Monthly Archives: October 2015

Hillary Clinton – and Others – Discover Wicked Problems

IMG_0364 October 30, 2015

In the early 1970′s, Berkeley professors Horst Riddle and Melvin Webber divided the world of problems into two categories:  Tame and Wicked.  It was then, as it is now, an important distinction, one that helps explain why individuals, as well as organizations and societies, can never seem to find solutions to some of their most important problems.

For almost four decades almost no one noticed.

Even today, 43 years later, the vast majority of people who talk about solving problems (especially politicians and business executives) are distinguished by their lack of understanding of the nature of the problems that they promise to “solve”.

During this present decade, however, things have been rapidly changing.   All over the world, governments, politicians, think tanks, businesses, and experts in strategy and policy have discovered that naming problems as “wicked” is a useful approach.   Here are six examples:

Hillary Clinton’s Wicked Problems 

In 2014, Hillary Clinton published Hard Choices, a history of her years as Secretary of State.  Chapter 19 is titled “Syria: A Wicked Problem.”   Here is how she explains her choice of “wicked” in the title of the chapter:  ”I started referring to Syria as a “wicked problem,” a term used by planning experts to describe particularly complex challenges that confound standard solutions and approaches.  Wicked problems rarely have right answers; in fact, part of what makes them wicked is that every option appears worse than the next.”

As she analyzes the options that were open to the United States, it is obvious that Clinton understands the perverse nature of wicked problems:   “Do nothing and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region.  Intervene militarily and risk opening Pandora’s Box and walking into another quagmire like Iraq.  Send aid to the rebels and watch it end up the hands of the extremists.  Continue with diplomacy and run headfirst into a Russian veto.  None of these approaches offered much hope of success but we had to keep at it.”  Though she doesn’t make it explicit,  Clinton is struggling with one of the most important characteristics of wicked problems:  Since there are no right answers or correct solutions, what is left for decision makers is to find from among the “bad” choices, the “best” one available.

She ends the chapter with these words:  ”But wicked problems can’t paralyze us.  We need to keep urgently seeking solutions however hard they are to find.”

Daniel Yankelovich’s Proposal

Daniel Yankelovich,  in his 2015 autobiography, Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions:  Lessons from a Public Life, uses the concept of wicked problems as a framework to identify and discuss the many issues and problems that we face as a nation.

For over five decades one of the most astute and influential observers of the American scene, Yankelovich begins with these words:

“For almost forty years our economy has bred stagnant wages, long-term unemployment, huge disparities of wealth, and fewer escalators of social mobility.

This is without a doubt a ‘Wicked Problem.’

Not only are we facing this almost overwhelming “Wicked Problem,” he insists, but things are much worse than they seem:   “The thesis of this book  is that with all the wicked problems the nation faces [and he names dozens], it will be difficult to get back on track without a more thoughtful, more fully engaged public, and without a more public-minded philosophy than now prevails.  Today’s public feels powerless, mistrustful, inattentive, and disengaged.  This makes our wicked problems harder to resolve.”

Unless there are major changes in American society, he believes, there is little that we can do.

He offers a plan for making major changes:  In the coming decades he suggests that

  • We will need to upgrade the public’s role in our democracy.  Americans must become as effective as citizens as they are as consumers.
  • We will need to restore greater fairness to our system of capitalism, so that it is once again democracy-friendly.
  • We need to rebuild the moral authority of our culture and provide individuals with better tools for making life’s existential decisions.

These are “huge tasks,” he acknowledges.  ”But they can be accomplished if we are brave enough and smart enough.”

Near the end of the book, Yankelovich offers his list of the thirteen “Great Tasks and Wicked Problems that Confront Our Society.”

Here are several of these wicked problems:

  • Curbing the extreme individualism of our culture and elevating the importance of caring for the larger community;
  • Reviving our tradition of compromise and pragmatic problem solving;
  • Upgrading our democracy by strengthening its “by the people” dimension;
  • Narrowing the social class gap between elites and the general public;
  • Strengthening our social ethos and reviving a strong sense of right versus wrong, as distinct from legal versus illegal;
  • Encouraging a critical mass of Americans to develop a philosophy of life that focuses on the importance of restoring civic virtue to society.

