Monthly Archives: June 2015

Working with Nested Problems

IMG_0465June 18

In the wide world of problems, there are solved and unsolved problems.  Solved problems are dead problems, and few people except historians have much interest in them.  When people find themselves up against a problem that has been solved before, what is helpful is to look for previous solutions: Previous experience; recipes and  formulae; answers in the backs of books;  experts who know what to do and how to do it; our own memory banks.

On the other hand, unsolved problems are not dead but very much alive.  They  are challenging and often interesting as well. Some of them are troubling.  Some eventually are solved, and so are killed.  Others, however, do not get solved, and  remain on our radar screens to be visited over and over.  Eventually, some are determined to be mysteries.  We understand that mysteries do not get solved,  so we respond with contemplation and awe.  Unsolved problems –  the “Not-Mysteries” – tend to remain with us until we either choose to take them on or have no choice but to deal with them.

Tame or Wicked Problems

Problems that can be solved are tame:  Fixing a computer; doing the shopping for the week; writing a short story; sending astronauts to the moon and bringing them home safely; making an omellete; getting elected to office.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be defined, goals can be set and achieved and,  once they are solved,  they are put aside.  Nevertheless, many tame problems reappear over and over (computers need to be fixed every now and then)  but, since we know there are solutions, and we know what they are, we don’t lose much sleep over them. Facing up to them becomes routine.

Problems that have no single solution but still must be wrestled with are mostly wicked:  Creating an effective work team; raising children; giving and receiving help; dealing with drug addiction; making a successful marriage; establishing quality in customer service; achieving excellence in education; reducing global warming;   governing.  While they  seem to have a beginning,  most have had a long and complicated history. The “beginning” of a wicked problem is when someone enters the picture.  The first thing a wise person does when he or she begins to work on a wicked problem is to learn as much as possible about what people have done with it in the past.

What wicked problems especially do not have are endings.   A person may give up and walk away,  may choose another challenge, may ask for a transfer, may try to turn it into a tame problem (getting a divorce for example),  but when a person is fully engaged with a wicked problem, what she or he cannot expect is that it will be over.   What wicked problems consist of are only “beginnings” and “middles.”

Tame and Wicked Problems

In the world of problems that are alive then, there are solvable problems (tame) and unsolvable problems (wicked) and then there are problem that are both tame and wicked. These are what I call Nested Problems. They are problem situations that contain elements that can be solved, and elements that cannot be solved.

Here is the definition of Nested Problems that appeared in the previous essay: Nested Problems are to be found in  problem situations which, while they have the appearance of being tame (and therefore seem to be solvable), are actually “bundled” problems consisting of tame problems nested within wicked ones.

Two points about nested problems:  First, they often are perceived by problem solvers as tame problem and so are treated that way.

And second:  It is only after the tame part of the problem has been “solved” and  this solution is broadcast to others in one way or another  that it becomes apparent by their reactions that the problem was not only a tame one but a wicked one as well.

An Example: Hong Kong’s Wild Boar Problem 

The headline in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2015 describes Hong Kong’s problem:  ”In Hong Kong, Wild Boar Population has Locals Squealing.”  The wild boar problem in Hong Kong  seems to be straightforward:  Hong Kong is being overrun with wild boars and the people want something done about them.

The Sai Kung Wild Pig Hunting Club has a solution:  ”Gun the pesky pigs down.”  Chan Kang, 72-year old  leader of the wild pig hunting club explains the logic of killing the pigs:  ”They are wild animals and not pets.  They are fierce and not kind.”  And now, said Kang, the boars are growing in number and “fear no man.”  In years past, said Kang, when the hunters were allowed to shoot to kill, the city had no wild boar problem.

The times have changed. Today hunting of the boars is in decline.  So far in 2015,  only 3 boars have been killed, compared to “over a hundred a year” a decade ago.

Why no more killing the wild boars?  The answer is the emergence of the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group, which argues vigorously  against killing the boars.  ”They are cute,” the members of the Concern Group argue, and tell Hong Kong residents to “enjoy the chance encounter” when they meet up with a boar, some of which can weigh up to 450 pounds.  Members of the Wild Boar Concern Group view the boars as part of the natural world that, in an environment that has been heavily altered by humans, need to be preserved.  Roni Wong, 31-year old co-founder of the Wild Boar Concern Society, hands out pamphlets that feature drawings of adorable, fuzzy boars, and urges residents to “keep calm,” when they meet a boar and “definitely do not call the police.”

Hong Kong’s wild boar dilemma is clearly a nested problem.  What used to be a tame problem with a clear solution  - shoot to kill – has become a nested one: People have organized successfully against the tame solution. Shooting boars as a solution is no longer the accepted thing to do.

Taking Action with Nested Problems

Step 1:  Determine if  the problem a nested one.

