In the previous essay I quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s trenchant and powerful insight:
I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Successful work with wicked problems can only happen when we move beyond the simplicity on this side of complexity – “Never raise taxes,” ”Lose weight without dieting or exercising,” “Blondes have more fun,” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – and find ways to move through the ever-present complexity of real-life dilemmas, and discover the simplicity that can only be found on the other side. Only then can the real work on wicked problems begin.
The Fraternity Problem?
Here is an example of the complexity that can be found in the important issues that concern us:
In March, 2015 The Atlantic Monthly announced its main story for the month on its cover: ”The Fraternity Problem: It’s Worse Than You Think.” It got my attention. Always interested in stories about important problems, I read it, and then read it again. While I became aware of the many troubles college fraternities are having, even after two readings I still could not learn what the “Fraternity Problem” was. What I found instead were seemingly endless accounts of drunken brawls, accidents, most of which involved people falling out of windows or off roofs, sexual assaults, fights between fraternity members and their neighbors, fights between fraternities and their national organizations, fights between fraternities and their college and university administrators, many expensive lawsuits, parental heartbreak, and many other accounts of stupid and tragic events. And yes, it was worse than I thought! But I never did find “the” problem.
The author of the story, Caitlin Flanagan, perhaps aware that she revealed not one problem but hundreds, did try to help the reader. She made an attempt to bring order out of this chaos by identifying the “four horsemen of the student life apocalypse” that “are currently bringing college presidents to their knees:”
- The binge-drinking epidemic;
- Sexual assaults upon female undergraduates;
- Violent hazing of new pledges;
- The disappearance of in loco parentis.
Creating four categories helped reduce the confusion and complexity, yet it wasn’t much help in finding “the problem.” Each of Flanagan’s four horsemen is itself a collection of hundreds of potential problems.
The reason that Flanagan was unable to deliver on her implied promise to name the problem with fraternities, is that there is no one problem.
Gallup’s Big Problems
Here is another example:
Each month the Gallup Polling Corporation publishes their list of ”The Top ‘Most Important’ U. S. Problems.” For March, 2015, the first eight – out of 14 – were:
- Dissatisfaction with Government 18%
- Economy in General 11%
- Unemployment/Jobs 10%
- Immigration/Illegal Aliens 7%
- Healthcare 7%
- Terrorism 6%
- Education 6%
- Ethical/Moral/Family Decline 5%
A quick and superficial review of Gallup’s ”problems” reveals the same difficulty we found with the fraternity “problem” described in The Atlantic Monthly. These are not problems! Rather, what Flanagan and Gallup are naming as problems are categories of issues, situations, events, dilemmas, and conundrums as well as thousands of potential problems not yet identified or defined.
An important conclusion we can draw from these two examples is that, while people are prone to call something that isn’t the way that someone thinks it should be a problem, calling it a problem doesn’t make it one. It is almost always more complicated than that. In fact, calling something a problem when it isn’t one is itself a problem.
Not Problems But Messes
There is a name for what the fraternities, universities, parents, and young people on college campus are grappling with, and it is the same name for what millions of people who are caught up in “unemployment” and immigration” are struggling with as well: The name is Mess. These messes are not the same as those that can be found in most teenagers rooms (but they are close). Taken as a category, the sexual assaults in frat houses are not problems; unemployment in the United States is not a problem; healthcare is not a problem; binge-drinking in college is not a problem. These are all messes! In order to find problems, one must zoom down to individual cases: persons who are sexually assaulted, and those who do the assaulting both have problems; an unemployed person does have a problem; a binge-drinker who cannot make it through a weekend sober certainly has a problem. But when you collapse all the individuals cases into a category, what you have is a “mess.” Messes are interrelated, dynamic, fuzzy, complicated, confusing, complex, chaotic situations that exist in our society and in our lives.