Wicked problems all!

Rachel Pritzker’s  Attack on Wicked Problems

Rachel Pritzker, member of the fourth generation of one of America’s richest and most powerful families, and sister to Penny Pritzker, currently serving as President Obama’s  Secretary of Commerce, is on the hunt for societie’s most difficult problems.   In 2004 she founded the Pritzker Innovation Fund and assigned to it this challenge:  ” [t0] support.. the development and advancement of paradigm-shifting ideas to address the world’s most wicked problems.”

The goal of the Fund, as expressed on its website, is to “offer…workable solutions to a range of wicked 21st Century problems, with a specific focus on energy, innovation, energy access and conservation.”

How do they intend to generate “workable solutions” to our most important wicked problems? Their approach is admirable.  Rather than rush into programs to support or advocate for one policy position over another, “our approach…unlike other funders… is less focused upon advocacy and more focused on idea generation…”  Why  ideas?  ”We believe that is it important to gain greater clarity before knowing what to advocate for.  While advocacy inherently limits policy options by promoting specific ideas, idea generation can clarify and even expand available choices.”

Their plan to encourage the generation of new and better ideas is straightforward: “We provide financial support and active encouragement to some of the world’s smartest thinkers and organizations to empower them to generate and promote new ideas that address wicked problems.”

Reading between the lines on the website of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, one may conclude  that not only does the Pritzker family want to generate new approaches to wicked problems, they also want to shape the direction of philanthropy as a whole .  ”Wicked problems are challenges so complex,” they write, “they defy easy understanding.  There is wide disagreement about the exact nature of the problems, let alone the solutions to them.  Many of the big issues philanthropy aims to address today …are classic wicked problems.”   Perhaps they are suggesting that what foundations ought to be doing in the 21st Century is finding ways to address societie’s wicked problems.

John Kao’s “Indispensable Nation”

In the opening pages of Innovation Nation, published in 2007, former Harvard professor John Kao describes a bleak future for the world community and especially for the  United States. We are facing a series of wicked problems, he believes,  and offers a list:  Climate change, environmental degradation, communicable diseases, education, water quality, poverty, population migration, and energy sufficiency.

In order to learn more about plans and programs for dealing with wicked problems, he interviews dozens of leaders in politics, business and academia, and concludes that they have a “dangerously limited understanding” of what wicked problems are, why they are important, and what could be done with them.  He ends up in despair.

And then he has an epiphany:   What if we “flipped them on their heads,” and embraced wicked problems as the “keys for making the most consequential breakthroughs of the 21st Century?”  What is needed, he decides, is innovation. “Innovation applied to a wicked problem,” he writes,” can realize an enormous amount of social and economic value by setting new commercial standards, creating new businesses, and generating new sources of value.”

But the traditional model of innovation, driven primarily by individuals or corporations, would not be powerful enough to make headway with wicked problems.  What is needed is a new operating model of innovation itself  - “Large Scale Innovation” – in which societies themselves would become the engines of innovation.

Kao argues that only the United States has the resources and the talent to lead out.  ”America [must] accept the mantle of accelerating for global innovation by steering the world toward addressing the formidable range of wicked problems that we face.”  Kao not only sees benefits for the world in such an initiative, but insists that unless America takes the lead, its own position in the world is in jeopardy.   The last century may have been the “American Century,” but, Kao believes, unless there is a change in direction, the 21st Century will belong to other nations.  On the other hand, if the United States chooses to rise to the occasion and takes the lead in addressing global wicked problems, then  it is within its power to once again earn the status of “indispensable nation.”

Jonathan Heidt’s “Most Useful Concept” 

Jonathan Heidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at the Sterns School of Business at New York University, is one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the and the world.  In 2012 he was named as one of the “Top Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy Magazine, and in 2013, one of the  ”Top World Thinkers” by Prospect Magazine.    The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, published in 2012, has been a consistent bestseller in the New York Times.

