Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Seven Levels of Problems and Why They Are Important.




July 15, 2015


For years I have had on my office wall a poster titled Success with these words attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;  TO KNOW EVEN ONE LIFE HAS BREATHED EASIER BECAUSE YOU HAVE LIVED.  THIS IS TO HAVE SUCCEEDED.

Recently I learned that these words are probably not Emerson’s at all, yet I continue to appreciate them. What impresses me is the wide range of issues and situations that are included in this definition of success.  From this perspective success is neither simplistic nor unidimensional.

For example, in these words there is a Personal Dimension, elements of success that can be achieved by one person acting alone:

  • Laugh often and much;
  • Appreciate beauty;
  • Plant a garden;

There is also a Relationship Dimension which requires being involved with other people:

  • Win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
  • Earn the appreciation of honest critics;
  • Endure the betrayal of false friends;
  • Find the best in others;
  • Raise a healthy child.

And finally, there is a Societal Dimension:

  • Leave the world a bit better…by a redeemed social condition.

From this perspective, success does not have a narrow, individualistic focus.  Getting rich and leaving it at that would not fit within Emerson’s definition.   Rather, success is best understood to be wide and deep, combining  many elements,  including personal preferences and private actions, relationships with other people, and contributions to society.

Wicked Problems  Are Also Wide and Deep

Examining the nature of problems, we  discover similar complexities. There are different levels at which problems can be found:  There are personal experiences, some of which other people may not be aware;  there are relationship issues involving one or more other people; other problems are located in teams, groups, and organizations; and finally, still others are societal, national or global in their scope and extension.  Just as our understanding of success is enriched by seeing it as multi-dimensional, from individual achievements to relationships to organizations, so our understanding of the nature of problems is enhanced by examining the different levels at which problems occur.

What is important about recognizing problems at different levels is threefold:  First, problems that occur at different levels will be experienced differently. For example, intrapersonal and interpersonal problems are frequently emotionally intense and overwhelming, while problems at an organizational level will be seen as important by some and as distant and uninteresting by others.

Second, they will differ in their content, substance, and complexity.

Finally, and most importantly, they must be addressed differently.  The fact that problems exist at different levels means that before they can be defined or plans made to deal with them, the level of the problem must be identified.  Only then can efforts be directed toward deciding what to do about them.  For example, John William’s frustration with the frequent conflict with his boss at work is a very different problem than the issues of Quality or Organizational Justice with which that the organization as a whole is grappling.

Justice Problems in the Judicial System

Officer David Storten of the Palo Alto, California police force had a problem.  He was missing a large part of his right ear.  He lost it in the middle of a melee while trying to subdue identical twins Jonathan and Shawn Blick.  While he had one around the neck and was trying to force him to the ground, the other one moved in and bit off his ear. Both men were arrested and both were charged with mayhem, attempted burglary, and assaulting a police officer.  The one who bit his ear was charged with a much more serious crime – aggravated mayhem –  which carried a possible life sentence.

And which one had bitten off the piece of his ear?  And easy call, said Officer Shorten, it was  the one with the long hair, not the one with the crew cut.

But when the twins appeared in court three days later to be arraigned, both were sporting crew cuts.  And both denied biting the officer’s ear.

Now Officer Storton had a new problem:  He was confident that one of the twins had bitten his ear, but he could not say for sure which one had done it.  One of the twins was the biter, but no one could say which one.  And the two who knew weren’t talking.

Officer Storten not only had a problem with his now diminished ear.  The Blick brothers had a problem as well.  Even though their “hair cut solution” diminished the risk of one of them suffering the most serious punishment, both continued to face the judgement of the law for their criminal behavior.

The City of Palo Alto also had a problem.  Municipalities are responsible for keeping the peace and dispensing justice by determining the guilt or innocence of people brought into their judicial system and administering fair and appropriate punishment. And since in this case the issue of “reasonable doubt” seemed insurmountable, how was justice to be served?

And finally, the biting of Officer Storton’s ear reveals larger and more complicated problems that are inherent in governmental judicial systems everywhere, from the City of Palo Alto to the State of California to the Federal Government to the International Criminal Court.  Among the  many roles of government at all levels, among the most important  is to ensure that justice is more than a oft-repeated goal.  For many complicated reasons-  inept and  sloppy police work, unprepared prosecutors and lawyers, carelessness,  biases and prejudice, and lack of resources – ensuring a fair administration of justice is a difficult, often impossible task.  As a character  in William Gaddis’ novel A Frolic of His Own put it:  ”Justice?  - You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

 Drone Problems in the Air Force

Individuals:  Heather Linebaugh has a recurring dream, one that she experiences even when she is awake:  A man bleeds profusely  from a leg shattered by a missile.  He drags himself slowly across a field until he dies in a dusty field.  This dream did not emerge from her imagination.  She actually watched it happen even though she was in California and the man with the shattered leg was in Afghanistan.

