desperately wishes to leave his bourgeois position in life behind, rise up in society, and become an aristocrat.  The title of the play is actually an oxymoron, and offers us a hint that what Moliere’s protagonist, Monsieur Jourdain is after is a fool’s errand. In 17th century France a “gentleman” was always nobly born and therefore could never come from the bourgeoisie.

Monsieur Jourdain decides that the way to become an aristocrat is to learn the ways of the nobility, and so he applies himself to the gentlemanly arts of fencing, dancing, music, and philosophy.  At the end of a philosophy lesson, he informs his teacher that he is in love with a lady and requests help in writing a note that he plans to discreetly drop at her feet.

When the philosopher asks if Monsieur Jourdain would prefer the note be a poem, Jourdain rejects the idea: “No, no, no verse for me.”

“So, you want prose?” asks the philosophy master.

“No, neither,” says Jourdain.

“Well,” responds the philosopher, ” it’s either one or the other.” (In the verse adaptation of the play by Timothy Mooney, the philosopher says, “To make the point most terse/What isn’t verse is prose and what’s not prose is verse.”)

Confused by what he is hearing, Jourdain asks the philosopher to tell him what they have been speaking during their conversation.

“Prose,” is the answer.

“It’s prose?  I’ve been speaking prose?” asks Jourdain.

“Decidedly,” answers the philosopher.

“And when I say: ‘Nicole, bring me my slippers and fetch my nightcap,’ is this prose?”

“Most clearly.”

Jourdain, his eyes opened by this new revelation, is exuberant: “Well, well, what do you know about that!  These forty years now I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it.”

And then like many people who discover something new, Jourdain goes overboard. When greeting a lady of the aristocracy, he says in his best prose, “Madame, it is for me a great honor to have the good fortune to be so happy as to know the happiness to know you have deigned to condescend to grant me the kindness of doing me the honor of honoring me with the favor of your presence.”

“I’m Seeing Wicked”

When we become aware that many of our problems are wicked, we often have a reaction similar to Monsieur Jourdain’s.  We are startled, and even amazed.  Understanding that some problems can never be “solved” changes the way we see and think about them and forces us to rethink how to go about dealing with them.  Here is a CEO of a major company reporting on his experience during a seminar about wicked problems:

After I learned that some problems are wicked and others are tame, I began to see wicked problems everywhere.  Instead of seeing a problem and thinking, “How am I going to solve this?,” I would hold back from thinking “solve” and ask “Is this a wicked problem or is it tame?”   If I decided that it was wicked, I would think,” “Well, I’m not going to get it solved, so now what?” and “Since I can’t figure this out by myself, who else should I get involved?”

The experience of seeing wicked problems everywhere is available to anyone who reads a daily newspaper.  A cursory review of the October 26, 2017 edition of New York Times reveals there are five stories on the front page.  A closer inspection makes clear that each story is about a problem. This should be no surprise.  Publishing stories about problems is what newspapers do.  Examine these stories though the lens of wicked problems, however, and it becomes clear that four of the five are about wicked problems.   The one exception is the obituary of Antonine Dominique Domino, aka Fats Domino. It is probable that if Mr. Domino had died on a different day, his obituary would have been replaced by another wicked problem story.

We need “new eyes.”

Why is it that some people read the newspaper every day and never see that most of the problems they are reading about are wicked?  An insight from the French novelist Marcel Proust offers a clue.”The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  Those who cannot see that the problems reported in the papers are not ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems but wicked ones, are reading with “old eyes.”  They have not acquired the concepts and principles that are needed in order to see the “wickedness.”   They spend a good part of their day working diligently at solving their daily quota of problems, never aware that some of the problems they are grappling with are wicked, never to be solved, but only worked on.  If they are to see the wicked problems in the newspapers and in their lives, they need “new eyes.”

Even those who have grasped that some problems are wicked and others are tame may miss seeing them simply because they fail to take the time to look. “Most of the world, most of the time, escapes us,” writes Garth Hallberg in The New York Times on October 1, 2017. “The present is somehow both too near at hand and too remote to see clearly.  We pass over places we never quite inhabit, enroute to destinations we never quite reach.”  While hurrying on our way to somewhere else and failing to pay attention to where we are, the pervasive presence of wicked problems eludes us.

Convergent vs. Divergent

Among the several characteristics of problems that determine whether problems are tame or wicked is that solving tame problems relies on a Convergent process, while working on wicked problems requires a Divergent one, at least in the beginning.  With tame problems, the task of the problem solvers is to concentrate their efforts upon converging upon a true answer or correct solution. Here is an overly-simplified version of this process:  First they choose problems they think they can solve. Then they propose a number of possible solutions, then examine each one by submitting it to critical examination or experimentation, and finally work to eliminate those that prove to be false.  Eventually what is left standing is the correct solution.

“Good scientists,” says P. D Medawar, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, “study the most important problems they can solve.  It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely grapple with them. ” In fact, almost all the problems scientists address are ultimately tame since “good” scientists prefer to solve problems and not merely grapple with them.

But for the rest of us, grappling is what we must do. Grappling with problems is what is required for wicked problems, and effective grappling requires us to begin with a Divergent process. Step one is to imagine or invent as many possible answers or solutions as possible.  Step two is to select from the list of possibilities the one that we judge to be the “best” of all the alternatives.  Then step three is to turn this “best alternative” into an action plan that, when implemented, offers the most likely possibility of reducing the gap between where we are and where we want to be.

Seeing Wicked Problems in Art

If we were not in such a hurry “enroute to destinations that we never quite reach” and pay attention, we might notice that there are many things that at first glance may seem to be irrelevant and mundane, but turn out to be interesting and even important.  One of these is a realization that the Arts – literature, drama, poetry and the graphic arts – are almost always built upon problems.  At times the problem emerges primarily from the artists’ own struggles with their personal demons. At other times the focus is upon a problem “out there” in the world that bothers or upsets them.  In both cases, authors, poets and painters begin their work with a problem and then build an artistic scaffolding around it.  If there were no problem, there would be few stories,  plays, or paintings worth hearing or seeing.  The existence of the problem at the center of the artwork is the artists’ way of reminding us that life itself consists of struggling against obstacles.

Most of the problems at the center of works of art are wicked.  They do not get solved in the story, the play, or the painting, but persist beyond the boundaries of the artistic expression and remind us that life can be difficult, awful, and wonderful all at once.

Creating Truth and Clarity  

Often, there is confusion over what art means.   People who look at a paining in a museum or a gallery often walk away shaking their heads in disbelief. “This is art?” they ask incredulously. Critics have been known to argue for years about the specific meaning of a painting, a poem or a story. The dramatic arts are different.  Their primary objective is to convey the meaning of the play as clearly as possible. “Truth and clarity remained his paramount goals,” wrote Benedict Nightingale in an obituary of the renowned director, Peter Hall, published in The New York Times on September 13, 2017, “and achieving them on the stage after much hard work was his principle joy in life.”

For Mr. Hall, the most honored director of past decades, the hard work of  searching for “truth and clarity” began and ended in the rehearsals that preceded the performances of a play. “They were, “wrote Mr. Nightingale, “voyages into the unexplored and the unexpected…”  And in order to navigate these voyages, many different abilities and talents were required, all of which were supplied by Mr. Hall:  He was, as Hall himself said, “guide, philosopher, friend, conspirator, psychiatrist, actor, scholar, musician, editor, guru, politician, and lover.”

Seeking to offer “truth and clarity” on stage presents the directors and actors with a wicked problem.  In the beginning, no one knows what the meaning is, where it lies, or how to make it clear enough so that audiences can gain the benefit of being offered this new version.

Rehearsals Are Wicked

Ten actors and a director sit in a circle and begin the process of creating a play.  Over the following weeks or even months, their task will be to bring into existence something that has never existed before.  In order to achieve this, they will employ a divergent methodology. Working within the guidelines and settings bequeathed to them by the playwright, they will  imagine and then explore an almost unlimited number of possibilities that they hope will lead them closer to “truth and clarity.” In the beginning of rehearsals, the actors and the director find themselves in a position similar to their characters when they appear on the stage, struggling with problems they don’t really understand and for which they are unprepared.  Turning their memorized lines, at first empty and meaningless, into meaningful conversations, they begin to create a new version of the “truth and clarity” they hope to pass on to the audiences who will join them in the future.

Performances are Tame

Once the play is ready to be presented to an audience, the wicked problem of imagining the play and then giving it life recedes into the background.  By the end of rehearsals, the play they have created has become set and the new challenge for the actors is to keep it that way.  They are expected to say the words and make the movements that have been previously determined to be the best ways of conveying “clarity and truth.” Improvising or “deviating” is unacceptable and only detracts from the goal of sharing with the audience what was created during the rehearsals. One version of an “excellent” performance by the actors is one that adheres as closely as possible to the predetermined actions and emotions that emerged and were selected during the rehearsal period. Performing a play so that it conforms to its final iteration may be demanding, but it is still a tame problem.  Deviations are errors, and the actors’ goal each night is to converge as closely as possible on what was previously decided.

When the curtain goes up on the first night, and for every night thereafter, the audience is usually seeing it for the first time.  It is for them a new experience. They have no idea what to expect and are often surprised by what they see.

The actor’s experiences during the performances are just the opposite.  The excitement of creation is over, and they are now required to repeat their lines and make their movements exactly as they were finalized at the end of the rehearsals.  In addition, they face new challenges:  First they must convince the audience that the lines they are saying are not memorized, but actual conversations between people; and second, what they do and say must be seen as “authentic.”  They must persuade the audience that what they are seeing is not acting but “real.”

Brando’s Despair

While some actors are able to make the transition from the wicked problems of rehearsal to the tame ones of performance, others have found this to be intolerable. It is ironic that Marlon Brando, arguably the greatest American actor of the 20th century, was repulsed by performing. During the successful run of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, Brando told his co-actor Karl Malden that “checking in every night and pretending to be somebody you weren’t really wasn’t respectable for grown men.” In his memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando describes the despair he felt when, night after night he had to repeat every action and every word exactly as it has been rehearsed:

“What I most remember about A Streetcar Named Desire was the emotional grind of acting it six nights and two afternoons a week. Try to imagine what is was like walking on stage at 8:3o every night, having to yell, scream, cry, break dishes, kick the furniture, pound the walls, and experience the same intense, wracking emotion night after night, trying to evoke in the audience the same emotions I felt. It was exhausting.”

Unable to tolerate it for long, and even though his teacher, Stella Adler, counseled against it, Brando fled from Broadway to Hollywood at the first opportunity.  It wasn’t long again, however, that Brando couldn’t abide acting in Hollywood either.

Brando’s Hallelujah

What Brando hated was not the creative part of acting – the experimenting and the improvising that marked the rehearsals – but the deadly repetition of the same actions and the same emotions night after night in the performances.  An incident that occurred in 1950 while Brando was preparing for his first starring role in Hollywood offers us a clue.  In The Men, Brando was cast as a paralyzed veteran in a wheelchair. In order to prepare for his role, he spent a month in a wheelchair living with other paralyzed veterans in the Birmingham Veterans Hospital.  During his time in the hospital, Brando spent his time building up his upper-body strength and learning to treat his legs as dead weight.  The hospital staff did not know that he was not one of the paralyzed veterans, and so they treated him the same as all the other patients.  And, according to Susan Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile published in 2014, “He found the community’s’ dark humor – which included using hypodermic needles as water pistols – especially congenial.”

On an visit to a restaurant that Brando took with other veterans, a Christian evangelist decided to preach to them about the healing powers of Jesus, telling them that if they only had enough faith, they could rise up from their wheelchairs and walk.  Just as the preacher was calling the men to repentance, to leave their wicked ways, and to live by faith so they could be healed, Brando slowly and laboriously hoisted himself to his feet, took a few stumbling steps forward, then burst into a jig: “Hallelujah,” he shouted, Hallelujah!”

Dan Chiasson, in his review of Mizrchi’s book published in the New York Review of Books on January 8, 2015, asks us to imagine if Brando had “to repeat [the wheelchair moment] night after night, making small adjustments but fundamentally turning a moment of spontaneous joy into a joyless regimen.”  Trading joy and spontaneity for the “joyless regimen” of performing is why, according to Chiasson, “Brando left the theatre, and it suggests why he all but left the movies.”  When Brando slowly rose from his wheelchair and took his first halting steps, while he knew that he was an actor playing a part, he also knew that this was a special moment of creation, never to be repeated again.

Seeing and Speaking Wicked

When Peter Hall described rehearsals in the theatre as “Voyages into the unexplored and unexpected,” he was in effect talking about what it’s like to struggle with wicked problems.  And Hall’s “voyages” into the unknown territory of rehearsals were also filled with something else that can often be found in the struggle with wicked problems:  the spontaneous joy and exhilaration that Brando felt as he rose up from his wheelchair and shouted “Hallelujah!” “My definition of paradise,” Hall is quoted as saying, “is to be always rehearsing.  A Shakespeare play followed by a Mozart opera.”  By the time a play was ready to be performed, Hall had already left the hall, on his way to other theatre experiences that were more interesting, satisfying, and meaningful.

Wicked problems are to be found wherever human beings are making difficult decisions that involve values, resources and power.  Emphasizing the differences between the wicked problems found in rehearsals and the tame ones that are the plays’ performances is a dramatic way of making clear that wicked problems can be found embedded in many if not most of our significant activities.  And by taking advantage of a “Monsieur Jourdain” moment, we can become aware that it is possible to “see and speak wicked,”  and thereby avoid “passing over places we never quite inhabit on our way to destinations we never quite reach.” Seeing with “new eyes” makes it possible to go beyond our desires to make things better, and, collaborating with others, create new ways to actually make a difference.




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Success Story: Keith Jarrett and the “Unplayable” Piano





September 28, 2017





“1400 paying customers,
one piano,
no score.

This is not the calculus for a successful concert.”

“For One Night Only”
BBC Radio 4
29 December 2011

 On the afternoon of January 24, 1975, Keith Jarrett and Manfred Eicher were sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cologne, Germany, waiting for Vera Brandes to arrive.  Brandes was the 17-year-old producer of the concert that Jarrett was to play that night at the Cologne Opera House.  Jarrett, the American jazz musician, and his manager and producer, Manfred Eicher, were in middle of a tour of 24 solo concerts – 11 in Europe – which had begun on October 16, 1974 in Washington, D. C and was scheduled to end on April 20, 1975 in Waterville, Maine.  ”These solo concerts were major events in terms of twentieth-century music…they are without precedent, not only in jazz history, but also in the entire history of the piano,” wrote biographer Ian Carr in Keith Jarrett:  The Man and His Music.  ”They were not renditions of composed music committed to memory, nor were they a series of variations on composed themes.  They were attempts at very long stretches (up to an hour at a time) of total improvisation, the creation from scratch of everything:  rhythms, themes, structures, harmonic sequences and textures.”

Fully aware of how demanding that playing such improvised concerts could be, Jarrett had insisted that they schedule a concert every other day.  Since Jarrett had played the night before in Lausanne, Switzerland, January 24th was supposed to be a day of rest.  However, when Brandes called and told them that she could schedule a concert in the Cologne Opera house, Jarrett agreed to come. Having driven all that day from Switzerland in a small Renault 4, and Jarrett and Eicher were exhausted.  Jarrett wanted to visit the Opera House before the concert to look at the piano. The concert was planned for 11:00 pm, the only time Brendes could arrange for the hall, so Jarrett’s plan was to examine the piano and the hall, then return to his hotel, take a nap and then have dinner before the concert.