Although most important problems are nested, not all are.  What is important before beginning to work on a problem is to determine if it is nested.

In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky use the term “bundled” to describe problems that have both tame and wicked elements.  ”Most problems,” they write, “come bundled with both technical and adaptive aspects” (their terms for tame and wicked).  For them, the necessary first step in working with nested problems is to “distinguish between them in order to decide which to tackle first and with what strategy.”

Distinguishing the presence of tame and wicked elements in a problem situation can best be accomplished  by identifying elements that correspond to the definitions of tame and wicked problems.  The definition of tame problems includes the following:

  • Goals can be reached. The gaps between the present state and the future state can be identified and successfully closed.
  • Correct solutions and true answers can be found.
  • Problem solving processes can be used that are primarily convergent in nature.  Problem solvers move forward by eliminating possible solutions until they converge upon the correct solution or answer.
  • There is a beginning (“Here is an interesting problem for us to take on”), a middle (“We think this will fix it”), and an end (“Problem solved”).
  • Several problem solvers working on the same problem in different places can be expected to arrive at the same answer.

The definition of  wicked problem is quite different:

  • Goals exist, but they cannot be fully achieved.  Moving toward the goal is possible – this is called progress – but what is achieved are “near misses.” Gaps can never be fully closed,  only narrowed.  We can get close to our goals, but never reach them.
  • Rather than finding true or correct solutions, what is possible are “solutions” that are Good Enough, Better Than the Others, or The Best We Can Do.
  • The problem solving process always begins with Divergent efforts:  ”Let chaos reign,” said Andy Grove, CEO of Intel.  Finding and examining many possible alternative “solutions” gets us started.  When there are on the table  as many possible alternatives as can be imagined,  then the group shifts to a process of convergence.  ”Reining in chaos” sets the new direction,  resulting in the selection of the “best” alternative.
  • Rather than clear beginnings or final endings, what people face with wicked problems are “mostly middles.”
  • Five problem solvers working in separate room on the same wicked problem will end up with five different problem definitions, and five different plans for dealing with them.

Step 2: Solve the solvable problems.

Once it is clear that the problem being considered is “bundled” or nested,  the next step is to examine the tame part of the problem, define it clearly, and decide if it can be solved without creating more problems.  In my previous post I reported that the keepers at the Copenhagen zoo believed that the problem they had with Marius was a tame one and they assumed, falsely as it turned out, that it was one they could solve themselves.  If they had paused long enough to ask the question, “If we go ahead with our plan to get rid of our ‘surplus’ giraffe  by killing Marius, is it possible that other people might be upset?” By not rushing to their premature solution, they might have saved themselves a great deal of grief.

Over the past decades, psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues have worked with hundreds of couples who were struggling with marital problems.   In the process they gradually came to a profound insight:  All conflicts, they realized, “…fall into one of two categories: Either they can be resolved [tame], or they are perpetual [wicked], which means that they will be part of [the couples] lives forever.” Of the many problems presented to the psychologists, almost 30 percent were tame problems and so could be solved.  The remaining 70 percent were  ”perpetual,”  problems that could never be “solved” but only worked on again and again. ”… [Perpetual] problems,” they wrote,  ”are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way that chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow.”

The most important problems that married couples struggled with were often nested problems consisting of “solvable” problems (tame) and perpetual problems (wicked) bundled together.

While important,  this was not their only important finding.  Gottman and his colleagues understood how difficult it is to tell people that some of their  problems could not be solved, but could only be lived with.  They worked to teach the couples how to deal with them.  But the most serious obstacle they found was  that the ones that could be solved – the solvable ones – seldom were! What was possible, and what could have been helpful in improving the relationship, was often ignored!

The psychologists were clear in their recommendations:  The best strategy for working with nested problems in marriage as well as in other relationships, in teams, organizations and societies was to solve the solvable ones first!

Some possibilities:

- A short tempered boss who has a long history of blowing up over insignificant issues may not be able to gain complete control of his emotions, but he can start and end staff meetings on time.

- A husband may not be able to eradicate his feelings of frustration over the way his wife disciplines the children, but he can take a turn preparing dinner and then, afterward, do the dishes and clean up the kitchen.

- A supervisor at work may be uncomfortable with conflict and seek to avoid it at all cost, but she can learn to listen carefully and non-judgmentally to the concerns of others.

- A father may not be comfortable with his son’s choice of music and clothes, but he can show up at his soccer games.

- A VP for Finance in a large corporation may have difficulties not feeling resentful toward his new boss who is not only a woman, but in his opinion unqualified to be CEO, but he can make sure that his work is completed on time and with no mistakes.

-A new mother may be frightened by her feelings of resentment toward her new baby, but she can make sure the baby is fed when she is hungry, and bathed every day.

