Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Messes” Not Problems

L1000596 March 17


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.





The Simplicity on the Other Side




March 1, 2015


Among the most important ideas that have guided me in making important choices and decisions is one expressed by the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr:

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.

Holmes identifies two kinds of simplicities, one on this side of complexity, which is  basically worthless; and one on the other side, which is immeasurably valuable.  When translated into our daily lives this means that when we come face-to-face with difficult questions and troublesome problems, waiting for us will be a number of attractive simplistic, and essentially worthless solutions.   We will be tempted to choose them since they come with the enticing promise to immediately solve our problems and free us from our concerns.  When we come to important questions and difficult problems, however, choosing to stay on “this side of complexity” is a serious mistake.  Until we understand the difficult complexities of the situations that trouble us and then struggle to get through them, there is no way to know what we can do that will help.  If we choose only the “simplicity on this side” to guide us, we will “simply” make things worse.

The simplicity we seek, and which can add values to all of our endeavors, lies on the other side of complexity.  We need to resist the Siren Song that promises  ”easy, quick and simple” and instead make the effort to drill down into the complexity that always underlies the surface of situations and issues so we can make sense of what is going on and then find our way through and to the other side.  If we are prepared to do this we’ll have a real chance to gain a deeper understanding of what the situation actually is and what we can do in order to make a difference.

Sometimes it is life itself that  pushes us away from the simple, down into the complex, and offers us a chance to get through it. Here is an ancient Japanese folk tale that illuminates the way to the “simplicity on the other side”

A new flute was invented in China.  A Japanese master musician discovered the subtle beauties of its tone and brought it back home, where he gave concerts all around the country.  One evening, he played with a community of musicians and music lovers who lived in a small village.  At the end of the concert, his name was called.  He took out the new flute and played a simple melody.  When he was finished,  for a long moment there was silence in the room.  The voice of the oldest man was heard from the back of the room:  ”Like a god!”

The next day, as this master was packing to leave, the musicians approached him and asked how long it would take a skilled player to learn the new flute.  ”Years,” he said.  They asked if he would take a pupil, and he agreed.  After he left, they decided among themselves to send a young man, a brilliantly talented flutist, sensitive to beauty, diligent and trustworthy. They gave him money for his living expenses and for the master’s tuition, and sent him on his way to the capital, where the master lived.

The student arrived and was accepted by the master, who assigned him the simple  tune that he had played at the concert.  At first he received systematic instruction, but he easily mastered all of the technical problems.  Now, when he arrived for his daily lesson, sat down and played his tune, all the master would say was, “Something lacking.”  The student exerted himself in every possible way; he practiced for endless hours;  yet day after day, week after week, all the master said was, “Something lacking.”  He begged the master to change the tune, but the master said no.  The daily playing, the daily “something lacking” continued for months on end.  The student’s hope of success and fear of failure became ever magnified, and he swung from agitation to despondency.  

Finally the frustration became too much for him.  One night he packed his bag and crept away.  He continued to live in the capital until his money ran dry.  He began drinking.  Finally, desperate, impoverished, and despondent, he drifted back to his own village.  Ashamed to show his face to his former colleagues, he found a hut far out in the countryside.  He still possessed his flutes, still played, but found no new inspiration in music.   Years passed, and still he lived alone in his hut.  He remembered his early days as the most promising musician in his town and the years spent studying with the master with a mixture of regret and despair.  Slowly, his understanding of why he could not satisfy the master deepened.  He began to sense what it was that was “lacking.” 

One morning there was a knock at his door.  It was his first teacher, the  oldest musician from his village who years ago had sent him to the city to study with the master, along with the youngest student.  They told him that that evening they were going to have a concert, and they had all decided that it would not take place without him.  With some effort he overcame his feelings of fear and shame, and almost in a trance he picked up a flute and went with them. The concert began.  As he waited behind the stage, no one intruded on his inner silence.  Finally, at the end of the concert, his name was called.  He stepped out onto the stage in his rags.  He looked down at his hands, and realized that he had chosen the new flute.  

Now he realized that he had nothing to gain and nothing to lose.  He no longer worried that he must play to satisfy the master, only to express the truths that he had learned over the long years he suffered alone.  He sat down and played the same tune he had played for the master so many times in the past.   When he finished,  for a long moment there was silence.  Then the voice of the oldest man was heard, speaking softly from the back of the room:  ”Like a god!”  At last, nothing was lacking.

Learning to play music must not be too difficult since so many of us have done it.  Over the years, millions of children, urged on by their parents and teachers, have taken music lessons on the piano, flute, violin and trumpet.   But only a very few ever go beyond the simplicity of playing the notes as they are written and learn to play Music. Few of us have ever paid enough to the piper so we can get beyond the notes and discover the beauty that can only be found when the notes are enhanced by the creative imagination.  When it comes to making music – and many other aspects of our lives as well – most of go only part way, remaining on “this side of simplicity.”

“…The best way out is through”

“Sometimes the only way out is through,” writes the poet Robert Frost.  Author James Champy, in Reengineering Management, adapts Frost’s insight to the present times:  ”Always the only way out is through,” Champy writes, but then insists that the “going through” experience is never a one-time event: “There is only going through it, and through it, and through it,” over and over again.

If one is interested in playing music “like a god,” – or in taking on any important dilemma or problem –  there is no staying on this side of complexity:  No quick fix, no easy out, no simple solution.  Getting into it, whatever it is, then getting through it to the other side is the only way that real progress is possible.

What is soon to follow is a series of essays that explore not only the difficulties and the complications of getting to the “simplicity on the other side of complexity,” but also identify some of the  rewards that can be found there.  Our task will be to name and describe the knowledge, attitudes, skills and values that are required in order to get to the other side.

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