If all went well, in a few hours Jarrett would stride on to the stage of one of the most important musical venues in Europe and begin to play.

It did not go well.  In fact, it almost didn’t go at all.

“Keith Cannot Play”

For Vera Brandes, January 24 was the happiest day of her life.  At 17, she was the youngest concert producer in Europe, and the concert at the Opera House was by far her most ambitious and potentially successful effort to date.  When she arrived at their hotel she was excited to tell Jarrett and Eicher that the concert was completely sold out.  Jarrett could expect an audience of 1,432 jazz aficionados in the audience.

When they reached the concert hall late in the afternoon, it was immediately clear to Jarrett that the piano on the stage was not the piano he had expected. “Keith played a few notes,” recalled Brandes. “Then Eicher played a few notes. They didn’t say anything. They circled the instrument several times and then tried a few keys. Then, after a long silence, Manfred came to me and said, ‘If you don’t get a new piano, Keith can’t play.’”

What had started out as the happiest day of Vera Brandes’ life was turning into the worst.

In agreeing to the concert, Jarrett had requested a specific piano – a full-sized 9-foot concert Bosendorfer –  that he had heard another jazz pianist play during an earlier tour of Europe, and the Opera House administration had agreed to provide it. What Brandes had not realized until that moment was that the Opera House crew had failed.  When they could not find the requested piano, and caring little for a late-night jazz concert, they had delivered a small Bosendorfer – “like half a piano” remembered Brandes – and had gone home.  What Jarrett and Eicher found was “this tiny little Bosendorfer, that was completely out of tune, the black notes in the middle didn’t work, the pedals stuck.  It was unplayable,” said Brandes.   Jarrett was dismayed:  It was a “piano which hadn’t been adjusted for a very long time and it sounded like a very poor imitation of a harpsichord or a piano with tacks in it.”   Biographer Ian Carr’s description was just as severe: “[Jarrett] had to adapt to an instrument which sounded like a…barroom piano…it was barely passable in the middle and lower resisters, [and] the upper registers sounded tinny.”

With an unacceptable piano, it looked like there would be no concert.  Jarrett left the hall and returned to the car, ready to get back to the hotel and to get some much-needed rest. Faced with the humiliation she could expect when 1432 concert-goers arrived at the Opera House and found no Keith Jarrett and no concert, a desperate Vera Brandes followed him. Standing in the rain and speaking through the open window of his car, she pleaded with him to play.  Jarrett looked out at the bedraggled teenager and took pity on her.  After a few moments of silence, he said  ”Never forget.  Only for you.”  She never did forget.  Thirty-six years later to the day, when the BBC brought a number of people who were involved with the concert back to Cologne for a reunion, she said “It still brings tears to my eyes.”

Brandes immediately went to work to find a replacement for the woeful piano.  After calling everyone in the music community she could think of, she eventually located the Bosendorfer that was supposed to have been transported to the Opera House.  What she could not find were the means to get it there.  She then recruited a group of friends to help her push it through the streets of Cologne, but had to give up that idea when the piano tuner, who had just arrived to work on the “unplayable” piano, told her that trying to push the piano in the rain would ruin it.

“…the hell with everything else.” 

Back at the hotel, Jarrett ran into one problem after another.  Exhausted, he tried to nap but couldn’t manage it.  Then he and Eicher went out to eat, according to Jarrett, “…in the hottest Italian restaurant I’ve ever been in, and I was sweating profusely.  We were sitting with about ten people and everyone was served before I was.  My food arrived fifteen minutes before I was supposed to be at the hall, and I had to gulp down food that was not very good in an overheated restaurant, having not slept for twenty-four hours.”

Tired, frustrated, uncomfortable, and in pain – he wore a brace throughout the whole tour in a futile attempt to reduce the chronic pain in his back – he made his way to the concert hall. “I remember going out on the stage,” he said later, ” [and] I was falling asleep.  All I had to do was sit down and I’d be, not really falling asleep, but I was nodding and spacing out…When I finally had to go out on stage to play it was a relief…It was:  I am now going out here with this piano – and the hell with everything else!”

“It was magic”

Jarrett walked onto the stage, sat down at the inadequate and flawed piano, and in front of 1432 people who, in the darkness were invisible to him, and began to play. When he played the first four notes, a ripple of laughter ran through the auditorium. In a moment of sly humor, he played the Opera House’s intermission bell, a signal that a concert was about to begin. “But just as quickly,” wrote Corinna da Fonseca-Wolheim in an October 11, 2008 Wall Street Journal article titled “A Jazz Night to Remember,” “the reaction turned into awed silence as Mr. Jarrett turned the banal and the familiar into something gorgeous and mysterious…  In the Jazz world of 1975, the sheer beauty of the program was revolutionary.”

Vera Brandes, standing in the wings, held her breath:  As she remembered later, “the minute he played the first note, everybody knows this was magic. Something is going on here that is going to be remarkable.”

And the magic continued for over an hour.  People who were there remembered how absolutely silent the people were, as if they could hardly believe what they were hearing. They seemed utterly transfixed by the improvisations that Jarrett was creating.  Brandes, unable to stay in one place, roamed throughout the hall. “I wanted to see it from all perspectives.  Each door I opened, it was the same kind of magic.”

Witnessing “the act of creation itself.”

The Koln Concert is undoubtedly Keith Jarrett’s most famous album and many consider it to be the best concert he ever played. Certainly it is the one most beloved by Jarrett’s fans. By 2013 the album had sold more than 3.5 million copies, making it the best-selling solo jazz album or solo piano album ever.  Musicologist Peter Elsdon considers it to be a worthy fourth member of the pantheon of the best jazz albums ever recorded which include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959), Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (1973), and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out (1959).

But it was more than a best-selling album.  It was, according to Fonseca-Wolheim a “lasting work of art:”

“..It is not likely to be forgotten…In fact, what makes the album
extraordinary is that the music, created out of nothing over a space of an evening decades ago, has stood the test of time as a lasting
work of art.  Far from being a memorial monument, the record gives
the listener the opportunity to witness the act of creation itself, to
participate in the making of art.”

How Did It Happen?

After the concert, Jarrett did not seem to understand what he had wrought during that hour on the stage.  It was not until later in the car on their way to another venue of the tour that he and Martin Eicher listened to the cassette of the concert, and, in spite of some reservations about the technical quality, decided to release the recording later that year.  It was received with ecstatic reviews.  On December 29, 1975, Time Magazine listed The Koln Concert as one of their Records of the Year.

After the world-wide success of the album, many people, including Jarrett himself, have attempted to explain how it happened.  ”It sounds free,” said Jarrett, “but it also sounds like it’s moving from one thought to another without any separation, without any jump…I think,” he continued, “that the album is full of really rich ideas…”

Semi-Comatose State

Biographer Ian Carr heard in the music a “warmth and friendliness” which he felt were rare.  His term for it was “benign.” Why benign?  ”…there is none of the struggle and stress which exhilarates and disturbs” on Jarrett’s other great solo albums, suggests Carr.  Why no struggle or stress in the music made in Cologne? Carr believes that the turmoil and turbulence that had taken place before that concert had drained it away, leaving Jarrett in a “semi-comatose” state making his time on the stage “a refuge from that struggle and stress – an escape.”  As a result, the music unfolded at a leisurely pace which resulted in “greater simplicity and a folksy, ruminative quality [which] gave the whole concert a clarity…which makes the music much more accessible to a lay public.”  Nevertheless, he added, “Jarrett creates some hypnotically beautiful music which has an identity of its own.”

It Was The Piano

Others believed that it was the piano with all of its liabilities that made the difference between a good performance and the “performance of a lifetime.”  Manfred Eicher, Jarrett’s colleague and record producer said “Probably he played it the way he did because it was not a good piano.  Because he could not fall in love with it he found another way to get the most out of it.”

Since he could not “fall in love” with the piano, his approach had to change: the condition of the piano set limits on what Jarrett could do. He quickly discovered that he would have to play much louder. “What’s important to understand is the proportion between the instrument and the magnitude of the hall,” recalls Vera Brandes. “Jarrett really had to play that piano very hard to get enough volume to get to the balconies.  He was really – pchow – pushing the notes down.”

He also had to make further adjustments.  Since the lower registers of the piano were unresponsive, and the higher registers sounded “tinny,” he had to confine himself for most of the time to the middle registers.  And that led to a lot of repetitive rhythms because according to Carr, “it is in the lower middle areas of the piano that such rhythms ‘speak’ and sound best.”  And since the pedals did not function properly, Jarrett largely gave up sonority in favor of rhythm.  ”…He plays the entire concert within the limitations of his instrument, “writes Carr, “and even within this narrow confine, he achieves a state of… inspired grace.”

Improvising Improvisation

Jarrett is renowned for his mastery of improvisation.  A claim that he is among the most skillful improvisers on the piano, if not the most skillful, would attract little disagreement (If not Jarrett, then who?).  He mastered his craft by taking on a personal challenge that can only be called audacious:  In 1973 he scheduled a tour of Europe during which he played eighteen solo concerts, and then again in 1975, he followed up with a second tour of twenty-four solo concerts.  At each of these concerts, he would walk out on to the stage, sit down at the piano, and for an hour or more he would improvise:  go wherever his musical muses wanted to go. Gradually, and with great effort and dedication, he became what biographer Ian Carr called the “greatest improviser of all time.”

There is ample evidence that supports Carr’s claim.  When recordings of two of these concerts from 1973 – Lausanne, Switzerland in March and Bremen, Germany in July – were released as a boxed set with the title Solo Concerts,  according to biographer Ian Carr,  they “caused an international sensation, received ecstatic reviews” and were given dozens of awards.  The reviewer for Down Beat gave it five stars and asserted confidently: “If this is not music for everyman, then everyman is lost in the void.”

By the time Jarrett arrived in Cologne in January of 1975  he was as ready musically for the Opera House concert as he could be. But as we have seen. the Opera House was not ready for him.  An unexpected complication had been added into the mix:  he had to play the concert on a substandard, wholly inadequate piano that sounded like it belonged in a bar rather than on the stage of the Opera House.

Yet for the history of jazz, the sorry state of the piano may have been a blessing.  Jarrett could no longer rely on a superb instrument to showcase the remarkable improvisation skills that he had so painstakingly learned during the previous years.  Forced into uncharted territory by his fatigue, discomfort, and pain, and by the presence of an “unplayable” piano, he had to improvise differently:  he had to improvise new ways of improvising.  As it turned out, he was more than up to the challenge; he exceeded all expectations, including his own.

Jarrett’s Choices

In the 1940′s the American psychoanalyst Karen Horney proposed a model of human behavior that identified ten basic behaviors that were the foundations of all neuroses.  She divided these ten behaviors into three categories:  Moving AwayMoving Against, and Moving Toward people and situations.

Moving Away behaviors are those that result in people leaving, retreating from, or abandoning unpleasant and difficult situations.

Moving Against are generally aggressive and hostile actions, including condemning, attacking, blaming, and humiliating.

Moving Toward are those behaviors that accept situations as they are, often embracing them, and then exerting good-faith efforts to make things better.

No one would have blamed Jarrett if, on that rainy night in the winter of 1975 in Cologne, Germany, he had chosen not to play the concert and had returned instead to his hotel in order to rest up for the grueling concert dates that lay ahead.   After all, the explicit conditions that he had spelled out in the contract had not been met.  Not only had the promoters not provided the piano that he had specified, what was left in its place was a parody of a grand piano.

Few would have been surprised if he had lashed out at Vera Brandes for the deplorable conditions that he encountered and ended up blaming her for the whole mess.

But that was not what he chose to do:

- He moved toward the problem and began to make choices that led irresistibly to what became among the greatest solo concerts that he, or anyone else, has ever played:

- After seeing the piano and realizing that it would not do, rather than  return to the hotel, have dinner and get much needed rest, he took the time to listen to, and be influenced by, the anguished teen-ager standing in the rain and pleading with him to play.

- His decision to play the concert was a decision for her benefit rather that his own: “Never forget,” he told her. “Just for you.”

-  He put aside his fatigue, discomfort, and frustrations and, in his words, by “emptying myself,” let the unconscious processes take over the making of the music, began to play.

- He adopted a “what the hell” attitude: “When I finally got out on the stage and play it was a relief…I am going out here with this piano –  and the hell with everything else.”

- And he held nothing back.  In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford describes Jarrett playing that piano that night: “Standing up, sitting down, moaning, writhing, Jarrett didn’t hold back in any way as he pummeled the unplayable piano to produce something unique.”  As one person who was there said 36 years later, “He was utterly there!”

Embracing the Mess

Organizational theorist Russell Ackoff once observed that most of the situations we call “problems” are not problems at all, but “messes,” collections and combinations of potential problems that are in a state of constant flux. “[We] don’t solve problems, we manage messes,” he wrote.  That most people lack the skills necessary to be good problem solvers is a truism.  That most people lack the abilities to manage messes is an unhappy reality.

When Jarret arrived in Cologne on the rainy afternoon in 1975, what he discovered was a “mess.”  Rather than moving away or against it, he moved toward it and, by finding and dealing with the problems in the mess one at a time, began the difficult process of “managing” it.

When Vera Brandes heard the first notes that Jarrett played that night, she  said, “Something is going on here that is going to be remarkable.”  Paul Gambaccini, the moderator of the 2011 BBC Radio 4 program “For One Night Only: Keith Jarrett and the Koln Concert” had his own opinion: “Even the simple superlative ‘remarkable’ is an understatement.”

“It wasn’t the music that he ever imagined playing,” wrote Tim Horford in 2016. “But handed a mess, he embraced it, and soared.”



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Wicked Skills: From I-It to I-Thou



July 30, 2017

Larry Tyler was discouraged.  He was also depressed.  Even though he had met his sales budget for the year – just barely – he was not among the elite group of Xerox salespeople in the Cleveland District who were planning to celebrate their successes at a company gala in Palm Springs in January.  His discouragement came not so much from his disappointment in not making it to Palm Springs, but from the fact that this was the third of the last four years that he had missed the cut.  His depression came from deeper concerns.  Over the past several years he had begun to suspect that he was never going to be a first-rank salesperson.  Maybe it was time to face up to the disconcerting possibility that he didn’t have what it takes to be among the elite.  Was it time to try something else?  What else could he do?  Selling was all he knew, all he had ever done.  And yet during the past year he had tried everything- followed every lead, pulled every trick, gone back again and again to his best customers practically begging them to buy more copiers before the end of the year.  It hadn’t been enough.  He knew that in his boss’s eyes, he was among the second-raters.

But even though he wouldn’t be going to Palm Springs, he would keep selling.  He needed the money.  And so, on a cold, dreary day in December, he was on the road, driving east from Cleveland to the small town of Mentor, Ohio.  He was on his way to visit John O’Neill, who had recently retired from Avery Dennison, his best corporate customer, and who wanted to buy a copier for his home office.  Actually, it made little sense to make the trip.  The trip to Palm Springs was gone and the money he would earn in commission would almost be used up by his travel expenses.  But Larry was a salesman.  It was what he did.

O’Neill answered the door dressed in jeans and a black designer sweater. Polite and soft-spoken, he looked a little younger than Larry.  Listening to O’Neill’s answers to his question about what kind of machine he was interested in – “I do a little real estate, some stocks and bonds” – Larry realized at once that John had no idea what kind of copier would be suitable. “Here was one of the easiest marks in the history of office equipment sales,” Larry thought to himself.  ”I could sell him anything and he would be none the wiser.”  The prospect of making more money than he had anticipated was a pleasant surprise.  He took out the brochures for the Model 5018 and began his smooth, well-practiced sales pitch.  Suddenly the phone rang.