-A man suffering from Type I diabetes may not be able to cure his disease, but he can leave his house each morning at 6:00 am for a two-mile walk.

In summary, an important and necessary step for moving forward with nested problems is to define the tame problem, determine whether it can be solved without an excessive amount of collateral damage,  and then solve it!

Step 3:  Work with the Wicked

Once the solvable problem has been solved, and no disasters have been noticed, it is time to turn to the wicked part of the nested problem.

As I have said, while wicked problems cannot be solved, they can be managed. ”We may not love these problems,” writes Gottman,  but we can learn to “cope with them, avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them.”

Here are some strategiesfor coping with wicked problems:

Strategy #1: Wicked Problem Talk:

 Among the most important strategies for working with wicked problem is becoming a master of Wicked Problem Talk

While much of the work with tame problems is analytic in nature, (including observation, collecting data and organizing it in order to communicate it to others), wicked problems are first attacked with conversations, first with oneself, and then with others:  ”Can I figure out why this problems seems to be so important for me?” “How do I see the problem?”  ”How do others see the problem?” “Why is it important?”  ”Who is affected by it?”  ”What has been done with this before?” “By whom?”    Central to the process is to be able to speak clearly and concisely, ask good questions,  listen actively, express one’s opinions and preferences, seek a balance between advocacy and inquiry, agree, disagree, persuade, convince, and also be open to being persuaded and convinced by othrers. In short, wicked problem talk is Straight Talk  consisting of the following

  • Meta Talk:  Talk about how you are working on the problem;
  • Search Talk:  Seek helpful and valid information;
  • Influence Talk:  Seek to influence others toward one’s preference and point ofview;  be willing to be influenced by others toward their point of view;
  •  Self Talk:  Saying what you see, hear, want, prefer, intend, and feel.  An important part of Self Talk is an I-Message:  Describing what you see, hear, prefer; sharing your cognitive and emotional responses to what has happened or  is happening; listing carefully to the others’ perspective; and then jointly seeking a new direction.

Strategy #2: Find a Third Way:

In his foreword  to Adam Kahene’s Solving Tough Problems, Peter Senge observes that Kahene’s great strength in working with tough problems was that between “a growing sense of powerlessness and an increasing reliance upon force” he was able to find  a ‘third way:’ a transformation in our ability to talk, think, and act together.  I am convinced,” adds Senge, “this is the only reliable path forward, not only for hierarchical leaders but for all of us – as parents, citizens, and people at all levels in organizations – seeking to contribute to meaningful change.”  Finding a Third Way out of the dilemma of being trapped between opposite extremes is among the most important ways of working with wicked problems.

Problem situations are often defined as either Right vs Wrong, or Right vs. Right.  For Right vs. Wrong problems there is a right solution amidst many wrong ones, a correct answer among many incorrect ones.  Solving Right vs. Wrong problems is a relatively easy call (though often not practiced): Choose the right one.  Right vs. Wrong problems are equivalent to tame problems.

Right vs. Right problems are almost always wicked problems and  are much more complicated. Here is an example: A number of years ago, I sat in an executive staff meeting of a Fortune 500 company while the CEO brought everyone up to date on a decision they had taken several months earlier to close a major manufacturing facility in Dallas that resulted in the loss of over 2500 jobs.  He emphasized once again that information could not be shared with others  since all of the financial and personnel issues had not been resolved.

Later in the week, the CEO led a Town Meeting session with key managers designed to deal openly with questions and concerns.  As the meeting drew to a close,  a man stood in the back and asked, “There are rumors that the Dallas facility is going to be closed.  Is it true?  I am about to close on a house in Dallas and I need to know?”

This is an example of Right vs. Right problem:  It is right to tell the truth, especially when asked a specific question, and it is right to hold back confidential information until it can be legally shared.

Here are some examples from How Good People Make Tough Decisions by Rushford Kidder:

“It is right to provide our children with the finest public schools possible – and right to prevent the constant upward ratcheting of state and local taxes;

“It is right to honor a woman’s right to make decisions affecting her body – and right to protect the lives of the unborn;”

“It is right to condemn the minister who has an affair with a parishioner – and right to extend mercy to him for  the only real mistake he has ever made in his job;”

“It is right to ‘throw the book’ at good employees who made dumb decisions that endanger the firm – and right to have enough compassion to mitigate the punishment and give him or her another chance.”

Right vs. Right problems are among the most difficult of wicked problems.

Rather than choose one or the other side of the issue, the best way forward with Right Vs. Right problems, is  to find a new way: a Third Way.  For example, among the most contentious debates in our national conversation is a Right vs. Right issue:  Should we move in our politics toward Freedom and away from Equality?  Or increase Equality at the expense of Freedom?  If natural forces are left free, then the strong and powerful will prosper and the weak will suffer. “Freedom for the wolf means death to the lambs,”   was the way Abraham Lincoln put it. Or, in the interest of equality for all, should we curtail the freedoms of the powerful and give support to the weak?