In an introduction to a lecture given at the Zurich Minds Festival in November of 2014, Heidt says “This talk explains the most useful concept I have encountered in years – the concept of “wicked problems”…”

His candidates for wicked problems are “poverty, education, or racial equality,” and they are “so different from tame problems (like curing cholera) which can be very challenging technically, but…just sit there and let the experts converge upon solutions.”  His hope for his lecture in Zurich was to help people think more clearly about economic debates “which are usually…wicked problems with moral implications.”

Time Magazine’s Superwicked Problem

In the edition of August 17, 2015, Time Magazine joined the expanding group of scholars, authors, and leaders in paying respects to the existence and importance of wicked problems.  Here is how Time defined a wicked problem:  …”one so complex, with so many different causes and stakeholders, that it is all but impossible to solve it completely.  Poverty is a wicked problem; so is terrorism.”

Yet its reason for writing about wicked problems was not to discuss poverty or terrorism.  The editors’ use “wicked” to identify what they see as the planet’s most important challenge (and hence, in one sense, the most important one for all of us):  climate change! It is so important, and so “wicked” that they labeled it as “A Superwicked Problem.” Here is how they present their case:

“Climate change is caused by virtually every energy-consuming act in the modern world, touches every person on the planet, has the potential to irrevocably alter the environment on which every living thing depends and extends from the present into the distant future.  And nearly half the country denies that it’s a problem at all.  Hence the super.”

Their conclusion to the article is gloomy.  No matter what efforts are made to deal with climate change, it may be “too little too late!”

A Good Beginning

Over fifteen years ago, I signed on for a service from Google – Google Alert.  Here’s how it works:  Enter a term into the search engine of Google Alert  and each day Google will survey the entire web, find any reference to the term (or terms)  you are interested in, and send a notice of where to find it.   For all of these 15 years, my term of interest has been “wicked problems.”  For the first 8 or 9 years a notice that someone had posted a comment about wicked problems on the web was rare. I would go weeks and sometimes months without a single notice.   In the past few years, however,  it is rare that I do not receive a notice at least once a day  that someone somewhere is thinking or discussing or writing about wicked problems.  Conferences are being organized.  Academic papers are being published.  Books are being written.  Governments are creating agencies to take them in charge.  Clearly, as Bob Dylan once wrote, “The times they are a’changin’.”

In this essay I have identified and discussed the actions of people – several of whom are at the forefront of politics  and social action – who are talking about problems being “wicked,” and in several cases, expressing a strong commitment  to taking actions against them in order to make things better.

It is a good beginning.  But it is only a beginning.  As we – as individuals, as members of families, as partners in important relationships, as leaders in organizations and in governments – become  more aware of the existence of wicked problems, more able to converse with others about them, and, more importantly, more skillful in addressing them,  our individual and collective capabilities for successful work with wicked problems will increase.  Knowing more about wicked problems and then converting that knowledge into constructive action can make a huge difference.  But we are only at the beginning of what is clearly a long road into the future.  There is much more to do.







The Mismatch Problem: Problem Levels and Unhelpful Responses


October 4, 2015

 Alice:  Every forty-five seconds someone in the United States sustains a head injury.

 Fred:  Omigod!  That poor guy!

Fred’s misunderstanding is an example of a mismatch between a problem statement  (There is a head injury in the United States every forty-five seconds) and the problem level (“Ah,” thinks Fred, “she is talking about one person”).  The result of such a mismatch?  Confusion, misunderstanding and, at times, conflict.

Consider the plight of Donald E. Miller Jr. who in October 13, 2014 appeared before Judge Allen H. Davis of the Hancock County Probate Court in Hancock, Ohio.  Mr. Miller wanted to get a driver’s license and when he applied to the Department of Motor Vehicles he discovered that he was not eligible.  You can’t have a license he  was told because you are dead!  It seems that in 1994 his ex-wife, claiming that Mr. Miller had disappeared and wanting to apply for Social Security benefits for their two daughters, requested that a court declare Mr. Miller dead.  Which is what it did.