But let me interrupt for a moment…

The Business of America is Business

In 1953, Charles E. Wilson, CEO of General Motors, was President Eisenhower’s choice to be Secretary of Defense.  In his confirmation hearings in the Senate, he was asked if he planned to sell his General Motors stock and avoid any hint of a conflict of interest.  Sell his stock?  Wilson was puzzled.  ”…for years I thought that what was good for America was good for General Motors.”

Critics of Big Business’s power and influence in America seized upon Wilson’s comment and turned it into “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” a phrase that reeked with arrogance and contempt for America.

Today, few people see General Motors, or Sears, or General Electric for that matter, at the center of the tensions between Big Business and the American Society.   Most of the critics would undoubtedly single out Wall Street and the power of Big Banks as the tail that is wagging the dog.

Customer is King

Now, in the Brave New World of the Internet, Uber, Airbnb, Google and Facebook, the core idea that “The Business of America is Business” is even more dominant than ever before.  And in the diverse worlds of business, there is no question that it is the customer who is the target.  Management consultant and guru Peter Drucker made that clear in 1954.  In The Practice of Management, he wrote, “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose:  to create a customer…the customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence.”

While many people are engaged in selling – trying to convince others to buy, rent, use or consume the product, services or ideas they offer – every one of us is a buyer.  Call us customers, clients, consumers, or end users, dozens of times a day, and sometimes many more, we decide whether or not to buy – something!.  And it is not only the people in business who are selling:  teachers, doctors, psychologists, leaders, and politicians are also in the business of selling – to their students, patients, clients, employees and citizens. Our lives are full social exchanges, not all of them of them commercial:  Someone wants to sell us something and we must decide if what we give in return is worth it.

I-It and I-Thou Relationships

In Ich und Du (I and Thou), published in 1923, philosopher and theologian Martin Buber introduced two radical ideas:  First, it is in our relationships with others that we approach holiness on earth; and second, our relationships fall into one of two categories.  The first type is I-Thou, patterned after one’s relationship with God, in which people treat each as persons of value in their own right, worthy of respect, compassion and love.  In an I-Thou relationship people are understood to be sacred, authentic human beings and judging, evaluating, using or manipulating them is unacceptable.

Buber’s second relationship type is I-It, one that is primarily instrumental in nature.  I-It relationships are based on ends that go beyond the relationship itself.  Rather than seeing others as holy or sacred, in the I-It relationship people are objectified as customers or clients, subject to being influenced toward one’s own purposes:  Customers are influenced toward buying one’s products and services; students in the classroom are influenced into accepting their instructor’s ideas; patients come to the medical clinic to be influenced by physicians’ diagnoses and treatments; employees at work are influenced to accept management’s directions.

Establishing and maintaining I-Thou relationships with others is difficult, requiring the practice of such virtues as understanding, patience, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance, while I-It relationships are relatively easy by comparison. They are suited to the kind of society in which we live.  When the other person is an “It” – an object – there is little need to reveal one’s real purpose and motives.  There are many incentives to take advantage of the situation.  The I-It relationship also has its negative consequences:  we neither expect nor appreciate being treated as if we were objects and so the relationship suffers.  In Working, author Studs Turkel captured the feelings that come from being in I-It relationships at work:

“For many, there is a hardly concealed discontent…’I'm a
a machine,’ says the spot welder.  ’I'm caged,’ says the
bank teller…’I'm a mule,’ says the steelworker.  ’I'm less
than a farm implement,’ says the migrant worker.  ’I'm an
object,’ says the high-fashion model.  Blue collar and white
call upon the identical phrase:  ’I'm a robot.’ “

Patients in hospitals and clinics often fare no better.  When Barbara Tonne asked a nurse when she could go home after knee surgery, the nurse replied without missing a beat, “Knees go home after four days.”  Tonne was devastated.  In a letter to the New York Times published on August 18, 2005, she wrote:

“I remember feeling so hurt and angry.  I had the instant
image in my head that I was a knee, sitting in a wheelchair,
not a person but a body part.  It was a very painful memory.”

Selling is Mostly I-It.

Returning to our salesman, Larry Tyler on the bleak December day, the man sitting across from him was, at the beginning at least, not a person but a customer, an “It.”  O’Neill was not only the object of Larry’s sales pitch, he was an object.  As appropriate in an I-It relationship, Larry’s focus was on selling a copier and not on whether John should buy one or on which one he should buy.  In an “I-Thou” relationship we are not “selling” anything to the others, let alone things that they do not need or want.  On the other hand, business is built explicitly upon I-It values.  While there are exceptions, businesses exist primarily to make money for their shareholders by producing and selling goods and services to customers, clients, and end users.  Seeing them as “persons” and making efforts to treat them as such would make business transactions impossible in the long run (although at least in some progressive companies, increasing attention is paid to more extended considerations of both parties to the business transaction).

On that day, like all days, Larry had two objectives:  First, by selling O’Neill a copier, he wanted to make as much money as he could for Xerox and for himself; and second, after making the sale, he wanted to leave his customer satisfied.  Wanting customers to be satisfied after buying the product was not for Larry or Xerox a moral issue but an economic one.  Xerox had trained its salespeople to make sure that their customers felt satisfied primarily so that in the future they would buy more Xerox copiers.

Larry was confident he could meet both objectives.  He could make the most money by selling O’Neill the 5018 model even though he knew that it was bigger, more complicated, and more expensive than O’Neill needed.  And since Larry had decided to offer him only that one copier to choose from, he was confident that O’Neill would be satisfied with whatever he purchased.

From I-It to I-Thou

Without warning, however, things began to change.  The phone rang.

“Is she breathing?” asked O’Neill in an anxious tone.  ”Damn, I’ll be right over.”

He hung up.  Suddenly he looked forlorn, weary and older than his years.  ”My mom has lung cancer,” he said.  ”She lives two doors down.  She’s having a coughing attack.  I’ll have to cut this short.  Do you mind?  I’m really sorry.  Let me fill out the paper work.  I’ve got to go.  She’s hysterical.”

After O’Neill left, Larry looked around the room.  It was clear that the 5018 was too big and too expensive for what O’Neill needed.  It also occurred to him that the money to pay for it was not coming out of someone’s equipment budget, anonymous numbers shifted from one account to another, but “real money” that would come out of O’Neill’s pocket.  Reluctantly he gave up the idea of selling him the 5018 and decided upon the 5014.  There would still be a little money in the deal for him.

When O’Neill returned he said “Okay, where do I sign?  I just need this taken care of.”

“Whoa,” said Larry.  ”I don’t know if you want to lease it or not.” Leasing instead of buying was a favorite tactic of copier salespeople since they would make more money on the deal, something customers would never know unless they carefully read the fine print in the contract.

O’Neill was rushed and unsettled.  He wanted to get back to his mother.  ”No, I want to buy it,” he said.  ”Where do I sign.”  Uncharacteristically, Larry made no effort to convince him to lease.

By now it was Larry who was becoming unsettled.  He could do the “right thing” for his district, for Xerox, and for himself by selling him the 5014, making enough in the transaction to help with Christmas expenses.  But he was aware that he would be selling O’Neill a copier that he didn’t need and perhaps couldn’t afford.

The phone rang again.  ”Hello,” said John.  ”Okay, is she calmed down?  I know you can’t answer me.  Let me see if I can put in words you can say yes or no to.  When she was throwing up was it blood or was it Darvocet?  Mm-mmm.  The fellow here is just about to leave and I’ll be right over.”

Larry found himself in unknown territory. To his surprise, instead of pushing the expensive machine, he began leading John toward the cheapest model that Xerox made, the 5012.  The fact that there would be no money in it for him no longer seemed important.  He started over with the paperwork.  As David Dorsey described it in The Force, “He was going to give the man only what he needed and nothing more – no manipulation, no baked-in payments, no churning of old equipment, no pressure, no mockery of the buyer, no craving to make the trip [to Palm Springs].  John O’Neill was going to get exactly what he wanted and needed.  He, the customer, was going to be served in the best way possible.”

Larry’s Best Day

As he was shown to the door Larry said, “I wish I could have come at a better time.”  John replied, “So do I. This is the worst day of my life, actually.”  Larry was surprised at his feelings of sorrow and empathy for John, a man he didn’t know at all and with whom he had spent no more than an hour.  Later, as Larry reflected upon the experience, it was clear to him that as bad as it had been for John, it had been among his best days ever.  He didn’t make it to Palm Springs, and he didn’t make any money on the deal, but all that didn’t seem to matter.

I-Thou Relationships and Wicked Problems

Most of our day-to-day interactions are I-It relationships.  When we talk to customers, clients, merchants, salespersons, employees, students or patients, we know at one level that they are “persons” but the requirements of the situation require us to see them primarily as “objects.”  The professor fails those students who do not pass the exam; the CEO downsizes the company leaving thousands of unemployed in his wake; the general commands battalions of “troops,” some of whom will be killed or wounded;  salespeople sell products to customers they don’t need or can’t afford, and politicians distort the facts and rely upon “spin” to gain an advantage with the voters.

When it comes to wicked problems, however, I-It relationships are counterproductive. They lead to dead-end situations from which no forward movement is possible.  We get stuck, or worse, we lose ground.  Success with wicked problems requires us to think and act differently, first by agreeing on the problem that concerns us.  This in turn demands that there can be no holding back, no “game playing,” no attempting to gain an advantage over the others.  We are obligated to tell the “truth” as we see it, which means in a wicked problems context reducing the gap between what we see, hear, think, believe, prefer and know and what we say!  When others express opinions about important issues that are different than our own, we are obligated to disagree, even if our disagreements lead us into conflict and, at times, confrontation.  And perhaps most difficult of all, success with wicked problems, however this is determined, means trusting others to hold up their end of an I-Thou bargain:  Express openly what they are thinking; tell it truthfully; explore creatively many possibilities, some of which may be “far out;” disagree when appropriate, confront when necessary, move toward consensus, and stay at the table until all agree that we have done the  ”best work” possible.

Wicked Problem?  I-Thou is Best

Larry Tyler’s experience in selling a copier to John O’Neill, while unusual, is instructive.  Even though the “Rules of the Game” are based upon I-It values, moving from seeing the other as customer to person is not only appropriate but desirable.  Yet in our professional roles most of the time we are expected us to participate in I-It relationships.  There are some notable exceptions, among which are psychotherapy and religious counseling.  Both are professions based upon ministering to hundreds of clients or parishioners, and yet seeing each  individual as a person is their preeminent value.   Most of the time, however, when we are teaching, leading, commanding, and managing, we see through I-It lenses.  Rather than persons, we see students, citizens, soldiers and employees and treat them accordingly.

Although Larry Tyler’s dilemma was essentially a moral problem, there is an important learning here for dealing with wicked problems. When we grapple with wicked problems, we need to attend to new rules , specifically I-Thou rules.  In addressing wicked problems – the most difficult of issues  - we need to begin by identifying a small group of people with whom to work – wicked problems can never be addressed successfully by large gatherings, mobs or multitudes.   We insist upon the values of openness and honesty.  We work to establish and maintain trust. We not only accept, but value differences and conflict. We understand that collaboration is the only way forward.  And we keep working until we have before us a plan to be implemented that we all can agree on.

If we can make this happen, if we can bring to our struggles with a specific wicked problem the values of Buber’s I-Thou relationship – patience, compassion, authenticity, understanding, forgiveness, honesty – then there is a good chance that not only will we make progress toward our goals, but that at some future date, we will turn to each other and say “That was one of our best days ever!”

(The story of Larry Tyler was adapted from The Force, by David Dorsey, and published by Ballentine Books in 1994)





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The Dragon Next Door


June 11, 2017

It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.

J. R. R. Tolkien

Let a huge, repulsive, scaly, fire-breathing dragon stand in for your most worrisome and troublesome problem.  And then imagine a herd of huge, repulsive, scaly and fire-breathing dragons that represent all of the problems that you are grappling with.  And finally, notice that they have rented the house next door and have moved in. Your situation has become at the very least, “interesting.” Having dragons live next door may be a reason to think about moving to a better neighborhood, but alas, that won’t solve your dragon problem: Move to any neighborhood you wish, and before you know it the dragons will have followed and settled in.  No one escapes living next door to dragons.

Yet having dragons as neighbors may not be such a bad thing.  One advantage is that you can keep track of what they are up to and be ready when one knocks at your door and wants to come in.  Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson’s observation about being hanged in a fortnight, having dragons as neighbors “concentrates the mind wonderfully,” and when it comes to the wicked problems that threaten to upset your personal relationships and shove your career into a ditch, concentrating the mind “wonderfully” is recommended.

Hic Svnt Dragones

Throughout history, people have been both intrigued by and worried about dragons.  At first, people believed that dragons actually existed, but later they came to stand for all that was threatening and dangerous.  In the early years of global exploration, when map makers ran out of knowledge and were no longer able to draw islands or continents on their maps, they drew pictures of dragons, elephants, hippos and even cannibals, things that seemed to be mysterious, threatening, and dangerous.     Hic Svnt Dracones  (“Here be dragons”) and Hic Svnt Leones  (“Here be lions”), they wrote on the blank spaces on their maps, words that undoubtedly made explorers and sailors pause.

What Are We To Do With Dragons?

“It does not do,” writes J. R. R. Tolkien, “to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, [especially] if you live near him.”  While there are some deniers who insist that problems don’t really exist and it would be better to ignore them and focus on the positive aspects of life, most of us understand that we do in fact live next door to dragons – live ones and some very active – and have learned that it is not a good idea to leave them out of our calculations. “People who deny the existence of dragons,” writes Ursula Le Guin, “are often eaten by dragons.”  Yet it is one thing to accept that dragons exist and need to be included in our calculations; it is quite another to know what is the best thing to do with them.

Since it is not a good idea to leave them out of our calculations, what does it mean to include them in?  Kate Atkinson, at the beginning of her stunning and provocative novel, A God in Ruins, addresses this question by recounting the legend of St. George, renowned and honored throughout all Christendom for his courage in battling a dragon. Quoting from Scouting for Boys,  Robert Baden-Powell’s famous manual, she writes:

“On one occasion St. George came to a city named Salem, near which lived a dragon who had to be fed daily with one of the citizens drawn by lot.  The day St. George came there the lot had fallen upon the king’s daughter, Cliolinda.  St. George resolved that she should not die, and so he went out and attacked the dragon, who lived in a swamp close by, and killed him.

When he was faced by a difficulty or a danger, however great it appeared to him – even in the shape of a dragon – he did not avoid it, but went at it with all the power he could put into himself and his horse.  Although inadequately armed for such an encounter, having merely a spear, he charged in, did his best and finally succeeded in overcoming a difficulty which nobody had dared to tackle.

This is exactly the way [we] should face a difficulty or danger, no matter how great or terrifying it may appear to [us] or how ill-equipped [we] may be for the struggle.”

Facing the Dragons Next Door

Including the dragons that live next door in our calculations means:

  • Being “resolved” to make a difference.
  • Paying close attention to them and making every effort to figure out what they are up to.
  • Accepting them for what they are, neither denying their existence nor minimizing their importance.
  • Calling them by their real names.
  • Facing up to them  (“He did not avoid [the dragon] or fear it”).
  • Moving toward them (“[He] went at it with all the power he could put into himself and his horse”).
  • And, even though we may be ill-prepared for the battle, we should “charge in and do our best.”

What we must do with dragons is grapple with them, up-close, face-to-face, mano-a-mano, force them to the ground, and get some measure of control over them.  Eventually our goal is to tame them sufficiently so we can live side-by-side and enjoy a reasonable level of peace and tranquility.