In A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher uses the slogan of the French Revolution to illustrate what is meant by finding A Third Way.  To the opposites of Liberte (freedom) and Egalite (equality)  the revolutionaries added a higher-order value,  Fraternite (brotherhood).  When we see ourselves as brothers and sisters, we can find a third path between the two contradictory goals of freedom and equality.

A real-time example of finding a Third Way is a recent development with the problem of the wild horses and burros roaming the western lands of our country.  In the last essay, I described how the ranchers wanted the wild horses removed from the range even if it meant killing them, while those who believed that wild horses were necessary in order for the West to be the West meant letting them roam free.  It was right for the land to be used for the grazing of cattle, and it was right for wild horses to roam free.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with responsibility for preserving the land and protecting the wild horses, was caught in the middle with no answer that satisfied both sides.  Recently, however, a Third Way strategy seems to be emerging.  First, the BLM will round up enough horses and offer them for adoption to reduce them to a number that will not damage the land, leaving some wild horses to roam freely.  And second, those horses that continue to roam wild and free on the range will be vaccinated with a birth control drug.   Will this be successful?  No one seems to know.  At least the impasse seems to be broken.  The BLM is putting in place a Third Way alternative that seeks a way forward.

Strategy #3:  Become a Scrum Master

Borrowed from the sport of rugby, a Wicked Problem Scrum is an organized and productive clash of opinions, preferences, ideas, beliefs,  and convictions among a diverse group of individuals who are knowledgeable and interested about an issue or situation and are committed to seeing changes made.  A Scrum is the most effective way of extracting problems  from “messes.”  With the help of a “scrum master,” small groups and teams move first to increase the confusion and controversy inherent in the”mess” by suggesting all the possibilities  they can think of.  Next they move to reduce the confusion by extracting from the mess an actionable problem.  Then they make every effort  to find the “best” solution or action plan they can come up with.

The requirements for an effective scrum are:

Diversity:  Get the “right people on the bus” and the wrong people off – no simple or easy task in itself.  The “right people” are those who are knowledgeable about the situation, who care about it enough to work with it,  and who are willing and able to make a difference.

Divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking:  A scrum begins by “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” and then pruning them back until the participants come up with their very best effort. Divergent and convergent thinking requires open and honest communication, creativity, constructive conflict, confrontation, collaboration, and ends with a consensual agreement for the best way to move forward.  Managing these processes effectively requires great skill, patience, and flexibility.

A skilled and effective  Scrum Master:  The presence of a team leader who is skillful in beginning the process,  keeping it on track, and bringing it to a successful end is essential.  He or she is able to:

  • Create an environment where team members can take risks by expressing themselves openly;
  • Create and maintain helpful structures and supportive norms;
  • Encourage wide and full participation;
  • Value  conflict and disagreements;
  •  Support, even protect, people when things get tense;
  • Avoid losing focus or falling off  the path;
  • Produce results – bring the team in on time and under budget!

Strategy #4: Create an Early Warning System

Working on both the tame and wicked parts of a nested problem is in fact a system problem: other parts of the  larger problem situation will inevitably be affected and new problems are likely to emerge, often without any awareness by those who are working on the problem.

What is needed is an Early Warning System (EWS), a way of detecting new and unexpected problems that are taking shape before they gain traction or momentum.  While working on a culture change project with a Fortune 500 company a number of years ago, I put in place a system of  ”informants,” –  employees and managers from all parts of the country and at all levels in the organization.  Each Monday morning I would call them for their  report on what was happening in their part of the organization in response to the change initiatives.  I would organize this information into a brief summary and then in the afternoon share it with the CEO and the VP for Organization Change.  This EWS detected  a number of surprise developments  that allowed us to take action before things got out of hand.

John Gottman and Nan Silver, working with couples who were struggling with the marriage relationship, discovered the value of an EWS in providing information about problems that, while partially hidden, were putting the relationship at risk.  ”…every marriage,” they wrote, “ought to be equipped with a built-in early warning system that lets you know when your [marriage] is in danger of deteriorating.   We call this system the Marital Poop Detector because it is a way of saying that something doesn’t smell right!”  An effective Marital Poop Detector can help locate incipient problems while they are still minor, “before they build up steam and become combustible.”

A Bold Stroke and the Long March.

One part of any nested problem is most often a “rattler,” a tame problem that can be killed with one shot.  Shooting a rattler is an example of what Rosabeth Kanter calls a  Bold Stroke:  A dramatic action that solves the problem.  At a GE Workout session a young woman shared her problem:  ”I publish a plant newspaper each month and before I can publish it, GE policy requires that I get seven signatures.  Can you explain why?”  Her boss was dumbfounded.  After a minute or two he drew his revolver out of his holster and shot the rattler:  ”That’s crazy, he said.  ”OK, from now on, no more signatures.”