When Mr. Miller told Judge Davis that he couldn’t be dead since he was in court conversing with him, the judge replied with the judicial equivalent of “Sorry, you’re out of luck.”   Once the State of Ohio declares that someone is dead and three years pass, the judge told him, the judgement can not be reversed. “I don’t know where this leaves you,” the judge told Mr. Miller, “but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”

Mr. Miller was trying to address a personal problem.  He needed a driver’s license and since such licenses are granted by the state, that’s where he turned.  The State of Ohio, operating as it does at the Societal/National level, was  concerned with Mr. Miller’s existence at a legal bureaucratic level. Even the fact that he was in court, obviously alive,  pleading his case made no difference.  If the law says Mr. Miller is dead, then he is dead.  And dead people don’t get licenses to drive.

Examples of Mismatches Between a Problem Level and a Response

The Cary Grant Frustration:

Among the  many sources of conflict in our lives is the continuing tension between being an authentic person – being ourselves in a natural and open way – and performing the roles that society assigns us.  At a society level, nurses are supposed to be helpful and considerate; teachers patient and understanding; clerks responsive to customers with smiles and helpful attention,;and polices officer friendly and respectful.   There is no better example of this tension than the lament of Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant.  ”Everybody wants to be Cary Grant,” said Leach.  ”Even I want to be Cary Grant.”  Long before Cary Grant existed,  Archibald Alexander Leach was reasonably comfortable being Archie Leach.  Once he became Cary Grant, however,  it was a different story.  The Cary Grant who appeared on the screen was a persona always out of reach of Archie Leach, and Leach spent the rest of his life grappling with the discrepancy.  Being Archie Leach was one thing, but being Cary Grant- except in the movies -was beyond him.

Actress Rita Hayworth, who was born Margarita Carmen Cansino,  expressed the same frustration – tinged with sadness – when she was quoted saying, “Men go to bed with Rita Hayworth, and wake up in the morning with me.”

Robert Redford reported a similar frustration.  Accosted on a Hollywood street by a group of tourists, he was asked “Aren’t you Robert Redford?”  His answer casts light on the mismatch between the individual person and a societal image and reputation:  ”Only when I’m alone,” Redford answered.

The mismatch?  Archie Leach, Margarita Cansino, and Robert Redford, famous as movie stars, were all uncomfortable fitting into the roles their fans expected them to play as if they were the people they portrayed in the movies.

The “Knees Go Home” Mismatch:

In March of 2004 Barbara Toone entered the hospital to have a knee replaced  The next day when the nurse came in to change the dressings on her knee, she asked “When do you think I can go home?”  Without missing a beat the nurse replied on her way out “Knees go home after four days.”

“I remember feeling so hurt and angry,”  Ms. Toone wrote in a letter to The New York Times on August 18, 2005.   “I had the instant image in my head that I was a knee, sitting in my wheelchair, not a person but a body part.  It is a very painful memory.”

When Ms. Toone was treated as if she were a “knee”  rather than the unique and special person that she felt she was, she was deeply offended.

The “Have You Passed Gas Yet?” Mismatch:

Mary Duffy was lying in her bed half-asleep on the morning after her breast cancer surgery when without warning a group of white-coated strangers filed into her hospital room and surrounded her bed.  Without a word, one of them leaned forward, pulled back the blanket, and slipped her nightgown from her shoulders.  Weak and confused, Ms. Duffy still managed to exclaim in a voice tinged with sarcasm,  ”Well, good morning to you, too!”

The doctor seemed not to hear, and using Ms. Duffy’s naked chest to illustrate his points, launched into a lecture about possible complications of post-operative treatment for breast cancer surgery to the half-dozen medical students who clustered around the bed.

After what seemed like an eternity to Ms. Duffy, the doctor turned abruptly and spoke to her for the first time:  ”Have you passed gas yet?”

After a pause, she replied: “No. I don’t do that until the third date!”

The doctor seemed surprised.  ”He looked at me as if he’s offended, like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain” said Ms. Duffy.

When the senior doctor treated her like an object to be examined,  prodded and poked,  Ms. Duffy was insulted.

Rule or Personal Exception?

Social systems are governed and managed primarily by Rules and Roles. Rules are created so that  individuals who are members of the system know what is acceptable and what is out of bounds.  The primary purpose of rules is to insure that order replaces the confusion and chaos that inevitably occurs when large numbers of individuals attempt to work together.  Roles serve the same purpose,  creating order out of chaos by defining the  attitudes, values and behaviors that the people who occupy formal positions in an organization are expected to embrace.