But there is another side to this story: Grappling successfully with dragons – wrestling with complex, wicked problems – does more than impose some measure of control on them. It also offers in return numerous and surprising benefits.  It is only by grappling and wrestling with difficult problems that we learn what it means to be adults.  It is how we discover what must be done and how we are to do it.  It is only by struggling against the dragons in the world that the world is changed into a better one where we can live, work, and raise our children in health and safety.  And it is only by attacking our wicked problems that we are able to grow, turning our fears into confidence and our weaknesses into strengths.

And one more thing:  Many people have reported that coming up against problems that really mattered with no clear idea about what to do, but nonetheless plunging in and grappling with them, often resulted in what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “a peak experience” – the experience of feeling totally alive and fully engaged, of going beyond their capabilities and acting at a level of power and confidence that surprised them.  And afterward, when reflecting on what they had just been through, they were frequently flooded with feelings of profound well-being that bordered at times on exhilaration.

The Stories We Tell

“The Universe is made up of stories, not of atoms,” writes the poet Muriel Rukeyser.  We understand what the universe is and how it works – especially  what is important and what isn’t – not by learning about atoms, molecules, quarks and electrons, but from the stories we tell each other.  And the stories that help us make sense of what happens around us, and the ones we remember throughout our lives and tell  our children and grandchildren, are the ones that describe our struggles with difficult, messy, problems, which is to say, with wicked ones.

Throughout the Christian world, St. George is among the most revered and venerated of the saints. There are thousands of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, and icons, that depict St. George on his horse, spear in hand, fighting the dragon. He is the patron saint of England, Portugal, Greece, and Lithuania and dozens of other countries as well.

What is not recorded on any of these paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, icons and woodcarvings, is what St. George did after he killed the dragon and returned home.  What I would like to believe happened is that after he kissed his wife, took care of his horse, and had supper, he called his children to gather by his side by the fireplace and said, “I am going to tell you a story about what happened today.”

Running Toward Problems

Why did St George become such a figure of admiration, awe and respect? One reason may be that unlike many others who passed by over the years, when he learned there was a dragon “next door,”  he chose to ride toward the dragon and do battle with it.

When we come upon a serious problem, we, like St. George, have choices:  move on past, move away, or move toward it.  Moving toward the problem, spear in hand, is the best way, and often the only way, to make a difference.

Lisa Su, CEO of AMD, a semiconductor manufacturing company, is in favor of moving toward problems, but for her this is not enough.  She is in favor of running toward them!

“What career and life advice do you give new college grads?” asks Adam Bryant, author of the New York Times column “Corner Office” in his interview with Lisa Su published on May 21, 2017.

Her response makes clear that she understands what it means to include the dragons who live in the neighborhood in her calculations:

“The best piece of advice I got when I was a young engineer was to run toward problems. Many people tend to shy away from problems. To advance in your career, you need to be smart and capable, but you also need to be lucky. 
And you can make your luck. The way you do that is to do a really good job on something that’s really hard.  Don’t be afraid to take the risk. Some of my best work was done under an enormous amount of stress, but it brings out the best in you.  So I tell people, ‘Look for the hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them.”

“Readiness is All”

“Look for the hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them?”  Is she serious?  A lifetime of experience with problems tells me that she is not only serious but insightful.  If we run toward our most serious problems and engage them in energetic combat, we not only increase our chances of constructive movement toward our goals, but we also put into motion a set of unexpected and unanticipated forces that can enhance our own personal growth and development:  The world gets better and we get stronger, wiser, more confident, and better prepared for the next encounter.  This sounds to me like a bargain worth pursuing.

If we choose to run toward our most difficult problems instead of away from them – highly recommended if success and satisfaction are high on our lists of goals – what we will discover when we close in is that most of them – just like dragons – are wicked and not tame.  Most people are ill-prepared for this kind of struggle and end up being either frustrated or disappointed or both.  Yet dragons will come!  If they are not yet here, they are on their way. In order to confront them successfully, it behooves us to be as prepared as we possibly can be.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet understood this: “If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.”














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From Wicked to Tame and Vice Versa



May 21, 2017


In The Moon and the Ghetto, published in 1977, Richard R. Nelson begins with these words:

“‘If we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we solve the problem of the ghetto?’  The question stands as a metaphor for a variety of complaints about the uneven performance of the American political economy.  In an economy with such vast resources and powerful technologies, why can’t we provide medical care at reasonable cost to all who need it, keep the streets, air, and water clean, keep down crime, educate ghetto kids, provide decent and low-cost mass transport, halt the rise in housing and services cost,  have reliable television and automobile repair services?”

“If we can solve one problem,” he asks, “why can’t we solve all of them?”

Those of us who have been reading (and writing) these essays on wicked problems have an answer for Nelson: It’s not really about the “uneven performance of the American political economy.” It’s much more about a lack of understanding of the nature of problems. Landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely is a tame problem: complex, yes, complicated, of course, difficult, extremely, but one that could be – and eventually was – solved.  The other problems Nelson mentions in the “ghetto” part of his question – medical care, clean streets, air and water, crime, education, low-cost transportation – are all wicked problems, and no matter how much money, time, or effort given over to them, they do not get solved.  Improved, perhaps, but never fully solved.  Evidently Nelson was unaware in the opening paragraph of his book that he was making comparisons between problems that are not comparable.  Sending a man to the moon is qualitatively different from providing adequate health care for all.  When the astronauts returned safety to earth, that problem was solved.  On the other hand, complete health care for everyone in society is a goal that will never be reached.

At First, Many At First Seem to Be Wicked (But Aren’t)

When we first come upon complex issues and difficult situations, they often  have the appearance of being of wicked problems:  They are “messy” and chaotic; they confuse us and make us feel overwhelmed; we are not sure where to begin or what to do; and there are many voices arguing for  different approaches. And yet, once people begin to dig into many of these  situations,  it becomes clear that they are actually tame rather than wicked problems.  Within the messiness of many situations there is often a tame problem waiting to be discovered and solved.  Nelson’s example of the United States sending a man to the moon – a complex and challenging problem that was eventually solved – is an example of a situation which at first seemed unsolvable.

“We Choose to Go to the Moon”

In 1961 Americans believed that the country was losing the space race with the Soviet Union.  Four years earlier, the Russians had successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and seemed to be on their way to more triumphs.  Convinced of the political need to respond with an even more impressive achievement, on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project…will be as impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be as difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Sixteen months later, on September 12, 1962, at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Kennedy doubled down on his proposal to send a man to the moon:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…

Among those listening to Kennedy’s inspiring words that day were the scientists and engineers at NASA who were keenly aware that no one had the slightest idea how to make it happen. They also understood that if it was going to happen, they were the ones who would do it.  A large part of the  challenge was that NASA was facing a number of “unknown unknowns: “Not only did they know that there were things that they did not know and would have to learn, but that there were also things that they did not yet know that they didn’t know and would have to discover. People walking about on the moon had been imagined for centuries but until Kennedy made his promise in 1962 that the United States would do it before the end of the decade it had never been taken seriously.

First Wicked, Then Tame

Sending men to the moon is an example of a problem that at first seems to be wicked but turns out to be tame.  At the time, no one would have known  to differentiate between “tame” or “wicked”  - the terms first appeared in 1967 – but to those who were now responsible for making it happen, it was very clear that what they had before them was a huge, complex, messy, and at the same time, very exciting problem.  If they would have known the distinction, someone probably would  have said, “Wow, this looks like a wicked problem!”

And at first it was.  Before the actual work could begin, Kennedy had to convince Congress that billions of billions of dollars should be allocated to putting people on the moon instead of cutting taxes, improving education, providing support for the elderly, addressing the problems of poverty, and so on. The first problems that had to be faced were political and not technical ones, and fit very well into the category of “wicked.”

Once these wicked aspects were addressed (though they never disappeared), attention shifted to the tame parts of the problem. Getting a man to the moon was clearly understood to be a problem accomplished through science and technology – no one lobbied for the problem to be given to the American Anthropological Association – and it was handed over to NASA,  an organization created by the government in 1959 to make use of scientific and engineering knowledge and tools to solve the problems of moving a man from the earth out into space. Thousand and thousands of experts from the STEM disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics –  were recruited to solve the hundreds of thousands of technical problem that at first could only be imagined, then identified, named, and eventually solved. (In fact, putting a man on the moon took 500,000 people from 20,000 companies and a hundred billion dollars!)

Even though the large and complex problem of getting someone to the moon turned out to be a tame one, no one should be surprised that there also were many wicked ones along the way. During the years that NASA worked on the problem, there was no shortage of social problems to be dealt with:  persistent conflict, power struggles, people refusing to work with other people, fraud, incompetent leadership, and on and on.

The challenge for NASA of figuring out how to send a man to the moon and return him was typical of many large, complicated and ambitious problems.  In the beginning, no one is sure whether it will turn out to be a tame problem that can be solved, or a wicked one that can only be worked on.  Often, the answer comes into focus only when science and technology make the advances that make solving the problem possible.

From Tame to Wicked

There are problems that when they first appear are clearly technical in nature and so should be handed over to those working in science, technology, and mathematics.  Once in a while, however, people working on these “tame” problems are surprised – and often unsettled – when the they don’t get solved. For reasons that the problem solvers are unable to articulate, or even understand, they discover that rather than moving toward finding a solution, they seem to be moving away from doing so.  It is as if the tame problem with which they began unexpectedly morphs into a wicked one. In such scenarios, what often happens when things bog down is at first those working on the problem increase their efforts – they try harder but no good effect, or they give up and walk away, an unhappy experience accompanied by frustration, anger and mutual recrimination.

Complex or Complicated?

One way to gain an understanding of the confusing and unsettling experience of seeing what at first seems to be a positive and productive problem-solving process crash and burn is to  examine the differences between “complex” and “complicated.”

 Complexity: There are basically four aspects of a situation, issue, or system that determine its level of complexity: First, complexity may simply be  intrinsic to a system or an issue.  It is baked into the cake so to speak.  Second, complex situations or systems are made up of a large number of variables.  As more variables are identified as part the system, things become more complex. Third, complexity is the result of interactions between all those variables as those interactions increase in frequency and velocity.  Fourth, complexity further increases as conflict occurs between the variables and proves to be difficult or impossible to reconcile.

There is mounting evidence that situations, issues and systems are increasingly becoming more and more complex: There are more variables and more interactions among them, that in turn leads to more conflict between and among them.  In the case of business organizations, for example, the Boston Consulting Group tracked a representative sample of companies in Europe and the United States for over 55 years – from 1955 through 2010 – and using a metric they created to measure complexity, they discovered that complexity in business had increased six-fold.  In 1955, for example, these companies committed to between four or five performance demands.  In 2010 the number had risen to between twenty-five and forty.  In 1955, the researchers found that hardly any of these demands were in conflict with each other.  In 2010, the number of demand variables that contradicted each other had risen to between 15 to 50 percent.

Here are some examples of complex situations or systems:

Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that examines the fundamental  interactions of atoms and subatomic particles of small scale and at low energy levels.  By every definition, it is extremely complex. “The truth is,” says physicist David Walton, “everyone is confused by quantum physics.”  Even Einstein said “the more success quantum mechanics has, the sillier it looks.”

The score of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps,” is so complex that when Leonard Bernstein of the New York Philharmonic first conducted it, he found the score unintelligible.  He had to call upon the musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, a friend of Stravinsky’s, for help in deciphering the rhythms.

Complex problems are not necessarily wicked ones.  In fact, as we saw in the discussion of sending men to the moon, complex problems often turn out to be tame ones, and can often be solved by the skillful application of scientific and technological knowledge and skill from the STEM disciplines.  Among the greatest achievements of the modern era are the astounding solutions to complex problems that have been discovered by scientists. engineers, and mathematicians.

Complication:   While issues, situations, systems throughout the world are becoming more complex, they are also becoming more complicated. In the Boston Consulting study, while complexity increased six-fold between 1955 and 2010, “organizational complicatedness increased by a factor of 36.”  It seems that while things are getting more complex, they also are getting complicated and at a much faster rate.

Complexity is one thing, but “complicatedness” is another matter entirely. As opposed to complexity, “complicatedness” is not intrinsic to an issue or a system. Problems becomes more complicated by the actions of the people who are working on them:  What people do and how they do it; what they don’t do and how they don’t do it.  Often with little or no insight as to what is happening, those who are working to solve a problem, often end up become the problem themselves.

As more and more complications are introduced by people into the process of trying to solve tame problems, one of two things tends to happen:  Either the originally tame problem is changed into a wicked one; or the original problem is forced aside while the problem solvers grapple with new problems – wicked ones – that they introduce into the process themselves.  Either way, as tame problems morph into wicked ones, instead of making progress on the problem with which they started, problem solvers find themselves struggling with new problems they don’t expect and often are  unprepared for.

In 1972 and 1973, when Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber introduced their two categories – tame problems, those that could be worked on and eventually solved and wicked ones, those that could never be “solved” but only worked on – it didn’t seem to have occurred to them that there would be times when, while working on tame problems, people could “screw things up” to such a degree that their expected solutions would be forced into the background as wicked ones took their place.

David Wagoner’s poem My Physics Teacher serves as an example of how people can make a mess of things:

He tried to convince us, but his billiard ball
Fell faster than his Ping-Pong ball and thumped
To the floor first, in spite of Galileo.
The rainbows from his prism skidded off-screen
Before we could tell an infra from an ultra.
His hand-cranked generator refused to spit
Sparks and settled for smoke. The dangling pith
Ignored the attractions of his amber wand,
No matter how much static he rubbed and dubbed
From the seat of his pants, and the house brick
He lowered into a tub of water weighed
(Eureka!) more that the overflow.

He believed in a World of Laws, where problems had answers,
Where tangible objects and intangible forces
Acting thereon could be lettered, numbered, and crammed
Through our rough skulls for lifetimes of homework.
But his only uncontestable demonstration
Came with our last class:  he broke his chalk
On a formula, stooped to catch it, knocked his forehead
On the eraser-gutter, staggered slewfoot, and stuck
One foot forever into the wastebasket.

Most people either have the skills to solve many problems that can be solved or can learn them.  Unfortunately, there are some people who, while working on problems that can be solved, seem to be most skillful at making things worse.  They often give the impression of the physics teacher staggering about with one foot firmly lodged in a wastebasket.

From Wicked to Tame and Back

Many complex and confusing problems which at first seem to be wicked  turn out to be tame and can be solved by the effective application of the knowledge and tools of science and technology.  On the other hand, there are problems which at the beginning appear to be tame, but over time prove to be unsolvable.  One major reason, as we’ve pointed out before, is that the problem itself is misdiagnosed to begin with.  But in many other instances, the problem is not in the problem itself, but in the people who, because of their ignorance, incompetence, or maliciousness, make things more complicated that they need to be and often end up sinking the ship. As Einstein also said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupid, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Alas, when it comes to successful work on almost all problems we will always need people at some point in the process.  To maximize our chances of success, then, our best hope is to help people get better at understanding the difference between tame and wicked, at solving tame problems and working on wicked ones, and becoming skillful at avoiding mixing one with the other.


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Success Story: “Into the Belly of the Beast.”



April 24, 2017


Maura Sullivan was restless.  After graduate degrees at Stanford and Emory University focusing upon predictive modeling of casualties and earthquakes, she spent eight years in Silicon Valley  building predictive models “of things that could basically kill lots of people or cause people to live a long time…or cause major market disruptions.” Eventually she realized that there was more to life than helping start-ups make money.  She was looking for new challenges.  What she didn’t know at the time was that Wicked Problems were calling.