In nested problems, however, there are also  ”pythons”- wicked problems – lurking within that cannot be dispatched with one shot.  Pythons can only be managed with a Long March.   A long march is what its name implies:  a  long-term slog through the swamp requiring  effort, dedication, persistence, and patience.  The marchers are not looking for a solution since there isn’t one, but for a new and temporary arrangement that will make things better, at least for a while.

Success with nested problems requires bold strokes and long marches!

Nested Problems?  Solving and Grappling Required

“Good scientists, says Nobel Prize winner P. B. Medawar, “study the most important problems they think they can solve.  It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.”  And yet, when scientists, engineers, and physicians, as well as others, decide to apply the solutions they have discovered in their research to real world problems – infectious diseases, education, public health, obesity, suicide, abuse of women and children, global warming, AIDS –  they are often amazed to learn that what is now required is something more: They must become grapplers!  They must learn to move beyond the relative simplicity of solving the problem and get into the middle of grappling with the new challenges of preaching, teaching, persuading, and convincing others, something they were never taught to do in their professional training.

Working with nested problems?  

Guidelines to reflect upon:

1.  Determine if what you have is in fact a nested problem.

2.  If the answer is yes, then define carefully the tame part of the problem situation to determine what could happen if you move forward.

3.  Solve the solvable problem.

4. Address the wicked problem part of the sitution by

  • Using wicked problem language;
  • Finding a Third Way;
  • Convening and leading a Scrum and using it to extract a “wicked problem” from the mess;
  • Working through the newly formulated problem to determine the “best” possible plan of action to be implemented.

5.  Put in place an Early Warning System (EWS), an equivalent to Gottman’s “Poop Detector.”

6.  Keep in mind that both Bold Strokes and Long Marches are required.






“Nested” Problems


June 2, 2015

Nested Problems:  Problem situations which have the appearance of being tame  (and therefore seem to be solvable), but actually are “bundled” problems consisting of tame problems nested within wicked ones. 

In early February, 2014, the keepers at the Copenhagen Zoo were face-to-face with a problem.  It was clear to them that something needed to be done.   The problem had a name – Marius.  Marius was an eighteen-month old reticulated giraffe which had the bad luck to be in the Copenhagen Zoo with other giraffes which shared his genetic makeup.  He was a “surplus” animal.  And so on a misty Sunday morning,  Marius was given his favorite meal of rye bread  - and then shot in the head with a bolt gun.

Why did Marius have to die?  Here is the official, scientific explanation: Marius did not have the genetic profile that would have made him a useful breeder and so in order to protect against inbreeding that would create future problems, he had to be “put down.”  Otherwise,  if kept alive but not allowed to breed, he would have become unruly.  And, he would have used up resources that could be spent on a more genetically desirable animal.  ”Killing Marius was a positive sign,” said Bengt Holst, scientific director at the zoo, “and was insurance that in the future we will have a heathy giraffe population.”

Why shoot Marius and not dispatch him with a lethal injection? Because they had decided to feed Marius to the lions and tigers and did not want to contaminate the meat.  As part of the zoo’s educational outreach, they invited zoo patrons, including children, to witness the “dismemberment” of Marius as they butchered him into pieces.   Their intent was to teach those in attendance about giraffe anatomy.   “This helps increase the knowledge about animals but also about life and death,” said Holst.  ”We are committed to showing the real thing and not make nature into a Disney World.”  And so, after cutting up Marius into manageable pieces of giraffe meat, they fed him, one piece at time to the lions, tigers and leopards. 

Afterwards, the zookeepers were pleased.  They had a problem.  They followed the appropriate scientific principles and solved it.  Job well done they said to themselves.  When the news got out about what happened to Marius, however, they had what can only be called a rude awakening.   They were blindsided by a world-wide avalanche of anger, revulsion and outrage.  Suddenly, they were faced with a much bigger and more serious problem than deciding what to do with Marius.  Among the many hundreds of thousands of colorful messages they received were many that suggested that they were “evil, wicked, sick, psychopaths” who deserved to get what they gave to Marius!   The news that the zoo keepers had cut up Marius in front of children and then fed the various parts to the lions and tigers  resulted in another wave of furious abuse. 

The scientists at the zoo were genuinely surprised at the hullabaloo.  Pleased that they had solved one problem, they were nonplussed  by the sudden appearance of a much bigger one.  Such emotional reaction is “totally out of proportion” said Holst.   “A giraffe is not a pet; it’s not like a dog or cat that becomes part of the family. It’s a wild animal.”  Marius may have been a wild animal for Holst and the zoo staff, but for the children of Copenhagen, Maius was like a pet.  He did not live in the wild.  He lived in a large city, in a zoo where thousands of citizens came to see him He had a name and as he grew, he became a favorite of the children.  When he  would extend his long neck toward the crowds of children and bat his long eyelashes, they would shout, “Hello, Marius.”