The use of the term “mess”to describe the complexities that are to be found in organizations and social systems – and in families and relationships – was first introduced by organizational theorist Russell Ackoff. Here is how he defined messes:
[People] are not confronted with problems…they are confronted with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of [many]changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations “messes.”
Ackoff’s main idea is an important one: Most of the situations that become obstacles and block our way forward are not single problems but multitudes of them – dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands. Each one is part of the mess. We have trouble enough trying to work on one problem, but we have no chance at all when we are confronting dozens or hundreds of them the same time.
Why are messes so resistant to productive work? Because they turn out to be many times more complex and complicated that any one problem Ian Mitroff calls them “complex and entangled webs” of many ill-structured, potentially wicked problems involving stated and unstated assumptions beliefs, and values and overlain with strong emotions.
What we face and struggle with every day are mostly messes: dysfunctional government, urban air pollution, extreme poverty, emotional and mental illness, sexual abuse of children and women, inadequate health care, economic inequality, dysfunctional families, deteriorating relationships, lack of teamwork and collaboration at work, obesity, unproductive organizations, the national debt, and on and on. In order to make headway with any of these, we need to begin by creating a problem that we can work on.
In the interest of clarity, The Atlantic Monthly should have announced that their March cover story was ” The Fraternity Mess,” and the Gallup Company’s list of “problems” should have been called ”Top ‘Most Important’ U. S. Messes.” People may not have understood the technical meaning of the word “mess”, but they would have understood that the issues being considered were complex, multilayered and thorny. There is a problem in calling things problems that are not problems given that we immediately think “solve” or “solution,” neither of which the situation is yet ready for.
To treat “messes” as if they were problems – and the quickly setting out to “solve them” – only adds to the confusion and results in the creation of new problems.
“Messes Can Kill Us”
During the 1920′s and 30′s Dorothy Parker, American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist was famous for her wit, wisecracks and acerbic comments about the foibles of the New York scene. Here are several of her most-quoted quips:
- ”Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”
- “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
- “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”
- You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
One her comments, however, was not witty or critical, but profound. ”It’s not the tragedies that kill us,” she wrote, “It’s the messes.”
Tragedies and messes are not at all alike. Tragedies can be devastating, yet when they occur they usually bring us closer together, more united than ever, and more determined to support one another in getting through them. Tragedies have beginnings, middles and ends. At first, we feel bereft and lost, then we begin to recover our equilibrium, and finally we are able to move beyond it. Though we never forget what we have been through, we are able pick up the threads of our lives and move on.
Our experiences with “messes” are very different. They seem not to have beginnings or ends, but only “middles,” and we never seem to be rid of them. Think of the past 40 years with the abortion issue, or the so-called wars on poverty, pornography and drug addiction. Think of our struggles against racial discrimination, for adequate housing, education, and health care.
When we are in the midst of a tragedy, we put aside our petty differences and move closer to each other. When we are grappling with messes, however, our petty differences grow larger and become more venomous. We become more divided, me and mine on this side, you and yours on the other. In the middle of a tragedy, we seek to understand what others are experiencing. With messes, we have no interest in what the others are thinking. Just the opposite We cannot agree on what is wrong, what needs to be fixed, or how to do it. We lurch this way and that, some wanting to move forward and embrace new ideas and remedies, and others wanting to go back to the way it was before. We argue and disagree, but rarely listen. We denigrate those who disagree with us, blaming them for our difficulties. We lose any interest in collaborating or compromising: “My way or the highway” seems to be our mantra.
Since “It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes,” we need to find ways to manage them. The complexities that stand in our way in moving from this side to the other side consist of multiple messes. Trying to “get through” them is fruitless: That inevitably leads to endless and hurtful arguments, much shouting and little listening, lots of smoke and little light. What we need are problems that we can work on, problems that we agree are problems, problems that are actionable, problems that offer us opportunities for coming together and figuring out what is going on and what we should do together in order to make things better.
What we need to learn in order to get to the other side is how to be successful in moving from Messes to Problems. And this is where we go next.