Clan Westmorland dreams of dozens of children staring at the sky in terror.

Brandon Bryant writes poems about soldiers dying in a sea of blood.

Each of these individuals is an Air Force officers suffering from the emotional exhaustion and distress brought about by sitting in front of a  computer screen in the United States and watching or directing missile strikes from drones that are thousands of miles away.  Working up to 12 hours a day, sometimes six days a week, these analysts and pilots often watch their targets for months on end  before firing the missile that will kill them.  Often, during these hundreds of hours, they begin to feel as if they know their victims, and frequently begin to feel empathy for them.   “They often witness their subject’s final moments.  In follow-up surveillance, they may even watch their funerals,” reported The New York Times on July 14, 2015.  Trevor Tasis, a pilot who retired as a major in 2014 after flying Predator drones and training new pilots, called the work “brutal, 24 hours a day, 365 days a  year.”  A Defense Department study in 2013 found that drone pilots, even though they were not in direct physical combat, experienced mental health problems like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Families:  The effects of “flying” drones is not only experienced by the pilots, but by their families as well.  What seemed at first to be a benefit of having pilots and crews fly Predator and Reaper drones via satellite links while living safely in the United States with their families has created new types of stress and emotional distress that the families are not ready to cope with.    Rather than being deployed overseas for a year or so, stressful enough but manageable, pilots and crew members are now, in effect, “perpetually deployed.”  Col. James Cluff, commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing which runs drone operations from Creech Air Force base in Nevada, named the problem:  ”Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate on the way home and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home  - and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home – all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman.”  Former pilot, Bruce Black was part of a team that watched Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, for 600 hours before he was killed by a bomb from a manned aircraft.  ”After something like that,” he said to The New York Times on June 16, 2015, “you come home and have to make all the little choices about the kids clothes or if I parked in the right place.  And after making life and death decisions all day, it doesn’t matter.  It’s hard to care.”

Military Units:  Much of the stress that drone pilots experience is caused by a shortage of trained personnel to fly and maintain the drones.  Because of the continuous pressure and stress, pilots and crew members are leaving the military in droves and are not being replaced.  Military units that are charged with flying and maintaining the drones are struggling to complete the planned number of missions assigned to them, and as a result, the pilots who remain end up flying more and more hours.  On the average, drone pilots fly up to 900 hours a year, compared with fighter pilots who are in the cockpit an average of 250 hours a year.

Air Force:  A range of world-wide security crises, including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as tense situations in Yemen, North Korea and China, has led to an increasing demand from military commanders for increased intelligence and attack capability that only drone aircraft can provide.  Yet in trying to deliver,  the Air Force finds itself in serious difficulties.  They do not have enough pilots to meet these demands.  Rather than raising the number of daily missions in 2015 from 65 to 70 as planned,  the Air Force announced in June that it would reduce the flight numbers to 60.  Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter agreed to the cuts after it became apparent that “the system was at the breaking point.”

The core of the problem is that the drone pilots, feeling “undermanned and overworked” are completing their obligations to the Air Force and then immediately opting to leave.  Numbers tell the story: about 180 pilots are trained each year  while 230 or so leave.  ”We are at an inflection point right now,” said Col. Cluff.

The Air Force is examining  several “solutions” to its drone problems, including assigning newly trained pilots to drones rather than allowing them to choose the types of aircraft they want to fly; offering pilots who sign on for five years of drone duty  $15,000 per year in bonuses;  and even relaxing the requirements that drone pilots be officers, and thereby opening up piloting opportunities for enlisted personnel.

But no matter what remedies the Air Force chooses, given the insatiable demand for drone missions, there is little hope that this problem will not only not go away but will only get worse in the foreseeable future.

Nation:  The rational for our nation entering vigorously into a program of weaponizing drones was twofold:  First, streaming high-quality video in real time via satellite offered the enticing promise to be able to kill enemy combatants with pinpoint accuracy and avoid killing innocent civilians; and second, it promised to keep American personnel out of harm’s way by “going to war” in the comfort of  air-conditioned trailers  in the Nevada desert.

Neither of these assumptions has turned out to be correct.

As we have seen, flying drones in Pakistan and elsewhere from a military trailer in Nevada is as emotionally threatening to the pilots as if they were flying their missions in combat airplanes.   And while the actual number of civilians that have been killed in drone strikes is classified, there is no question that they number in the hundreds if not thousands..  In April of 2015,  President Obama had to struggle with the aftermath of a drone mission that killed not only its targeted enemies, but also two hostages, Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old American aid worker, and Giovanni Lo Porto, a 37-year-old Italian hostage.   Weighing the inherent risks to civilians against the potential benefits of what government officials call “narrowly tailored counterterrorism operations” is among the most difficult – and wicked – problems that administration officials are currently facing.  And they are problems that can never be fully resolved.