The zoo officials never flinched.  ”We know we’ve made this decision in a factual and proper basis. If we are serious about our breeding activities…we need to follow what we know is right.  And this is right!”  Holst only added fuel to the fire when he said “I know that a giraffe is a nice-looking animal, but I don’t think there would have been such an outrage if it had been an antelope, and I don’t think there would have been such an outrage if it had been a pig.”  But it was not a pig, it was Marius. And Marius belonged not only to the zoo but to everybody!

Nested” Problems:   Tame and Wicked

The dilemma of the Copenhagen Zoo officials is not a unique one.  Often, people think that they have solved one problem, only to discover that they have created a much bigger, more serious one.  And then they are puzzled and confused.  ”After all,” they think,  ”we solved the problem, didn’t we?”  What causes them confusion is that they believe that are were working to solve one problem when all along they are working on two.

The source of the confusion among the zoo keepers in Copenhagen was that they were facing a “nested” problem and didn’t know it. It looked like a tame problem on the surface, and therefore, they believed, it could be treated like one.  What they actually had  was a tame problem nested in the middle of a messy, complicated and  intractable wicked one.

The zoo keepers made a common mistake.  They  saw only the tame, or technical problem: “Marius is surplus.  Let’s kill Marius and then take advantage of this wise decision to teach people about life and death.  We will end up with a better zoo and people will learn more about animals.” In the immediate sense it was true that Marius’ existence was a tame problem –  one that could be solved with a bolt gun –  but that was not all that it was.  The  extended problem was bigger and more complicated than how it was defined by the scientists. For example, the people of Copenhagen were also part of the problem situation, as were thousands of people world-wide.  And once they all learned what had happened, the wicked problem part of “The Marius Problem”  broke into public view with all of its emotion and outrage.

Almost all problems that get solved in the laboratory and then applied to people’s day-to-day lives, are nested problems, containing both tame and wicked elements.  Some examples:  The application of DDT to kill mosquitos and halt the progress of malaria seemed to be effective until it was discovered that there were unanticipated  consequences far beyond the original goal;  using nuclear power to generate electricity seemed like a good idea until people became more aware of the dangers of contamination and the difficulties of the storage of spent fuel; the U. S. invasion of Iraq was defined as a military excursion to topple Sadam Heussin. At most, we were told, it would require a few weeks, or several months and then it would be over and the troops could come home.  Mission accomplished!

Many problem solvers – scientists, technical experts, strategic planners, zoo keepers – believe that the problems they are working on are tame ones and that, once solved,  are finished. “Aha,” they say,  ”here’s the problem,  and here’s the solution.  They match! Wonderful! Problem solved, case closed.  Time to move on to the next one.”  They are unaware that the tame problem they are working is frequently nested in the middle of  messy, emotional,  intractable wicked one.  They are genuinely surprised when they learn that the case is not closed,  it is not possible to move on, and the troops are not coming home.

More Nested Problems

Mugged in New Delhi:   The first assailant appeared suddenly in front and silently held out his hand.  As she turned, she saw that the second was behind her, also beckoning for her bag.  She was trapped.  Maeve O’Conner was aware that resistance was not only futile but also could have been dangerous.  She handed it over. “I had other bags with me,” she said later, “but they knew the bag that had fresh bread in it.  They were totally silent, very quick and very effective.”  The whole encounter took only 15 seconds.  Bag in hand,  the two  sauntered arrogantly away, chewing on the bread. O’Conner had not been mugged by people, but by monkeys.

New Delhi has a serious monkey problem. Under normal circumstances, it is one that could  be controlled.  The original plan by the monkey control officials of the city government was  straightforward:  Pass laws to prohibit the feeding of monkeys, then trap them and move them to forested areas.  But the plan was a failure.  The monkey population has grown bigger and more aggressive each year.  The reason is quite simple. The people of New Delhi believe that the monkeys are the living representatives of the Hindu god Hanuman and so must be honored and respected.  The tradition is that they must be fed on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  That leaves Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday when the monkeys must fend for themselves.  And so on these days  they go after the tourists!

It would seem that too many monkeys in New Delhi is a tame problem.  You would think that the experts could find ways to get rid of them.  But the monkey problem is a nested one, not simply a tame one.  When city officials must not only battle the monkeys but the city residents as well, tame solutions will never work.