In 2013, when the opportunity for a White House fellowship came along, she accepted it;  and during that year became convinced that real progress isn’t achieved by either research or business, but is “catalyzed at the intersection of research, business, and government.” She knew a great deal about research, and had spent years making contributions in business. Now it seemed to her that government was the last frontier.

At the end of the fellowship, she decided not to return to the private sector or to accept a position in academia. When she was recruited by the Department of the Navy (DON)  - “handpicked to transform the Navy’s use of IT and data” –  and after she looked into the challenges inherent in the job, she accepted a position at the Pentagon. When asked why she chose the DON, her answer  tells us a great deal about what kind of a person she is: “When I first got here and looked at the Department of the Navy network, it looked to me like the biggest catastrophic risk I had ever seen.”  It was just what she was looking for. “You go where the problems are the biggest and most complex,” she said later.  ”This is very much like going to the belly of the beast of government…If you’re going to find a problem and make an impact, you might as well pick the biggest and most complex and thorniest you can find.”

Wicked Problems in the Department of the Navy

And the  problems she found in the belly of that beast were not just big, complex and thorny, they were also wicked:  ”Some problems are wicked,” she told an interviewer from the online site NextGov. “They’re not meant to be solved; they’re meant to be managed.” Early in Sullivan’s career, when she was working on predicting earthquakes and on the complexities of energy engineering, she discovered that some problems were wicked:  ”Earthquakes aren’t a problem that’ll be solved, energy isn’t a problem that’s solvable.  It’s a wicked problem.” This knowledge changed her life.

Early on, Sullivan discovered  that there were three “messes” that the Navy was struggling with, and from which she would have to formulate actionable problems:

Linear Thinking:  When the Navy made the decision to go nuclear, they also made the decision to cultivate, recruit, train and promote linear thinkers.  ”The truth is,” said Sullivan,” we live in a much different world now, especially with the physical-digital intersection.”  When the problem requires flexibility, agility and creativity, linear thinking …”is an enormous problem…”

Bureaucratic Organization:   Sullivan quickly learned that in government bureaucracies there were many stakeholders but no owners.  Her challenge was daunting: “How do you find a way to bring stakeholders together in such a way that you convince everyone to say yes when everyone wants to say no?” She had found a quintessential wicked problem.

Hierarchical Structure:  Being part of the military, the DON was extremely hierarchical.  Decisions were made at the top, often with insufficient data, and then the lower levels were informed and expected to implement them.  For Sullivan, this was frustrating.  She was used to a culture  ”where everyone is the captain of their own ship.”  Once in the Navy, however, she learned that even though she and others could “aggregate” data, they had no opportunity to interpret the data or make decisions based upon them.

Sullivan Attacks Wicked Problems at The DON

Once Sullivan had drilled down into the culture of the DON, she discovered that the most important wicked problem situations that were relevant for her mission were also part of the foundation of the organization:  how people thought; how they were organized; and how power was distributed and decisions were made.

Her challenge was to find ways to attack them.

She  began with three overarching principles:  First, people in the organization from the highest to the lowest levels should be “owners” of these problems; second, she was committed to bringing conversations about these problems “out in the open;” and third, she would encourage “buy-in” from employees at all levels.

Working within the bureaucratic structures and procedures of the DON at the Pentagon she quickly learned that she had few levers she could bring to bear upon ineffectual norms and practices of the system.  Working with her team, they “identified four major tools:  policy changes, seed funding, best practice promotion, and thought leadership.”

She Made Structural Changes First:  Keenly aware that the DON was a system that was both bureaucratic and hierarchical, her first target was the structure:  ”I started by reorganizing the management organization to bring the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and business functions closer together.”  Her next step was to create a strategy and innovation office that “could scan the horizon and figure out how we [could] incorporate emerging technologies…”

She Created an Inclusive Task Force:  “And after that,” said Sullivan, “we kicked off Taskforce Innovation…a nine-month effort across the organization to simultaneously make changes in how we think about workforce information processes… in order to cut horizontally across the organization.”  The efforts of the Task Force were impressive: During the first two months her department was able to solicit ideas from 30 organizations resulting in 150 credible, specific policy or project ideas.  ”This helped to greatly decentralize the innovation platform and remove hierarchical blockages that were hindering experimentation due to rank or location,” said Sullivan.

She Introduced a Collectively Sponsored Form of Participation:  As Sullivan became more familiar with how the DON functioned, she became aware of a critical gap – one that occurs in most organizations – between the people who have the knowledge and the people who hold the power.  Her response was to turn to crowdsourcing.  In order to encourage conversations about the problem and bring them out into the open, Sullivan designed and implemented the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI), a system-wide simulation that encouraged wide-spread participation and involvement of thousands of employees.

Information was sent to all inviting them to “Play the Game: Help the DON Adapt to the Future in the Information Age .”  The wicked problem at the center of the simulation was identified as the “Data Dilemma: Sharing vs. Silo.” People were encouraged to “Join the Data Dilemma (Sharing vs Silo) MMOWGLI game” and were promised that they could help “Determine how the Department of the Navy (DON) should use data to drive mission success, fuel innovation, and adapt to the future.”  ”Your opinion matters” they were told, “and you can help influence change.”

“She “Lit People’s Fires:” “You are in this traditionally controlled and rigid governmental environment,”  stated the interviewer.  ”How do you encourage bold thinking and how have you gotten stakeholders to buy into the ideas you’ve had?” ”Sometimes, you have to light fires,” was Sullivan’s answer.  Instead of bringing in a problem and talking about it – something that didn’t work well in an environment where the senior leadership’s rank unduly  influenced the conversation – she used an approach that could be described as “Careful, Cautious, Confrontation.”  In order to demonstrate how failures in technology affected the system, she would present a very tangible example.  She would bring an IT product into a meeting and demonstrate in front of the leadership “how the system is very much not working.”  By eschewing traditional approaches  -  Power Point slides and lectures – and choosing a “show rather than tell” approach, she was much more successful in getting the attention of the senior leadership.

Honors and Promotions

Maura Sullivan’s approaches in tacking wicked problems in the Navy have been recognized and rewarded.  The position of Chief of Strategy and Innovation was created for her, and she was  given the mission to oversee technology and map it into a strategy for the future. In addition, Sullivan’s courage and creativity were honored outside of the Navy.   She was awarded the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, honoring an outstanding computer science professional under the age of 35, and for her creative efforts in designing and implementing MMOWGLI,  Sullivan was one of 10 federal employees honored with Nextgov’s Bold Award, proving that the federal government is full of “bold, innovative federal employees who are disrupting the status quo.”

 Away, Against, or Toward Wicked Problems

Three choices open up for people when “called by wicked problems:”   Move away, move against, and move toward.

 Away:  People move away from wicked problems by  ”getting out of town.”  If possible, they delegate them to someone else.  If not, they either pretend that they don’t exist or if that’s not possible, argue that “if we leave them alone, they will go away.”

 Against:  Others deal with wicked problems, not by addressing the problems themselves but by aggressively attacking the idea of wicked problems and often the people who express concerns about them.  They prefer to see problems as superficial and simple, and  the solutions they support as shallow and simple-minded.  The possibility that there are complexities below the surface and that drilling down into the problem to take account of these complexities is beyond their comprehension.  In Rollo May’s insightful phrase, “they make molehills out of mountains.”  Rather than examining carefully the nature of the problem and enlisting others in “finding solutions,” they bloviate about how they can solve it themselves and quickly.  Listening to the noise, one is reminded of MacBeth’s description of life as “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Loudly insisting that they are qualified and competent problems solvers, they are more recognizable as drugstore cowboys who, in Texas-talk, are”all hat and no cattle.”


Most people avoid getting down into the “belly of the beast” where the problems are messy, complex, and often politically risky.  For Sullivan, however,  it was the opportunity she had been looking for. When she heard  wicked problems calling, she was quick to answer.  From the beginning, she understood that the problems she would face were wicked and not tame, a perspective that made a difference in how she attacked them. She moved toward them, embraced them, and addressed them with creativity and courage.  She involved others and encouraged them to become participants and “owners” rather than observers or critics. She experimented with innovative ways of coming at problems from different perspectives and unusual angles,

And she not only survived but flourished.  She found ways to make bad situations better, and in the process changed the culture of the Department of the Navy by leaving in place new knowledge and better strategies for dealing with complex, messy and thorny problems in the future.














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Infect Others, Become Infected



March 31, 2017

“Infect others?” “Become infected?”  Suggestions such as these seem to be not only unusual but possibly dangerous.  Most of the time we resist becoming infected and are usually careful not to infect others.   A recommendation to “infect” others goes against common sense and good hygiene and is contrary to everything we have been taught about good health since we were children.

Yet defining infection as a medical problems is not the only way to think about it.  People often infect each other with enthusiasm and positive energy  and when these are brought to bear on a difficult problem that is going badly, they can help turn things around.  One person who dives into the problem with an upbeat attitude and positive resolve is contagious, and can infect others with his or her enthusiasm.

An example of infecting others toward positive attitudes is found in Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn.  It tells the story of a Marine company in Vietnam during the worst months of the war.  Lt. Mellas, the protagonist in the story and commander of the first platoon of Bravo Company, is ordered to prepare a landing site in the dense jungle where a helicopter can land  and pick up several wounded Marines. It was for Mellas an overwhelming task. The Company had been moving for days in impossible terrain and terrible weather with no food.  Everyone was exhausted, frustrated and depressed.  The only possible site was covered with an impenetrable mass of bamboo and elephant grass.  ”Mellas felt physically ill,” writes Marlantes.  ”His small K-bar and dull E-tool seemed useless in the face of this clotted, dense plant life…His mind wouldn’t focus.  Clear the jungle – with no tools and no food.  He closed his eyes.”  For the first time since he had been in Vietnam, he felt defeated, and not by the enemy.

Suddenly he heard a commotion behind him, and without warning Jackson, a member of his platoon, came rushing past him, screaming at the top of his lungs, and threw his body into the wall of bamboo and grass.  ”The mass yielded slightly,” wrote Marantes.  ”Jackson ran back to the group, let out a whoop, and again threw himself at the tangled mass.  It bent.  He backed off and jumped into it feet first, cursing it.  He began jumping up and down on it, shouting an exultant chant.  The bamboo broke.  The grass sagged and fell.”  And then another marine charged into the mass of jungle, and then another and another, all screaming and shouting obscenities, until dozens of men were charging into the massed vegetation.  One large marine picked up the smallest member of the platoon and threw him at the resistant bamboo.  Within an hour the marines had cleared away the jungle with their bodies so the helicopter could land.

Infecting with Perplexities

We understand how people can be infected with unfriendly bacteria – and seek to avoid it – and also infected with positive attitudes and joyful enthusiasm – and seek to encourage it.  But there is yet another way that we can become infected and can also infect others, a way that is extremely useful when struggling with wicked problems.  A comment made by the American philosopher Hannah Arendt opens the way to thinking differently  about becoming infected and infecting others.  Her interest was in teaching people to think and her insight was that”…the only way to teach people to think is to infect them with the perplexities that one is confronting.”

She is interested in changing people’s behavior, helping them move from “not-thinking” about problems to “thinking” about them.  Her approach was to share with them the perplexities she herself is confronting – her doubts,  frustration, concerns,  puzzlements,  confusions – and in this process of self-disclosure,  draw them into becoming interested in what in what interests her.  In short, to infect them with what she is worried about.

Later I will come back to Arendt’s approach of “infecting others” in the context of grappling with wicked problems .  For now, I want to return to an idea I have discussed in several previous essays:  There is little we can do by ourselves.

“It Takes Two”

At the beginning of Stephen Sondheim’s musical play, Into the Woods, the principle characters – Cinderella, Jack, (from Jack and the Beanstalk), and the Baker – a member of that well-known group, The Butcher, The Baker and The Candlestick Maker – express their dissatisfaction with the way their lives are going and desperately want things to change. Suddenly, a witch appears and promises them that their wishes will be granted if they will go “into the woods” and find the answers to several complicated problems that she gives them.

As the Baker starts off on his quest, his wife wants to go, but he insists that he can do it alone and  tells her to stay at home.  After a number setbacks and failures, however, the Baker learns that going it alone is not a good idea. After his wife joins him in the woods and they work together to meet the challenges, they sing a lovely duet, “It Takes Two,” which makes clear the Baker’s new understanding of the importance of working together when facing difficult problems:

“It takes two,” he sings,
“I thought one was enough,
It’s not true:
It takes two of us.
You came through
When the journey was rough.
It took you.
It took two of us.

Previously I suggested that most of the important things we need in our lives – understanding, support, respect, different points of view, affection, recognition, different skill-sets and so on – come only when other people are willing to offer them to us.  Cooperation is required and for this “It takes  two of us” and usually more. However, cooperating with others is not something that we are good at, especially when our differences are wide and deep.  Too many of us are like the Baker who think we can go “Into the Woods” by ourselves and be successful.

Being Willing to Cooperate Comes First

If cooperation it is to happen, the first step is to show a willingness to join in.  People must sit at the same table and address the same issues, then stay with them long enough until they reach a shared understanding of the problem,  With this,  there is a possibility to keep moving forward.  But even when people are willing, things still go badly. Good intentions, while important and even necessary, are never enough.  When troubles arise,  many people are unaware of what’s going wrong and what chould be done to get things back on track.  Instead of pulling back from the conversation and shifting it from the task at hand to the fact that things are not going well-  Meta-Talk – they often press forward with even more energy and volume and end up making things worse.  Without making a deliberate decision to do so, they often find themselves participating in an escalation from differences, to misunderstandings, to frustrations, and finally to anger.  ”Things fall apart, The center cannot hold,”  wrote the poet Yeats, and  though he was referring to society in general, it fits people sitting around a table trying to reach consensus just as well.

Even when people express a willingness to work together and begin to see progress, there are more obstacles in the way.  Many bring to the table baggage from previously failed attempts and spend their time complaining about how difficult it all is. Rather than plunge in and participate, they stand back and criticize.   Others underestimate the difficulties they are facing and are unprepared for the moment when things start to go off the rails.  What they do not understand is successful cooperation on important issues and dilemmas is a wicked problem and needs to be understood and acted upon as one.

And even we reach a successful level of cooperation, there is more wickedness ahead.  After cooperation – a willingness to work together – must come  consensus – an agreement about the nature of the problem – which then needs to be followed by collaboration – moving to action.

Michael Schrage’s Frustration

Collaboration and collaboration are not only desirable but necessary argues Michael Schrage in Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration.   As evidence, he lists what calls “joint ventures: ”Picasso and Braque creating Cubism and reshaping the geometries of art; Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and the quantum physicists joining together to map the subatomic universe; Watson and Crick discovering the double helix of life itself; the Wright brothers launching the aviation industry; and seventy-five years later, the ‘Two Steves’ – Wozniak and Jobs-  popularizing personal computing through Apple.”

But when Schrage moves to the table and tries to cooperate and collaborate in a joint venture with his colleagues,  he is flummoxed:

A deep sense of frustration… came from an annoying inability to make my thoughts and ideas clear to my colleagues as we worked together.  This was particularly galling because, as a bright and daily articulate journalist, I was supposed to be good at communicating.  My colleagues weren’t stupid – on the contrary, they were all bright, articulate, and competent.  Yet somehow, basic concepts we discussed became garbled, and vital nuances were smeared beyond recognition.  Meetings called to remove confusion often ended up amplifying it.  The same words meant different things to different people.  As a result, things didn’t get done or they didn’t get done right.  Something was fundamentally wrong: there had to be a better way.