International, Global:   The global problems with surveillance and conducting war by drones centers on one perplexing and complex issue:  Every nation that sees itself as a player in the international scene is moving toward building and flying its own fleet of drones.  Before long, many nations will be deploying them in the service of their own missions and goals.  And all of this is happening without any international agreement as to what is best for humanity in general.   Once again, as was the case with chemical weapons and atomic bombs,  technology has outrun our capabilities to understand its consequences.

The Seven Levels

As I stated earlier, there are seven problem levels, each of which presents different challenges and requires  different approaches.  From the examples discussed above we can identify issues and situations which correspond to each level:

I - Intrapersonal  (Personal): Officer Storton’s anguish over losing part of his ear;  the debilitating dreams of death that haunt the days and nights of a drone pilot suffering burn out.

II - Interpersonal Relationships:  Storton’s frustration with the Blick Twins;  tensions between Air Force pilots who feel as if they are “permanently deployed” and their family members.

III – Teams, Groups:  The Palo Alto police force’s struggles to charge the right person with the right crime; the undermanned Air Force unit that demands more and more from fewer and fewer members.

IV - Organizational: The perpetual struggle of  judicial systems – police, courts, lawyers – to uphold the laws and seek justice; the increasing pressure upon the Air Force to meet its goals and perform its mission with insufficient personnel and resources.

V – Community:  The tensions  between police personnel who are attempting to enforce the laws, and community members who are feeling mistreated, misunderstood and discriminated against; an increase in marital tensions in Air Force couples on military bases.

VI - National, Societal:  The debates and disagreement over policies and practices of police work and the lack of trust in our systems of justice especially among citizens  in urban areas; the controversies and arguments over the use of new technologies in waging war.

VI - International, Global:  The continuous struggle between national policies and practices of human rights;  the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated technologies in waging war.

Why Is the Idea of Problem Levels Important?

Different level problems will be experienced differently, defined differently, and must be dealt with differently.  The level at which a problem exists is among the most important factors in dealing with it.  Get this wrong, and nothing that follows will be either helpful or productive.

A cartoon from the New Yorker clearly articulates this distinction of problem levels:  A defendant, looking dismayed and crestfallen, stands before a judge.  ”For heavens sake,” the judge says to him,  ” It’s not the end of the world!  People are sentenced to prison every day.”





Steve Lewis Finds a Third Way



June 30

Steve Lewis had every reason to be pleased with the ways things were turning out.  After finishing his graduate degree near the top of his class, he had landed his dream job as an analyst at a prestigious New York investment bank.  While the work days were long, and the regular weekend assignments a bit onerous, he was willing to put in the time.  Among his most important values was the belief that hard work and sacrifice early in one’s career would bring future rewards.  He was convinced that if he could build a reputation as a capable and dedicated worker, a person who could be counted on when things were difficult,  there would be no limit to what he could achieve in the future.

Early one Tuesday morning, Lewis picked up a voice mail message asking if he would be willing to fly to St. Louis in two days to help with a presentation for an important prospective client.  Lewis was surprised.  The firm had a policy against analysts being included in the company presentation teams because they lacked adequate experience and relevant expertise.  What made this invitation even more puzzling was that Lewis had  no idea how he could help.  He had no knowledge of the subject of the presentation, a specialized area of municipal finance.

Lewis immediately picked up the phone and called Andrew Webster, a friend and partner in the firm and his mentor during the time Lewis at been at the bank.  ”Andy, what’s the deal here?  Did you know that I’ve been invited to go to St. Louis?  Are you behind this?”

“Steve,” responded Webster,  ”come and see me in fifteen minutes.”

Fifteen minutes later, as Lewis settled into a chair in Webster’s office, Webster began by saying, “Steve, I hate for you to be introduced to this side of the business so soon, but here it is.  The new state treasurer of Missouri is black, and he has let it be known that he expects to see one black professional on our presentation team or there is no chance  the firm will be named manager for this deal.  So, there are two possibities,  either you or me.  If you feel uncomfortable about it, I could try and change my schedule and make the trip.”

“Well,” said Lewis, ” let me think it over.  I’ll get back to you this afternoon.”

For Lewis, the issue was important.  He had spend years wondering if he had been included or excluded from things because of his race. The issue made him uncomfortable and at times, angry.  And now, at a critical time in his new career, he was being asked to be on a high profile team, not because of what he could contribute, but because he was black.