While in theory we all understand the importance of rules and the value of roles,they also lead to a serious problem:  As individuals, we  often see ourselves as exceptions to the rules and deserving  modification of the roles.  Author Charles Handy describes his attempt to get such an exception:

“I once visited a therapist for consultation.  Each consultation started on the hour and ended up after fifty minutes,  at ten minutes to the hour.  Once I was twenty minutes late, held up by a traffic jam.  At ten to the hour the little clock pinged.  The psychotherapist stood up to signal that the consultation had ended.

“But I haven’t had my fifty minutes,” I exclaimed.  ”Is anybody coming after me?”

“No,” he said, “but your time is finished.”

“But I started late,” I said.  ”It was the traffic. It delayed me unavoidably.”

“That’s your problem,” said the therapist, turning away, “not mine.”

Handy wrote that he left the office seething with anger and frustration.  ”How dare the therapist treat me this way – me!”  His anger came from the therapist’s commitment to the rules and his unwillingness to make an exception.  However, as Handy reflected on the experience, he came to the conclusion that there was an important lesson to be learned.  All of his life, Handy wrote, he had always expected to be treated as if he were special and that for him exceptions should be made.  The therapist offered him another perspective:  that there are rules and constraints that we all need to learn to live with.

Excellence or Excrement?

In the movie Dead Poets Society, the academic year at Weldon Academy begins with great pomp and ceremony.  All the boys come marching into the great hall behind four banners upon which Four Pillars of Weldon Academy are inscribed:  Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence.  During the opening ceremonies, in response to a loud and demanding question from the headmaster, “What are the Four Pillars?” the boys spring to their feet and shout in unison:  Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence.

Later, as the boys gather in a dorm room, smoking forbidden cigarettes, one of them shouts derisively, “What are the Four Pillars?” The boys gleefully shout back their responses:

Travesty! Horror! Decadence! Excrement!

The institutional values that form the foundation of the academy are turned into ridicule and disparagement by the boys for whom the Four Pillars were supposed to serve as beacons.  The adults don’t have a clue about the level of mismatch that exists between the institutional values they hold in high esteem and what the boys really think!

The Mismatch Between National/ Societal and Personal Levels in War

When the leaders of nations decide to go to war, they are not the ones who fight and die for their country.  It is the young men and women of the country who are expected to make this sacrifice.  The task for leaders and politicians is to convince the young people that it is an honorable and wonderful thing to fight for their country and that they should be happy for the opportunity.  No matter the arguments they offer – and there are many –  at the end they always end up echoing a line of poetry written by the Roman poet Horace (65 BC – 27 BC):  ”Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.”  (“It is sweet and glorious to die for your country.”)

The experience of the soldier on the battlefield is neither sweet nor glorious but just the opposite:  painful, disorienting, physically and psychologically damaging.  This mismatch between the politician’s idealism and the soldier’s personal experience is captured by British poet Henry Treece in his poem Conquerors:

By sundown we came to a hidden village
Where all the air was still
And no sound met our tired ears, save
For the sorry drip of rain from blackened trees
And the melancholy song of swinging gates.
Then through a broken pane some of us saw
A dead bird in a rusting cage, still
Pressing his thin tattered breast against the bars,
His beak wide open.  And
As we hurried through the weed-grown street,
A gaunt dog started up from some dark place
And shambled off to die at least in peace.
No one had had told us that victory was like this;
Not one amongst us would have eaten bread
Before he’d filled the mouth of the grey child
That sprawled,  stiff as stone before the shattered door.
There was not one of us who did not think of home.

We See Ourselves as Special

Among our most important psychological needs is a desire to be seen as an individual.  Since most of us experience  ourselves as unique, valuable, special and important, we want and often expect others to see us that way too.  We want to be recognized, listened to, taken into account,  and, when decisions are made that will affect our lives, consulted.  While most of us understand that we are also member of categories – employees, patients, soldiers, lawyers, teachers, engineers, fathers, students – and while we tolerate at times being categorized  this way, when it matters to us we resist being classified as an “object” rather than a person.   Elie Wiesel, author and holocaust survivor, takes this desire and transforms it into an imperative: “We must not see any person as an abstraction.  Indeed, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, its own treasures, and some measure of triumph.”