Schrage’s dilemma is not unusual.  Most of us could write our own paragraph describing our past frustrations in trying to cooperate with others.  The consequences of these frustrating experiences are destructive:  We  avoid trying to work things out with others and attempt to go it alone;  we boycott meetings;  and we complain loudly that “meetings don’t work;” we lobby to have fewer of them.   When we can no longer find an excuse  for staying away and find ourselves at the table, we often adopt a stance of boredom and apathy.  At the first sign of difficulties we move from boredom to irritation and, if things go badly enough, to outrage.

“Something was… wrong,” says Schrage. “There had to a better way.”   I believe that there is, and it starts with reminding ourselves that the “reality” one person sees is very different from what someone else sees.   Once we become clear about our differences, then, and only then, can we can move toward finding agreement on perspectives, definitions, or alternatives that makes sense to us both.

Walter Lippmann’s Insight

Why is cooperation so difficult?  There is a clue in Schrage’s comment, “The same words meant different things to different people.”  A recent review in a local newspaper of a new art project titled “Sonder” presents Schrage’s observation that we hear things differently as a remarkable achievement.   “Sonder” was described in the paper as an” original,” a merger between arts, entertainment, design, and entrepreneurship.  The producer claimed that “From the audience experience, this show is unlike anything else that is happening…Every audience member is going to have a different and unique experience.”

Reading this comment, my first reaction was “Duh!” Was he kidding or was it just hype?  As individuals, “unique and different experiences” are all we ever have!  We only get past these unique perspectives by sharing them with each other, and, then, if we are skillful and patient, reaching an agreement on what is happening “out there.”

In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in Public Opinion, described this human dilemma:  ”There is a world outside and there are pictures in our heads,” he wrote, and it is the pictures in our heads that that describe and define the outside world for us.  ”Man [sic]  behaves not according to the world as it really is, but to the world as he thinks it is.” It is the pictures in our minds, then, that determine our actions.  Unless confronted by contrary evidence, it is easy to believe that our “pictures” are the real ones.  Until we are able to share these mental pictures with each other and made a successful effort to reach agreement about which pictures make the most sense,  it is difficult if not impossible to cooperate.  Without any awareness of why, we frequently get bogged down arguing over whose pictures are the “true” ones.

Twenty Men Crossing Twenty Bridges?

As is almost always the case, it is the poets and artists who most clearly understand the boxes we get trapped in.  In the opening lines of his poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” the American poet Wallace Stevens translates Lippman’s observation into poetry:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

 This dilemma is clear:  If we expect the men crossing the bridge to cooperate, they must come to understand that rather than crossing “twenty bridges into twenty villages,” their only hope is to cross on the same bridge to the same village.  In this possible?  Stevens is pessimistic.  His next lines suggest that it won’t happen:  ”This is old song/That will not declare itself…”  He is right that the “old song…will not declare itself.” But that need not be the end of the story.  What is needed is  to change the picture of bridges and villages we hold in our minds.

If we want to increase cooperation – as we must if we are going make headway with our wicked problems – we need to begin with an understanding that at the beginning of any conversation we are all crossing on our own bridge.  And then, in order for all “twenty” of us to work together, we then must understand and accept that we must all cross on one bridge.  We must become “infected” with new ways of seeing and understanding “bridges.”

Infect Others, Become Infected

 I am more sanguine than Stevens. I believe that we can move from twenty bridges to one bridge. The question is how to do it.  And the answer is to begin a conversation, one in which we first become aware that even though in the beginning there are twenty bridges,  by the end of our sharing, we are able to  get it down to just one.

Returning to Arendt’s metaphor,  ”…the only way to teach people to think [and to think differently] is to infect them with [my] perplexities,” – when I share with you my perplexities , as well as my preferences, perceptions,  concerns, anxieties, fears and frustrations,  I “expose” you to how I see things.  My hope is that you will “catch” what I have.

And of course, this works both ways.  I “infect” you by sharing my perplexities, and you infect me by sharing yours in return.  Sharing one’s concerns,  if it is done skillfully, is compelling, and opens the door to continuing conversations.  As we become “infected” with each other’s perplexities and concerns, we increase the chances of cooperating with each other.

If  this sharing is skillful, sincere and relevant, the gaps that exist between us can be narrowed, and we have, perhaps for the first time,  an opportunity to examine our differences in an atmosphere of acceptance, mutual support and understanding.  And learning more about our differences – and accepting them as valid – is an important first step in getting to “one bridge” – increasing the possibilities of cooperation between us.

I-Messages Are the Key

The remedy to the “twenty bridges” problem, then, lies with our abilities to infect others with our perplexities and be willing to be infected in return.  I make you aware of what I see, think, prefer, etc.  by sharing them with you and when you do the same, I listen without judging or criticizing.  This is not always easy.  As I said, in order to be successful in “infecting” each other,  we must be skillful.  Most of our concerns and frustrations involve what others do or don’t do,  and talking about them may make one or both of us feel threatened or defensive.   Effective conversations are required – fierce ones are best –  and they are most successful when they begin with I-Messages.  By beginning with an I-Message, I am able to make you aware of my perplexities and, at the same time, reducing the chances that you may be offended.

Here are some opening lines about “perplexities”  that can open the door to longer conversations and, further down the road, lead to cooperation:

- I am worried about how much we are spending on recreation.

 - I am frustrated we have not started a meeting on time once in the past three months;

  -I am concerned that we are way over budget.

-  This sounds like over-promising on results I’m not sure we can deliver. This worries me a lot.

- I left the meeting really upset.  While I was trying to explain my idea for the Franklin project, you interrupted me three times.

 - I am really uncomfortable right now, and would prefer to come back and talk about it later.

First sentences are not all there is to conversations that “infect” others.  The next step is to encourage the other to share his or her perception of the situation or event, and then, once each understands the perspective of the other, work together to find a better way to handle the problems.

Encouraging Infections

“Infecting” others with our concerns and perplexities, and allowing them to “infect” us in return, offers us an opportunity to stand together on the same bridge and look toward the same village. For this task, helpful language is the key, and conversations that make frequent, skillful, and appropriate use of I-Messages greatly increase our chances of moving together in the same direction toward the same village.   Then we can grasp hands and, whooping and hollering, cross the bridge and “throw our bodies” at a wicked problem with enough energy and for enough time that we eventually smash it to the ground.












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I- Message: The Essential Skill


February 28, 2017


“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” sang Dione Warwick in the 1960′s.  Published in 1965 with lyrics by Hal David and music by Burt Bacharach, “What the World Needs Now is Love” was a blockbuster of a hit, recored by at least 100 of the best known singers of the time.  ”What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” they sang, “It’s the only thing that there’s too little of.”

Actually,  love is not the only thing of which we have “too little of.”   We could use more clean water and air,  enough food for the hungry,  quality education, health care for all, more functional families, good government, and perhaps most important, if not peace, then an absence of war, and on and on.

What the World Really Needs

The list of things that are needed besides “love, sweet love,”  is a long one, and even though progress has been made on some items, and some have been removed from the list, others are being added continuously.  In an earlier essay, I quoted the Buddha who said that we always have 83 problems. When we are able to remove one from the list another one takes its place, and so once again we have 83.  We will never have fewer than 83 problems, said the Buddha.

Organizational theorist Russell Ackoff used different words to express the same idea: “No matter how many  [problems] are solved,” he wrote,”  an infinite number will always remain to be solved.  Every solution to a problem generates several new problems, and the new ones are generally more challenging than the ones from which they sprang.”

And here we face a conundrum:  Most of the “solutions” to the 83 problems on our lists cannot not be successfully addressed by ourselves.  Most of our important problems involve other people,  and so whatever we do with them, other people must be involved. For many, this is unhappy news.  In a society that glorifies individualism and self-sufficiency, it is difficult to accept that almost everything we need or want in order to live satisfying and successful lives is under the control of other people.   Recognition, esteem, affection, respect, successful careers, honor, a successful family, nourishing food, clear water, flush toilets, come only becasuse people help us get them. And when it comes to relationships with others, what we need and want can be offered and made available, or they can be withheld.

Those of us who are good at involving and enlisting other people are fortunate.  ”People, people who need people,” sang Barbra Streisand in another song from the 1960′s,  “are the luckiest people in the world.”  And those who are consistently unsuccessful at cooperating with others are more than unlucky.  They are frequently relegated to the sidelines, destined to watch rather than be in the middle of the game.

What is the Question?

On the afternoon of the operation that resulted in her death, Gertrude Stein, confused and uncertain,  asked her companion, Alice Toklas,  ”What is the answer?”  When Toklas did not answer, Stein reportedly said, “Well then, what is the question?”

Evidently, Stein never got her answer.  But here is a question that in a way    is the question, and so one worth taking seriously:

“How can we increase our chances of being successful in our important relationships, in our careers, and in our lives?”

Here is The Answer – Cooperation

As it turns out, there is not only an answer but a best answer: By mastering the skills of cooperating and working successfully with other people. In his autobiography,  A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, among the most the most honored and respected leaders of our times, was unequivocal: “The central challenge of our times is finding a better way to work together and solve problems,” he wrote.  The social sciences agree.  Joshua Greene, among the most respected social psychologists in the United States and author of Moral Tribes:  Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them was equally clear:  ”The problem of cooperation is the central problem of social existence.”

Confronted by a continuous welter of problems that come at us in unpredictable ways and, at times, at warp speed,  and facing a reality that requires that we work with other people to address them effectively,  what “the world needs now” are ways to increase the chances of successful cooperation with others.

Here, then,  in a nutshell is our #1 challenge:  It is only by cooperating successfully with the important people in our lives – our spouses and partners, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues and bosses at work,  - that we are able to find and live the Good Life. And yet, gaining that necessary cooperation is complicated, something many people are unable to achieve.

Cooperation is Easy, Difficult, and Impossible

Easy:  Under some circumstances cooperation is, as they say, a no-brainer.  Anyone can do it.  When there is little risk to our self-esteem; when there seems to be little cost in cooperation;  when we perceive that cooperation will bring benefits; and most importantly when we share interests – what I want is what you want and vice versa – then cooperation is an easy choice.

Difficult: In other situations, cooperation is difficult.  While there are many reasons for resisting cooperation, here are several of the most important ones:

- We prefer to stay home:  ”Home is where we start from,” writes poet T. S. Eliot in “East Coker.”   “As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the patterns more complicated…”  Home is where we all started from and for most it was a place of safety and refuge.  If “home” is a metaphor for the known, the familiar, and the comfortable, then “leaving home,” – putting part of one’s hopes and aspiration into the hands of another – is often difficult.  One’s “comfort zone” turns out to be too comfortable.

- We decide that the immediate costs are high while the possible benefits are uncertain. When the prospect of cooperating with another person means added work, risks of failure,  and uncertainty about future benefits, many resist .

- When reality is limited only to what we can see or experience and we  are unable to see further than our own narrow reality, then cooperation   with others is an abstraction.  ”Every man takes the limits his field of vision for the limits of the world,” wrote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.   If we are confined to the limits of our own view of things,  the idea of cooperation with others makes no sense.  It exists as no more than questionable advice.

- We lack the needed skills to negotiate relationships that can result in effective cooperation.

Impossible: And finally there are times when, no matter the motivation, no matter the skill, no matter the importance, cooperation is an impossibility.  As in the old saying “It takes two to tango.”  If one person, or group is determined not to cooperate, then it won’t happen.  Cooperation can not be forced. Often, this refusal comes from one person’s demands to run the show, to make all decisions, to be in control.  An example is found in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. At one point in the novel, Lt. Commander Philip Queeg, in command of an antique minesweeper in the backwaters of WW II,  sends a message to his officers and crew:  ”Lt. Maryk, you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship:  The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way.  They do things my way, and we’ll get along.”  If someone insists that it must be “my way”or nothing, then there can be no cooperation.

Where Do We Start?  Learn the I-Message

We start with this basic truth:  Any hope for success with almost all problems requires conversation.  And when the problem being addressed involves more than one person, the only way forward is for those conversations to focus upon cooperation.

Leaving aside situations where cooperation is easy or where it is impossible, becoming skilled in using the language of cooperation is the best alternative for improving the prospects for working together.  At the very center of conversations that lead to cooperation is a language structure that psychologists call the I- Message.  Basically, it is a message that one person sends to another or to a group with this information:  ”I am concerned about this issue, event, or situation.  It is important to me, and I would like your help in understanding it and deciding what should be done in order to make it better.”   It is among the most effective tools that helps us  move from what isn’t working now or hasn’t worked in the past to how we can work together now and in the future to make things better.

The the basic structure of an I-Message consists of four parts:

  1. A non-evaluative, timely description of a situation, event, or incident.  Three elements here are crucial: Description means that the event is public knowledge.  Anyone who paid attention could have seen it: “You interrupted  me three times in the last five minutes,” not “You are really rude!”  Non-evaluative means that you add no inference to suggest that what happened was either good or bad. You do not suggest that what happened was “dumb,” “stupid,” or “unbelievable.”  Timely means making reference to an event or situation that occured in the past, and the smaller the time gap between when it occurred and when it is discussed, the better.
  2. This is followed by an I-statement which communicates one’s emotional reaction to the event or situation  ( real problems always involve some level of emotional arousal):   “I am confused…”  ”I was frustrated..” “I was really upset..” “It made me very happy…”
  3. A signal that one is ready to listen to the other’s point-of-view:  ”I would appreciate hearing how you saw it.”
  4. A move to find a better way in the future: Once both parties have reported what they saw, heard, etc. the focus moves to working together to put in place more effective ways to deal with the problem in the future.

Here is a prototype of an I-Message exchange:

John:  I had expected to have the Acme Project report delivered to my office by 4:00 pm yesterday, something we had agreed to last week.  I had to wait until 7:00 pm  for it to arrive and by then it was too late to get it to the auditors.   I was really frustrated: first, because I didn’t get it at the time we agreed, and second, I couldn’t reach you and  had to wait around for it for almost three hours, and third, finance couldn’t sign off until this morning.  So now, we’re a whole day late in getting it to Cleveland.  I need to know what happened.

Mary:  John, it’s my fault. I feel terrible that I let you down.  I can go into all of the reasons but they would only sound like excuses.

John:  Well, I know that stuff happens, but this was really a blow to me.  I wanted that report out of here yesterday.   I do appreciate your owning up to it though. What I would like to talk about now is what can we do so it won’t happen again.

Adding Value with I-Messages

Skillful use of the I-Message helps us find our way through interpersonal issues that can be fraught with tension, resentment, and even danger. Here are some of the most important times when effective use of an I-Mesage adds great value:

  • Being Understood: First of all, and perhaps most important, we all want to be understood.  Effective use of I-Messages allows us to share with others how we feel, what we think, what is important, when we are confused, etc.  It is the gateway to being understood.
  • Dealing with Conflict, Misunderstanding and Disagreement:  Among all of the interpersonal challenges, facing conflict head-on is the one many people muff.  Often we avoid it when we can, and when we can’t,  trying to deal with it often make things worse.
  • Discipling and Correcting:  Another hurdle for almost everyone is communicating to others that their actions are unacceptable and need to change.  Most of us avoid the necessary and unpleasant role of being a disciplinarian – we all carry emotional scars from failed encounters – but there are times when it is necessary.
  • Expressing Appreciation: Strange as it sounds in the abstract, many us are uncomfortable expressing appreciation and gratitude.  I-messages are the most effective way of getting these  conversations underway (“Alice, I want to know how grateful I am for your support yesterday in the meeting.  You seemed to sense that I was groping for a way to go, and when you jumped in with your comments, it really got me out of a jam!”)
  • Telling the Truth: At some deep level, we want to tell “the truth,” and have it told back to us by others.  When a person accurately says when he or she thinks, wants, sees, hears, feels, – and does so accurately – that is as close to the truth as he or she can get.
  • Giving and Getting Feedback: Even though we often make strenuous efforts to avoid it, we all want – and need – feedback from others.  Useful feedback, the kind that can help us change from ineffectual behaviors to effective ones,  is best when it is given with timely and skillful use of the I-Message.
  • Being Recognized:  Among the most important things we want and need from others is to be recognized when we do good work.  Using an I-Mesage is the most effective way of  making sure these powerful messages are communicated.