Wild Horses on the Range:  The problem of wild horses roaming the Western lands of the United States is not difficult to define: There are many more horses and burros than the land can support, thousands and thousands too many. Many people think that there is a simple solution:  Get rid of the excess horses.  Send out expert riflemen, they say, and shoot them. Then send some of the horse meat to France where it is a delicacy and  sell some to the dog food companies, and leave some on the range for the coyotes and buzzards. Problem solved, everybody wins (except the horses).

It’s not that simple of course.  Yes, there are too many horses, but no one can agree on what to do about them. It  is not a tame problem but a nested one, one for which there is no simple or quick solution.  In 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act  which declared wild horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirt of the West.”   Protection of wild horses was assigned to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), thus putting the bureau in an impossible position since the BLM is also charged with maintaining the health of the rangeland.  The only way the BLM could protect the horses was let them range wild and free, and the only way to protect the rangeland was get rid of most of them.   Joseph Heller gave this dilemma a name in his masterful novel Catch-22.

Further complicating matters is that large sections of the range are leased to ranchers as pasture for their cattle.  And it is clear that there is not enough room – or feed – for the cattle and the horses.  The ranchers want action now to reduce the numbers of horses grazing on what they see as their grass.

And then there are the groups that believe that the horses should be left alone.  The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign has weighed in against the BLM’s attempts to remove hoses from the range:  ”It is particularly troubling” they wrote in April of 2014 that the BLM is meeting to discuss the removal of wild horses from public lands.  ”We urge the…officials to refrain from removing wild horses from BLM lands in violation of federal law.”

And the horses?  Their numbers are doubling every four years.

The BLM solution has been to round up the horses, keep them in pens and offer them for adoption. Since 1971 the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program has adopted out more than 230,00 wild animals.  Yet in 2014, there were still over 50,000 horses in corrals waiting for someone to decide what should be done with them.  Keeping wild horses in pens is a very expensive solution that solves nothing.  About half of the BLM’s horse program’s $80 million budget goes to keeping animals in pens, while only 4 percent goes to  on-the-range management. And of those adopted out, no one knows what has happened to them.

Wolves Are Killing Sheep in France:  In the 1930′s, with  government encouragement, French herders and farmers hunted the gray wolf to extinction.  But now the wolves are back!  Beginning in 1992, small groups of wolves entered France from Italy, and, much to the delight of conservationists and European government officials, they have thrived.  For the sheep herders of the high meadows, however, their return has been a disaster.  The wolves have thrived because the sheep in the meadows have been easy pickings.  During the past five years, by official count, the wolves have slaughtered  at least 20,000 sheep .  ”They are killing shepherding as I know it,” said Bernard Bruno, 47, who has lost at least a thousand sheep in recent years.

Why not exterminate the wolves once again?  Recently the European Union, by declaring the wolves to be a protected species,  made that impossible.  ”The wolf’s return to Northern and Western Europe is the success story of the last 40 or 50 years,” said Joe Hennon, the spokesman for the European Commissioner for the Environment of the European Union.  For the herders and famers, it seems much more like the end of their world.

What can be done?  French authorities spend  millions each year to reimburse  herders for lost animals and for the Great Pyrenees guard dogs that are supposed to protect the flocks. But nothing seems to be working:  Sheep and goat losses doubled in the last five years.  ” I don’t know what more I can do,” said shepherd Isabelle Feynerol.  ”And no one has an answer.”

Kill the wolves?  Tame.  Find a way for wolves and sheep to coexist?  Wicked.

Polio in Pakistan:  The eradication of smallpox is one of the great triumphs of modern medicine.  And the eradication of polio should be another great success.  The vaccine against polio has been proven to be safe and effective, permitting millions and millions of children to grow up without its crippling effects.   All that remains in order to rid the world of this scourge is logistics: find the children and give them the vaccine.   Yet it hasn’t happened.  Polio is still crippling children in parts of Africa including Nigeria, Uganda, Togo, and Mali;  in Syria; in the Middle East, and in Pakistan.

The problem is not in the viability of the vaccine.  There is no doubt that it works.  The problem is to be found in society.  Consider the struggles of the public health people in Pakistan: First there is the spreading of false rumors:  The polio vaccine contains HIV, it is made from monkey or pig urine, it is meant to sterilize the children.  And then there is the violence.  In June of 2012, the Taliban ordered a halt to the immunization of 161,000 children in North Waziristan Province until the U. S. drone attacks stopped.  Several months later, in the middle of a three-day campaign to vaccinate all of the children in Pakistan, 15 health workers going door-to-door to vaccinate children were gunned down Karachi.

Several years earlier, Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent over $700 million dollars to eradicate polio, part of a $8.2 billion effort over the past two decades,  listened to the discouraging words of Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official, as he described how the virus was rippling through countries believed to have stopped the disease.  ”There’s no way to sugarcoat the past 12 months,” he said.

“So,” asked Mr. Gates, “What do we do next?”