We Are Often Disappointed

But Wiesel’s admonition, while admirable, is unrealistic. Perhaps we should see in each person his or her own universe with its own secrets, treasures and triumphs.  Yet it is another matter entirely when we actually try to do this. When it comes to learning widely and deeply and about others’  ”secrets, treasures, and triumphs,” we can only manage it with a few people,  fewer perhaps than the fingers on one hand.

A picture of an older woman – I will call her Mary – appears in a full-page ad in a newspaper:  The caption under the photo reads “I am not a senior.  I am a person.”  Yes Mary, you are a person, but mostly to yourself and to a few other people.  You are not a “person” to the insurance company that sponsored the ad but rather a client or a customer and a potential source of income as well as a possible cost .  You can hope to be seen as a  ”person” to your husband, children, grandchildren, but even that perspective will be limited.  They will usually  see you as an occupant of your several roles: wife, mother, grandmother.  Eventually, your children may come to see you not just as their mother, but as a person in your own right.  But that is rare. We seldom see our parents as other than the adults who raised us.

Most of the people that Mary encounters in everyday life will see her not as a person but as a member of a category:  Her doctor sees her as a patient, the druggist as a customer,  the server in the restaurant as a diner, the flight attendant on an airplane as a passenger, the government as a citizen, the Social Security Administration as a number and on and on.  If Mary expects that the doctor, the druggist, the flight attendant, or the server in the restaurant will see her as a “person” she will be disappointed.

Here is the essence of the Mismatch Problem:  We see ourselves as special, worthy of special attention  and we would like to be treated this way. Yet those who are assigned to give us this attention see us as “objects:”  To them we are primarily employees, patients, clients, customers, students, soldiers, human resources, voters, citizens and so on.

Not Either/Or But And/And 

For those who serve, treat, take care of us, and direct our actions, this dilemma is real.  In theory they know that the patient in a wheelchair is also a person, that the student seeking guidance and direction is more than just a student, that the customer complaining about the service is a person who lives in a universe with its own “secrets, treasures and triumphs.”  But their immediate reality is that they see hundreds of “special people”every day and they all cannot treated be special. They do not have the time, the inclination, or the energy to delve down into the personal side of their lives.  And perhaps even more important, they do not have the permission from society to do so!

The mismatches that occur as a result of this dilemma can be managed.  The first move comes from the side of those of us who expect special care and attention.   Mary,  whose example I discussed earlier,  can give those who care for and serve her some slack.  Those who serve others in their roles as doctors, clerks, or teachers face difficult challenges:  their professional lives consist in large part of endless problems which come hard and fast, one after another.  Unless she is in a crisis situation, Mary can learn to accept that it is usually unrealistic for her – and for the rest of us as well – to expect or demand that she be given special attention.

 An example of a person who gained  this understanding is contained in a letter written by Bruno Dupont to the editor of the The New York Times in 2005:

While I was hospitalized for surgery for peritonitis, one thing that really struck me was that [while] doctors are human beings…in order to perform grueling tasks like surgery or intubations, they have no choice but to do away with human feelings.  That shift from person to patient may be perceived as degrading, but it is also vital to medical staff, because there are things you must to do a patient that you wouldn’t dream of doing to a person.

The next move belongs to those who are on other side:  doctors, clerks, judges, military officers, teachers, lawyers.  While it is true that society establishes rules and constraints on what is permitted and acceptable when serving others, that need not be the end of the story.  Those who  offer services to others should not forget that the people on the other side of the desk, or in the wheelchair, or in the hospital bed, are more than employees, customers and patients.  They are also unique and special persons who want to be seen as valuable and worthwhile.

The What that is offered to patients, customers and others is largely defined by society.  The How it is done belongs to us.  Those  of us who teach, serve, nurse, instruct, and direct, will  bring to that interaction. our experience and expertise  But together with our expertise we can also bring kindness, patience, consideration and respect.