Guidelines for Effective I-Messages

  1.  ”Own” the problem.  Signal that you care about this issue or situations and you want to see changes made.
  2. Examine your motives.  Do you want things to go better or do you want to get in a punch in the guise of wanting to help?
  3. Check to make sure that the time, place and situation are appropriate for a serious conversation.
  4. Describe the event, situation of behavior. (“We have been talking about the first item on the agenda for almost an hour.”)
  5. Share your reactions, feelings, opinions, preferences. (“I’m getting anxious that we won’t get much further before we run out of time”).
  6. Invite others to share their observations. (What do the rest of you think?”)
  7. Listen carefully to what people say.
  8. Clarify “gaps” in perceptions. (This is helpful.  I can see that I’m the only one who’s concerned.”)
  9. Work with others to find better ways of dealing with the issue.
  10. Continue until there is agreement of how to move forward.

Cooperation is Especially Difficult When the Problem is Wicked

When our problems are wicked, then cooperation goes beyond being desirable. It is essential. Examining in depth how author and educator Larry Cuban  defined wicked problems can help us understand why.

After almost 50 years as a educator,  Larry Cuban  summed up his career:  ”I had plenty of problems…to juggle.”  Eventually, as he wrestled with the challenges of teaching, of administering, and finally, as a professor,  conducting research into ways to improve educational effectiveness  and engineer school reform, he had an epiphany:  We have made so little progress in improving education, he decided, because we have not understood the problems we face are wicked and not tame.  Unless teachers, administers and researchers experience the same epiphany, he decided,  little progress with educational reform  could be expected.

In How Can I Fix It: Finding Solutions and Managing Dilemmas, he defined wicked problems this way:

Wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous, complicated, interconnected situations packed with potential conflict.  In organizations [and in relationships] people compete for limited resources, hold conflicting values, and wrestle with diverse expectations.

Why is cooperation so difficult? Here we find some important clues:

  • Ill-defined, ambiguous situations will result in our seeing things in different ways.  We will not agree on what’s going on, let alone what needs to be done;
  • Interconnected situations means that no one acts alone:  what one does affects everyone else;
  • Situations “packed” with conflict means that some kind of  ”fighting” is to be expected;
  • Competition for limited resources almost always leads to a dynamic situation where an individual or group goes after a win, which means that someone will have to lose.
  • Holding conflicting values means that there is danger that one side will be tempted to see the other side as wrong, unethical or, in the worst case, immoral.
  • When people hold different expectations about behaviors and projects, then judgements about effectiveness or progress will differ.

Each of these aspects of wicked problems is enough to derail even the best intentions at cooperation. Unless these dynamics are examined openly,  factored into the conversations, and then addressed appropriately, working together on “messy” issues becomes impossible.

I-Message is an Important Tool

In addition to “love, sweet love,” what the world needs now are better ways of working together – in short,  learning how to cooperate.   This is true not only for the world, but also for couples, work teams, organizations and governments.  When we find ourselves needing to cooperate with others in addressing difficult problems,  there is no skill more important that the effective use of the I-Message to initiate and sustain meaningful, productive conversations.

Skills are, in one sense, a set of tools, and effective use of the I-Message is among the most effective tool that is available to us for grappling with wicked problems. As the poet Marge Piercy says, there are times when we should “pick up a tool..and get ready to make it new.”

 Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool.  Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.














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Four Fierce Conversations



February 22, 2017


Rosabeth Kanter is arguably  the most respected and revered organizational theorist and consultant in the United States and perhaps in the world. She begins her most recent book,  Confidence: How Winning and Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End,  published in 2014, with the observation that it often seems as if there are only two states of being: “Boom or Bust.” Everyone wants to win and no one wants to lose, Kanter observes, yet some people end up mostly winning and others mostly losing.   What’s going on?

What Kanter is after is a deeper understanding of three critical issues:  First, why is it that some athletic teams, companies, work teams, families, or couples seem to be able to create and maintain winning streaks?  Second, why is it that others seem to always be losing? And finally, what needs to happen to turn things around and move the individual or group from losing to winning?

Denial of Problems is Often the Problem

The principle culprit for falling into a losing streak or being stuck in one is not the presence of  troubles or problems.  That is to be expected.  No one escapes from their share of conundrums, dilemmas or difficulties.  ”Winners are not immune from problems, and winning streaks are not trouble free periods,” writes Kanter.   “Life is not benign, but that doesn’t mean that winning streaks end because of troubles.  Winning ends when threats and problems are denied.”  It is not having problems that is the problem but denying that they exist.  ”One reason that the mighty inevitably fall is a preference for denial.  Lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous…functional behavior are a constant danger and when they occur, denial is tempting.”

The Rocking Horse Dilemma

If the first reason for staying mired in a losing streak is denying that a problem exists, then a second one is that those who are responsible for dealing with problem seem unclear or uncertain about what to do about it. Even after getting beyond denial –  when problems are recognized and agreed to – what often happens next can turn out to be ineffectual, insufficient or unhelpful: People often get caught in the Activity Trap.  There is too much movement from side to side and not enough movement toward important goals.  This pattern of working hard and getting nowhere is worse that just wasting time. Repeated thrashings about on problems with limited understanding and less coherence takes its toll on the willingness to stay involved; people become stressed out by too much noise and too little music. Excessive “Strum und Drang”  is antithetical to any kind of productive work.

Mucking around in the middle of a problem with little or no awareness or understanding of what is needed can be described as the Rocking Horse Dilemma:  ”Do not confuse motion and progress,” says writer Alfred Montapert.  ”A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.”

Kanter is clear about antidotes to the denial of problems and the endless rocking back forth with little productive movement.  Both are serious obstacles that block the way toward  changing a losing game into a winning one.  What is required to counter them is effective problem solving:  ”Problem solving,” writes Kanter,  ”consists of open dialogue, diagnosis of the situation, facing the facts, and mobilizing to take corrective action.”

Conversations Are Required

Foe Kanter open dialogue involves effective people talking to each other in ways that encourage a deeper  understanding of two critical aspects of effective work with problems.  The first is the presence of differing perceptions and convictions about what isn’t working as it should; the second,  clarity about possible opportunities that may lie ahead.  In the best case, these open conversations can lead to an accurate diagnosis of the problem: a clear description of the gap between the present state of affairs and a future one, and the identification of the most important obstacles that stand in the way.

What is next is  ”facing the facts” – agreeing on the critical issues and events and what they mean.  And finally, mobilizing resources in order to deal with the obstacles that block the way forward.  Robert Frost once wrote “…the best way out is always through,” yet for some obstacles “going through” may not work, and going over, around or even under may be the better choice.

No matter which way is chosen to deal with these obstacles, open, honest, extended and productive conversations will always be required.  No progress can be made on diagnosing  the problem and putting together an plan to take corrective action without continuing conversations among those who are addressing the problem.

Not All Conversations Are Equal

Conversations are not rare events.  We spend large parts of any one day in conversations with others.  But not all conversations are equal.  Most consist of “small talk,”  often no more than random discussions of trivial issues.  While they have their purpose, these are not suitable for dealing with wicked problems.  When we talk to each other about moving from failing to succeeding, the conversations that are most helpful are those, says Kanter,  that increase the presence of “accountability, collaboration and initiative.”  Conversations that insist upon accountability, increase collaboration, and encourage taking initiative as part of the process are never “small talk” conversations, but require sustained effort, risk-taking, courage, and tenacity.

Fierce Conversations are Required

Conversations that exhibit these qualities are best described as fierce.   In the last essay, I defined fierce conversations as those in which “we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.”  A real conversation in one in which people say what they think. prefer, mean, want, can support, disagree with, and wonder about, without making the others in the room feel angry, defensive, hostile or under attack.  Fierce conversations move us from hiding, distorting, misrepresenting, avoiding, smoothing over, or dodging to openness, honesty, accuracy, and clarity.  Above all, when we talk to each other about about important issues, fierce conversations help us reduce the gap between we think and what we say.

Four Fierce Conversations

Jack Welch Hangs Up the Phone:

In recent years, Beth Comstock’s rise in General Electric has been meteoric. She has put together an impressive winning streak.  In 2008 she was named Chief Marketing Officer, and in 2015 she moved up to become Vice-Chair and President and CEO of GE Business Innovations. In 2016 she was #45 on Forbes Magazine list of the “World’s 100 Most Influential Women in Business.”

She joined GE from a successful career in media.  ”My life in the media – especially network news – had been an adrenaline rush,” she wrote, “racing from deadline to deadline. If you don’t make it to air, there is nothingness.  You’re dead.”  Expanding upon this description, she added:

For me,  it was a constant whirl, making sense of the constant stream of information coming in, calling reporters covering us to tell them what was happening and why we were doing it best.  I’d think sometimes, if only I could field phone calls with both hands and  both feet all would be good.

Moving fast and being organized were my strong suits. The  more to do, the more I felt alive.  Productive. Efficient. Every to-do list was checked, with urgency as my soundtrack.  I loved the thrill, and I was good at keeping up with it.

One afternoon while talking on the phone to her boss, CEO Jack Welch, the line suddenly went dead. She tried to call him back but to no avail.  When she reached his assistant Comstock reported that they had been disconnected.  ”No you weren’t,” she said, “Jack hung up on you.”

Later she learned why.  Jack Welch let her know that he hung up on her so she would understand how other people felt when they were talking to her.  He told her  that when she was with other people she came across as too efficient, too organized, too rushed.  They often wanted her to slow down and once in a while to shut up!

Comstock was shocked to hear that her style was not helpful.  Her boss had admonished her for being “too efficient [and] my zeal to do everything on my to-do list…made me come across as abrupt and cold… [I learned that it was not helpful when] I started every meeting by jumping right in and left with every action under control.”

‘You have to wallow in it,” counseled Welch.  ”Take time to get to know people.  Understand where they are coming from, what is important to them.  Make sure they are with you.”

Welch’s intervention with Beth Comstock was fierce.  He pulled no punches.  Was it helpful? ”I cringe sometimes,” said Comstock, “when I think how I must have come across at times and how long it took me to change my ways…But yes, I’ve learned not only to wallow it in but to enjoy it…I will be forever grateful for the time and humor Jack invested in me to teach me these important work and life lessons.”

Clearly, among the many reasons for Comstock’s success is that when Jack Welch helped her became aware of a serious problem, rather than deny that it existed, she embraced it and took “corrective action.”

And her impressive winning streak continued.

Haji Ali’s Lesson:

In 1993 an American mountaineer named Greg Mortenson, after a failed attempt to climb K2,  stumbled into an impoverished village in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan.  Nursed back to health by the kindness of the villagers,  Mortenson made a commitment to return and build a school for the village.

Several years later, Mortenson watched with satisfaction as the walls of a school for the village children rose steadily.  What worried him, however, was the persistent absence of many of the workers.  On any given day, about half of the villagers who were building the school stayed at home to tend their crops and animals.  ” I tried to be a fair but tough taskmaster,” wrote Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea. ”I spent all day at the construction site, from sunrise to sunset, using my level to make sure the walls were even and my plumb line to check that they were standing straight.  I always had my notebook in my hand, and kept my eyes on everyone, anxious to account for every rupee…I drove people hard.”

Several weeks later, Haji Ali, the leader of the village,  appeared at the construction site, tapped Mortenson on the shoulder, and asked him to take a walk.   The old man led the former mountain climber uphill for an hour, then halted on a narrow ledge high above the village.  Panting from the strenuous climb, Mortenson worried about all of the work on the school he was failing to supervise.

Haji Ali put his hand on Mortenson’s shoulder, gestured to the mountains that rose all around them, and said, “These mountains have been here for a long time. And so have we.  You can’t tell mountains what to do,” he continued.  ”You must learn to listen to them.  So now I am asking you to listen to me.  By the mercy of Almighty Allah, you have done much for my people and we appreciate it.  But now you just do one more  thing for me.

“Anything,” Mortenson replied.

“Sit down.  And shut your mouth,” Haji Ali said.  ”You’re making everyone crazy.”

Reaching out, he took Mortenson’s plumb line, his level and his account book, then turned and walked back down the mountain to the village.

“That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Mortenson wrote.  ”We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly.  We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills.  Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started.  Haji Ali…taught me to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.  He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

Three weeks later, with Mortenson demoted from foreman to spectator, the walls of the school were finished and the villagers moved to put on the roof.

Dean Acheson’s “Truth to Power” to LBJ

On March 31, 1968, at the end of a speech to the American public about the progress of the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Baines Johnson made an announcement the stunned everyone:  ”I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as  your President.”

While his reasons for this decision were undoubtedly complex – members of his own party were announcing that they would run against him – there is no doubt that the primary motivation was that Johnson could see no hope for victory in Vietnam.  The government had run out of options that he could support.

Earlier, on February 28, 1968, in a last effort to find solutions to a problem that was increasingly seen to be without solutions, LBJ made two decisions. First, since he could get no agreement from his advisors on what to do, he decided to force the issue.  He created what he called a “working group,” assigned senior political, military, economic officials in the government to be members, and gave them the following assignment: “I wish alternatives examined, and if possible, agreed recommendations to emerge which reconcile the military, diplomatic,  economic,  Congressional, and public opinion problems involved. ” He assigned Clark Clifford, the newly-appointed Secretary of Defense, to chair the group and report back in five days.  ”Give me the lessor of evils,” pleaded LBJ

His second decision was to send for former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a man whom he greatly respected.  David Barrett, in Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam Advisors, describes Acheson as “a man of notable self-assurance and a venerable member of the Wise Men.”

When Acheson arrived at the White House, what he found was “a blizzard of activity – aides coming and going, phones ringing, and a president in a bad mood.”  Acheson had hardly settled into a chair when Johnson began what seemed to Acheson to be an endless monologue of worries, complaints, frustrations,  fears and anxieties. The generals wanted 200,000 more troops, he said, and the battle at Khe Sanh might turn out to be another Dien Bien Phu.  ”I don’t want no damn Dien Bien Phu’s” he thundered.

Acheson’s reaction was that the president was doing “too much talking and not enough listening.” Excusing himself, he stood up, left Johnson’s office and walked back to his own office a block away.   Johnson’s assistant, Walt Rostow, phoned immediately wanting to know why he had walked out on the president.  ”You tell the President – and you tell him in precisely these words – that he can take Vietnam and stick it up his ass!” Acheson said.

That response got the President’s complete attention. Johnson picked up the phone, asked Acheson to return, and when he retuned, was ready to  listen.

Returning to the topic that Johnson had been talking about earlier – the problem that none of the generals or the senior advisors could agree on what should be done – Acheson looked at the president and said “With all due respect, Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t know what they are talking about.”

“That’s a shocking thing to say,” answered Johnson.

“Then maybe you should be shocked,” was Acheson’s response.