Stopping the spread of polio and eradicating it from the world is a nested problem:  The tame problem is solved: there is a vaccine.  The wicked part of managing the prejudices, the ignorance, and the hostility so that the children can be vaccinated remain.  

The example of smallpox offers hope that in a future time, polio can disappear as well. 

HPV and Cervical Cancer:  Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.  According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of the women ages 14-19 were infected with at least one strain of the virus, with the highest rate, 54 percent, among women ages 20-24.  While HPV is a problem in its own right, its most serious consequence is that it can cause cervical cancer.

The good news in this story is that in 2006 a vaccine was licensed which prevents certain strains of HPV.  The bad news is that only 35 percent of those who can benefit from the vaccine – girls between 13 and 17 – have been protected. “Behind these numbers are people who will develop cervical cancer that could have been prevented,” said Dr. Bruce Gellin, director of the National Vaccine Program Office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The most important reason that young girls and women are not being protected from what could be a deadly virus is the attitude of the parents.  In 2008, 40 percent of parents said they would not have their girls vaccinated.  In 2010 the percentage of parents opposing vaccination rose to 44 percent.  Some of the parents reported that they were suspicious of all  vaccines, but most were loath to talk to their children about sexual issues in general and STD’s in particular.  According to Dr. Amanda Dempsey, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado in Denver, “when asked, most parents say ‘I just don’t want this vaccine for my daughter.’  If you probe further,  it was either safety concerns or the sex issue.”  Since the parents of young girls are choosing to not have their daughters vaccinated, the medical experts are frustrated.  After all, they reason, science made it possible to avoid  most of the risks of a deadly disease.  Why don’t the parents want to have their girls protected against the possibility of cervical cancer?   “I can’t remember a vaccine where I saw a pattern like this,” said  Dr. Walter Ornstein, director of Emory University’s Program for Vaccine Policy and Development, who ran the CDC immunization program for 16 years.  What they don’t realize is that the problem that worries them is not a tame one but a wicked one.

Once we understand the nature of “nested” problems, no one should be surprised that people who expect to see some problems solved are frustrated   Developing a vaccine against a specific illness is a tame problem, but it is not the whole story.   Actually getting people vaccinated is much more complicated. When beliefs, prejudices, fears, and misinformation is introduced into the equation, the problem becomes a wicked one.

Develop a vaccine?  A tame problem.  Making sure people get vaccinated?  A wicked one.

 Follow Your Bliss

During the 1980′s, in a previous life as a psychotherapist, a middle-aged woman called and asked to see me.  ”I have decided to follow my bliss,” she announced.  Unsure as to what she was telling me or why, I asked “What do you mean, ‘follow your bliss?’ ”

She seemed shocked that I was not up-to-date on the latest advice about how to live one’s life.  ”Here is what Joseph Campbell tells us to do,” she responded,  quoting Campbell:

If  you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of a track that
has all the while been waiting for you, and [then]the life your ought to

be living is the one you are living…I say follow your bliss and don’t be afraid…
If you follow your  bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have
opened for anyone else.

“And how to you plan to ‘follow your bliss’ ” I asked?

“I have spent the last twelve years of my life raising my four children and trying to please my husband,” she answered. “Now it is my turn. I am planning to leave for India where I hope to find what I am seeking.”

“And what about your family?” I asked.

“Well,” she answered, “they will just have to find their own bliss to follow.”

This dissatisfied woman had come face-to-face with a problem:  ”I am unhappy and dissatisfied.  How do I find what I need to feel whole and worthwhile?”  Her solution?  ”I will follow my bliss.”   Her understanding of her problem was that it was a tame one: one that she could solve herself.  As we can clearly see, however, it was not a tame problem but a nested one, containing wicked elements. By choosing to “follow her bliss,”  focusing only on her own satisfaction and ignoring her responsibilities and commitments, she was creating serious problems for others.

My therapeutic intervention on that afternoon consisted of trying to help her see that the decision she was thinking of making would seriously affect other people.  It didn’t seem to matter.

There are some “problems” that we can solve without affecting the lives of others:  Decide to major in economics; work to be able to do 25 pushups and 15 pull-ups at the gym; learn to play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven; lose twenty pounds.  These are tame problems.  Each of them, given enough discipline and dedication, can be solved.

However, most of the problems we face in our personal and professional lives are not tame ones, but are nested problems, containing both tame and wicked elements.  Dealing with them requires a very difference approach, one that  I will turn to in the next essay.

“Follow Your Blisters!”

A year or so later, the woman who went off to India with the plan to “follow her bliss,” called and asked to see me again. “I learned that my bliss wasn’t in India at all” she told me.  And Joseph Campbell?  Later in his life, after  becoming aware of disruptions his advice caused in the lives of  thousands of people,  he said “I should have said ‘Follow your blisters!’ ”