Find Matches,  Avoid Mismatches

There is a story about a retired military captain who ran his household as he did the army company which he commanded in his previous life.  Each morning he would blow a whistle and wait for his family members to line up for inspection.  With solemn step and baleful glare he would march down the line from wife, to 18-year old daughter, 13-year old son,  9-year old daughter and finally to 5-year old son, criticizing each one in turn for deficiencies in their achievements of their household and educational responsibilities as well as lapses in cleanliness and dress. After handing out several demerits for gaffs and gaps, and just before he shouted “dismissed,”  the youngest child spoke up:  ”Permission to speak,” he said.

Surprised at the audacity of the boy, he responded “Permission granted.”

“What do I have to do to get a transfer out of this goddamned outfit!” said the boy.

This story is humorous because it is a clear example of a “mismatch.”  By treating family members as soldiers, the retired captain offends, insults and may alienate the members of his family.  If his inappropriate behavior continues, perhaps other members of the family would also like to “transfer out.”

A match between level and solution occurs when teachers remember that their students are “students”  and treat them skillfully and appropriately.  A mismatch occurs when they cross the line from teaching “students”  and begin defining them as special friends or companions.

A match occurs when a boss treats his or her employees as important members of the organization.  A mismatch occurs when he or she goes beyond organizational constraints and in a misguided attempt to meet his or the others’ needs,  becomes abusive or involved in personal or sexual relationships.

A match occurs when governmental officials treat all citizens the same.  A mismatch occurs when they surreptitiously offer special goods or services to one person or one organization that are not available to others with similar problems.

The work of teachers, bosses, government officials, as well as lawyers, surgeons, clerks and engineers consists for the most part in finding and dealing with problems.   It is “Good Work” when it includes matching the remedy or solution offered with the level at which the problem is located and then adding in kindness and understanding as part of the process.  Problems in interpersonal relationships require actions that are appropriate for the members in the relationship; problems in organizations should lead to actions that involve organizational issues and problems; problems in government need to be addressed with actions that improve the quality of the lives of the governed.  Finding and making appropriate matches between problem level and remedy may reduce the number of people who would like to “transfer out” of families,  marriages, communities,  organizations, or countries.

In an earlier chapter I described a New Yorker cartoon in which a stern-looking judge looks down from a high bench at a clearly distraught man who is about to be led away to prison and says:  ”For heavens’ sake.  It’s not the end of the world.  People are sentenced to prison every day.”

We laugh because we find it to be humorous.  And it is humorous because there is an unexpected twist at the end.  Beyond the humor, however, the mismatch between problem level and remedy can be clearly seen.  For the judge, speaking from the perspective of society, the event has no special meaning.  He has probably sentenced hundreds of of “convicted felons” to prison.  If he saw the man before him as a “person” and not as a convicted felon, it would be counter-productive.  And what could he do even if he did see him as a person?  In his role as judge he could not forgive him and tell him not to commit any crimes in the future.  Only a “person” can forgive another.

For the man on his way to prison, however, we can assume that it was an event with transcendental meaning.  Yes, it is true that “people” are sentenced to prison every day. But this is the judge’s perspective.  The hundreds of people that he has sentenced were not “persons” to him in the same sense as the man who stands before the judge sees himself.  They had become “defendants, criminals, or convicted felons.”  This man, standing alone in the courtroom before the judge, hearing the sentence being pronounced, is upset because he sees himself not as a convicted felon but a unique and special human being:  a “person.” While what is happening is commonplace for the judge, for this man it is a singular event and perhaps the most terrible and traumatic experience of his life.  Now, however, he has become more than a “person.”  Society has determined that he is primarily a convicted felon on his way to prison.  He must expand his  identity to include the judgment that he is unfit to live in society.  He has a new role to play.

If the judge had used language that matched his perspective with the problem level, he would have said  something like this:  ” I am aware that you are suffering great pain at this moment.  But this is not my primary concern.  Justice has to be served.  You have been found guilty of committing a crime and it is my duty to sentence you to prison according to the law.  I take no pleasure in this.  My hope for you is that after you pay your debt to society, you will straighten out your life and live the rest of  it as a law-obeying citizen.”

There is no laughing here.  It is not funny.   There will be no joke in the New Yorker with the judge saying these words.  But it is illustrative of  a more appropriate “match” between the problem level and the judge’s approach.