Stunned by Acheson’s straight talk, Johnson told Acheson that he wanted his considered judgement on the choices in Vietnam.  ”That would be possible only if [I] could get beyond the ‘canned briefings’ of Rostow, the CIA and the Chiefs of Staff,” responded Acheson.

Anxious for his help, Johnson assured him that he would have full access to information, cable traffic, and anything else he wanted from anyone in the Foreign Office bureaucracy.  Acheson agreed and told Johnson that he would report back on what needed to be done in a few days.

A week or so later, the working group headed up by Clark Clifford reported  to Johnson that they had failed.  According to Barrett, “They were unable to agree on any bold new initiative, either hawkish or dovish.”  Some of the members, supported by the military, argued that the time had come for the government  to “smash the communists, if only it had the courage to do so by increasing its strategic posture.”  Others in the group argued the opposite, that neither side could win militarily.  What they ended up with was a compromise. The military wanted 200,000 more troops: Send them 23,000 they suggested.

In early March when Acheson returned to talk to Johnson, his message was dramatically different from that of the working group:  clear, blunt, and unequivocal.  ”Mr. President, ” he told Johnson, “you are being led down the garden path.”  His message was the Johnson should “banish any presidential hopes that significantly more soldiers would make a difference in Vietnam.”  In other words, there would be no military solution to the war.

Three weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election to the presidency.

Joanna Hoffman Confronts Steve Jobs

There is wide agreement that Steve Jobs was one of the genius’ in America history, on the same level as Edison, Ford, and Alexander Graham Bell.  He was also one of the most obnoxious, stubborn, unbending, and offensive persons that those who worked with him had ever known.  One of the most difficult and complicated issues that he struggled was during his life was his relationship with an early girlfriend, Chrisanne Brennan.  Beginning in 1972 and marked by frequent separations and reconciliations, their relationship was never smooth nor easy.   In 1977 Brennan discovered that she was pregnant.  When she told Jobs, Brennan later wrote, his faced turned “ugly” and he refused to discuss the pregnancy.  Lisa Brennan was born in 1978 and even though a DNA test confirmed that Jobs was the father and was ordered by the court to provide child support, for years Jobs continued to deny that he was the father.

During his turbulent years with Apple Computers – he was fired in 1985  and then rehired in 1997 after Apple teetered on the bring of  bankruptcy – his relationships with Chrisanne and Lisa continued to be full of conflict, controversies and recriminations.

In the 2015  movie Steve Jobs,  director Danny Boyle places the relationship between Jobs, Brennan and Lisa at the center of his personal and professional struggles.  Joanna Hoffman, vice-president of marketing in Apple, played in the movie by Kate Winslet, was the only person who could successfully confront Jobs and live to tell about it afterwards.

In this scene from the movie, Jobs is furious that Chrisanne sold the house that he gave her and blames Lisa, now nineteen,  for not stopping her mother:

Joanna Hoffman:  You don’t think you’re having a bizarre overreaction to a nineteen-year old girl for allowing her mother to list her own house?

Steve Jobs:  She could’a tried…

Hoffman:  She’s supposed to stop her mother – that particular mother – from living…

Jobs:  She gave Chrisanne her blessing to sell the house and she did it to spite me!

Hoffman:  I don’t care if she put a pipe bomb in the water heater.  You’re going to fix it now!

Jobs:  She’s been acting weird for months.  She’s turned on me.

Hoffman:  (Knocking a pile of papers off a table to the floor): Fix it!

Jobs:  What the…

Hoffman: (Knocking more papers to the floor): Fix it, Steve!

Jobs:  Take it easy.

Hoffman: (Knocks even more papers to the floor) Fix it or I quit.  How ’bout that?  I quit and you never see me again, how ’bout that?

Jobs:  (Now concerned) Tell me what wrong with you this morning.

Hoffman: (With tears in her eyes)  What’s been wrong with me this morning [has been wrong] for nineteen years.  I’ve been a witness, and I tell you I’ve been complicit.  I love you Steve.  You know how much I love you.  I love that you don’t care how much money a person makes; you care what they make.  But what you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you.  When you’re a father…that’s what’s supposed to be the best part of you, and it’s caused me two decades of agony,  Steve…that it is for you… the worst.  It’s a little thing…it’s a very small thing.  Fix it.  Fix it now or you can contact me at my new job working anywhere I want.

While Steve Jobs was never able to “fix” his relationship with Lisa – dysfunctional relationships and not “broken,” and so they cannot be “fixed” –  and reaching out to his daughter was in no way a “small thing,” Jobs was brought up short and deeply affected by Hoffman’s “fierce” confrontation.  Slowly, cautiously, and painfully, he began to reach out to his daughter,  and even though his ways were clumsy, inadequate and insufficient (I am “poorly made” he tells her), by the end of the movie she begins to understand that he does in fact accept and love her.

Fierce Conversations – Not Flabby Ones – Make the Difference

Serious problems need to be addressed in serious ways.  Yet instead of facing up to them, people often fall into denial or rely upon unproductive and misdirected activities.  In the examples cited above, Beth Comstock’s actions were both controlling and frenetic;  Greg Mortensen was convinced that building the school depended entirely upon him; President Johnson was caught between wildly contradictory recommendations and was unable to decide what actions he should take; and Steve Jobs denied over and over that he was the father of his daughter, creating a tension between them that blocked for years any expression of love.

It was only when each one could hear a different perspective and then begin to understand what he or she was doing and why it wasn’t working that they were able to begin the slow, difficult, and complex journey toward  discovering better ways to address their problems.

While each one had a different malady, all needed the same medicine: Someone willing and able to initiate and continue a fierce conversation until new and more productive ways of behaving became possible.













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Becoming Skilled: Fierce Conversations




January 8, 2017

After being named CEO of Microsoft in February, 2014,  Satya Nadella  turned his attention to what he saw as his most important problem: the effectiveness of the executive team.  He approached the problem by inviting the members to begin a conversation about the question, “What is the purpose of the leadership team?”

Nadella’s concerns about purpose arose from his years as a member of the team before being promoted to CEO.  The team had operated in the past “as if we had the formula [for success] figured out,” he  said to Adam Bryant, columnist for the New York Times, on February 21, 2014.  Convinced that the old formula would no longer work, he said,  ”Now it is about discovering a new formula. “The questions that he was struggling with as he thought about a new formula were foundational:

“How do we take the intellectual capital of 130,000 and innovate where none of the category definitions of the past will matter…since any organizational structure you have today is irrelevant because no competition or innovation is going to respect those boundaries…[and] how do you create that self-organizing capability to drive innovation and [also] be focused?”

Nadella was wise enough to know that it would be a huge mistake to appear in the first meeting with his answers to these questions as part of a Power Point presentation. Rather, he made it clear that it was time for a conversation.  His message was: “We are going to talk to each other until we come up with something we can agree on.”

The challenge introduced by the new CEO was central to the future of Microsoft.  In order to do justice to the importance of their task, what was needed was a language that could match the importance of the goal.  An important rule of thumb is “never small-talk a big problem.” Frivolous, meandering, phony, posturing,”hot-air” bloviating exchanges would not do. Though at the time they may not have been able to identify clearly the name of an appropriate language for wicked problems (and theirs were clearly wicked) there is such a language:  What they needed was “Fierce Conversations.”

What Are Fierce Conversations?

Describing some conversations as fierce may confuse. After all, doesn’t fierce suggest menacing, aggressive, threatening, cruel?  Fierce is defined in the dictionary as “marked by extreme intensity of emotions or convictions; inclined to react violently.”  However, if you turn to Roget’s Thesaurus and look for synonyms of fierce you will find a different and more helpful perspective: Fierce can also mean “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager.”

Susan Scott, in Fierce Conversations, writes, “In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.” What a radical idea:  Coming out from behind ourselves!  No more hiding behind excessive caution or exaggerated politeness.  Real conversations rather than phony ones!

What is a “real” conversation?  It is one in which those who are participating express clearly what they think, prefer, mean, want, support, disagree with and wonder about without making others in the room angry, defensive, hostile, or inclined to retaliate.  Real conversations move us from hiding, distorting, avoiding, smoothing over and dodging, to openness, honesty, clarity and accuracy. ”Before Fierce” says Scott,  there is “beating around the bush, dancing around the subject, skirting the issues. An ‘us vs. them,’ ‘me vs. you’ culture.  [There is] terminal ‘niceness,’ avoiding or working around problems… No one engages.  Nothing changes.”

“After Fierce” (when it is done skillfully) we can expect:

  • Naming and addressing issues truthfully and effectively.
  • Achieving high levels of alignment, collaboration, and partnership in the relationship, family or organization.
  • Effectively confronting attitudinal, performance, or behavioral problems.

Microsoft’s New Purpose

In his interview with the New York Times, Nadella gave no details about the nature of the conversations that led the team to define their purpose in leading Microsoft, but I have no hesitation in concluding that they were not frivolous, phony, or superficial ones.  Rather, I believe that they were serious, intense, and “real.” In a word, Fierce.

Here is what emerged from their conversations: “The framework we came up with is the notion that our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment, and intensity.  What is it we want done? Are we aligned in order to be able to get it? And are we pursuing that with intensity? That’s really the job.”

For Wicked Problems, Real Conversations are Required.

In seeking an agreement about their own purpose, Nadella and the executive team were facing a classical wicked problem:  There were no pre-determined answers, no formulae, no recipes, no consultants with answers to turn to: they had a task that would never be finished.  They had to figure it out from themselves, and the only way to do this was for them to sit together in a room and talk until they arrived at a place where they felt satisfied. What was essential in order to reach their goal was to use language that was robust enough to get them through and over the inevitable obstacles and hurdles.

And once they agreed on clarity, alignment, and intensity, they faced even more difficult and complex wicked problems going forward.  First among them was the challenge for the executive team to not only understand what they meant by clarity, alignment, and intensity, but then to translate this understanding into behavior. After all, naming something is not doing it.  Giving a name to one’s goal is a necessary first step, but if anything is to change, it cannot stop there. In order for clarity, alignment and intensity to take root and flourish, behaviors that are congruent with the terms used to define them are required.  For example, after agreeing that once the alignment was important,  it was crucial that the team members moved beyond talking and actually begin “acting” aligned.

And their challenges did not end with themselves. After the executive team members understood and behaved in ways that led to increased clarity, greater alignment, and helpful intensity, there were even more daunting tasks on the horizon. Getting buy-in from the 130,000 employees of Microsoft for clarity, alignment, and intensity, and then ensuring that these values and behaviors became part of the organizational culture, was a gargantuan and never-ending undertaking.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, understood clearly the importance of real conversations.  In a Harvard Business Review article in 1989, Welch said:

Real communication takes countless hours of eyeball to eyeball, back and forth.   It means listening more than talking.  It’s not pronouncements on a videotape, it’s not announcements in a newspaper.  It is human beings coming to see and accept things through a constant interactive process aimed at consensus.  And it must be absolutely relentless.  

From Flabby to Fierce

When the issues are important, complex and messy – in a word, wicked  -  and addressing them is important, then fierce conversations are needed.  Unfortunately, many of the conversations are flabby rather than fierce.

Flabby conversations are the opposite of fierce ones:  apathy is in charge; no one seems to really care about what is being discussed; wishy-washiness is the norm;  people seem distracted, giving the appearance that they are bored and would like to be elsewhere; “going-through-the motions” reigns;  the many variations of hiding are common; people are delighted and relieved when it is finally over; and reluctant to show up for the next meeting!

When the conversations are fierce, there is electricity in the air. Something interesting, even compelling, is happening, and there is hope that it may lead somewhere that will make a difference.  People lean forward, make eye contact and listen intently.  Difficult issues are put on the table and treated with the respect they deserve.  People are open with their disagreements.  Conflicts, even confrontations, are common and, rather than being destructive, are helpful.  There is an honesty and authenticity in the way people speak and the things that they say.  There is little doubt about where people stand, what they think, and what they want.

  Where to Begin

Getting started with learning and practicing fierce conversations includes three steps:  Listening to oneself, (gaining awareness); beginning to speak “fierce;” and learning the foundation for fierce conversations.

Begin with listening – to oneself.

When the goal is to move from flabby to fierce, the point of departure is always with oneself.  In order for couples, families, and teams to engage in fierce conversations when they are necessary, individuals first need to become aware of the language they use for dealing with problems.  ”Begin by listening to oneself as never before,” suggests Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, holding back, telling yourself little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself.”

Practice “Fierce.”

“At least once today,” suggests Scott, “when something inside of you says ‘This is an opportunity to be fierce,’ stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.  Say something that is true for you.”

Here are some possibilities:

  • I see it differently.
  • I would prefer to deal with it today rather than next week.
  • That’s an interesting idea but here’s why I don’t think it will work for us.
  • When you cut me off in the middle of a sentence, I am frustrated and offended.
  • Hey, I don’t find it helpful when you avoid the issue or change the subject.
  • If you expect my support I want you to ask me for it rather than just assume that I will back you.
  • You’ve been going on for almost ten minutes and I’m completely lost. I have no idea what you’re talking about.
  • I found your presentation creative and very interesting.  Way to go!

The I-Message is the Foundation

The most useful language for fierce conversations will always include what is called an I-Message.  As the name implies, it requires us to speak for ourselves and share our perceptions and preferences.  It asks us to disclose what is going on “inside:” What we see, hear, think, want, choose, prefer.  For example, rather than asking “When are you going to learn how to get your message across?” we say,” I tried to follow what you were saying but got lost.  Help me out, will you?”

In a future essay I will spell out in more detail the structure and substance of I-messages: What they are, why they are crucial to effective conversations, and how and when to use them.

Real is Rare

Real conversations in which we share what is important are rare.”Everything is usually so masked or perfumed or disguised in the world,” writes Ann Lamont in Traveling Mercies, that people are never able come to know each other.  And yet “…it’s so touching when you get to see something real and human…when people have seen you at your worst, you don’t have to put on the mask as much. And that gives us license  to try on that radical hat of liberation, the hat of self-acceptance.”

While rare, real conversations can also be incredibly meaningful.  After a “Fierce Conversation” workshop led by Susan Scott, a participant reported with tears in his eyes, “I’ve longed for conversations like this all of my life but I didn’t know that they were possible.  I don’t think I can settle for anything less going forward.”

Few of us who are out there “playing the game” will be surprised that things are “masked, perfumed or disguised.”  We are not only aware of it, we often participate.   Given that many situations in our judgmental and evaluative society are win-lose contests where winners move on and losers disappear, it makes good sense to be cautious about what to say and how to say it.  When survival is the number one issue, going into hiding and staying there, sharing only what is absolutely required and even then, keeping it safe and superficial, can be a smart strategy.

It is also hugely unproductive.  When things matter, there are significant costs to “safety first” strategies in conversations.  If important issues are ignored, postponed or denied, they will almost always get worse.  ”Sometimes you have a little problem and you don’t fix it,” says the sheriff in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, “and then all of a sudden it ain’t a little problem any more.  You understand what I’m telling you?”

“Yessir, I do,” answers the young deputy.

Not Easy, Not Quick – But Worth It. 

Are fierce conversations easy or quick? Are they panaceas that will solve our most difficult problems?  No and no. But if we know anything, we know that things of real value are never easy, quick or simple.  When the problems we face are central to the well-being of  important relationships and to success in our careers, then we really have no choice but to face up to them and begin.  Flabby conversations never get us where we want to go.  What can be infinitely more productive is to put on the Fierce Conversation Hat and begin.  ”When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen,” writes Susan Scott.  ”It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge.  You will have said one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.  And something will have been set in motion.”























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