His first impulse was to say no, that he would not be used this way.  And yet Andy, his mentor and a partner in the firm had seemed to be at peace with race being used as a competitive advantage.  After all, he had offered to go in Lewis’ place.  Did his own  sense of unease come from his youth and lack of experience? Would he come to understand that in the “real world,” there was little room for idealism and integrity, that you did what had to be done?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

He felt caught.  On the one hand, he had been invited to join the team that was making a presentation to the most important potential client the bank had on its agenda.  If he said no, would that be seen as not being willing to show up and do what was required? Would it lead to being defined as “not a team player?” On the other hand, the reason that he had been invited was because of the color of his skin, clearly a form of racism tacitly approved by the organization.

He took a pad of paper and wrote on one side:  ”It is right to be a loyal and a contributing member of the firm.”  He could see the obvious advantages, both for him and for the firm.  Even if he could not make any substantial contribution, his presence with his black skin would not only be helpful, but necessary.  And he would earn points for being willing to help.

On the other side he wrote:  ”It is right to refuse to be treated as a token, to be used because of one’s race.”  He remembered a conversation he had in graduate school with several other black students.  As they talked about their futures, they were in agreement that they should stand up against racism in all of its forms.  He thought of Malcom X who condemned the “house slaves,” those who worked comfortably indoors and were willing to do whatever their masters wanted.

What is the right thing to do?  What was wrong seemed clear.  ”It is wrong,”  he thought, “to be treated as an object rather than as a person.  It is right to stand up for one’s core values, to be true to one’s identity.”

Yet the other side continued to command his attention:  ”It is right to be loyal to the firm and to take on important assignments.  Is it wrong” he wondered,” to be overly concerned with one’s personal issues and concerns.”

Right vs. Right: Self Respect vs. Loyalty

Lewis’s dilemma was that both sides of this issue were right.  He could make a case for saying yes, and one for saying no.  He could focus upon his personal sense of identity and worth – “I am a black man and I refuse to be treated as a token person or as an object.”- Or he could focus upon the organizational reality – “In order to get the business, we need to have a black professional on the team .”

“I didn’t make up this rule ,” thought Lewis,  ”it’s the way things are done at this time in our business.  If I don’t go then Andy will. And where will that leave me?  If I can’t live with this, then maybe I am in the wrong business.”  Yet Lewis was also keenly aware that that if he chose to join the team and serve as the token black, he would be disappointing himself,  his parents, and the larger black community.

Lewis Finds A Third Way 

Lewis faced a serious dilemma. As  Joseph Badaracco put it in Defining Moments:  When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right , “He needed to find a plan of action that would preserve the values he cared about without making himself a noble, unnoticed young martyr.”

After an hour of wrestling with choices and consequence, an idea came to him. Thirty minutes later, he reached for the phone and called the leader of the presentation team.  ”Jack,” he said, “I have been thinking about your invitation to join the St. Louis team and I would like to go. But there is something I would like to run past you before I make a final decision.”

Later in the afternoon, Lewis called Webster.  ”Andy,” he said, “I have been thinking all day about the invitation to go to St. Lewis.  It’s no secret that I have felt uncomfortable in being asked to go just because I am black.  But I also want to be supportive and help out.  So I called Jack and told him that I would be willing to go if I could make part of the presentation to the client.  Jack was doubtful at first, but he was willing to hear me out.  We went over the presentation agenda and found a topic that both he and I felt that if I worked really hard over the next 24 hours, I would be ready to present.   So I’ve signed on and feel good about it.”

Even though it was an enormous and stressful task getting ready, after it was over Lewis felt good about the way it went. No one on the client team had any questions for him (for which he was very grateful) and his  colleagues seemed satisfied.  On the flight back they thanked him for helping out, especially on short notice.

Steve Lewis had come face-to-face with what is often the most difficult of wicked problems.  Both of his choices were “right,” yet if he chose one over the other there would be real costs, on  one hand a personal one, and on the other, an organizational one. By working hard to find a Third Way, Lewis was able to find his way out of the dilemma with no cost and important benefits.  ”On balance,” Badaracco writes,

” Lewis was pleased and relieved about what he had done.  He believed that he had defined the dilemma soundly, at least in terms of his experience and values.  And on the whole, he resolved it without betraying his parents and himself by merely attending the meeting and serving a decorative function.  At the same time his career prospects may have been strengthened.  He felt he had passed a minor test, a rite of passage at his firm and demonstrated that he was willing to do what it took to get the job done.”

All of us, at one time or another, will come face-to-face with the wickedness of Right vs. Right problems.  Spending the time and effort to look for a Third Way alternative, and when one is not clearly apparent, creating one as Steve Lewis did, is a valuable skill and a strategy worth pursuing.  And when they are executed well, Third Way alternatives can bring huge benefits, both to us as individuals and to the organizations and institutions in which we work.