Monthly Archives: May 2016

Becoming Skilled: Moving Toward Dialogue



May 22, 2016


Introduction:  Among the most difficult problems that scientists, engineers and other STEM personnel   face are Nested Problems:   a technical or tame problem that seems straight forward enough but is actually nested within the larger social and cultural situation – a tame problem in the middle of a wicked one (See the essays on this website for June, 2015 where nested problems are explored in depth).   When controversial  findings are presented to the larger society, scientists, engineers and others who work on technical problems are often blindsided by vigorous expressions of disapproval, resistance and anger.    If they wish their scientific findings to be considered and adopted by the larger society, their best alternative is to move beyond their scientific  and technological arguments and enter into a dialogue with the community.  This requires  learning and practicing the principles and skills of Dialogue.

“It is not naught, it is one!

Two men sit together at a small table at Trinity College in England in the 1930′s.  Around them are a dozen or so people, waiting patiently for something to happen.  No one says anything.  An hour passes, then another.  No one speaks.  Suddenly,  without warning, one of the men breaks the silence:  ”It is not naught” he says, “it is one.”    The person who spoke was Harold Davenport, the other was Paul Erdos, widely known as “the man who loved only numbers,” and one of the greatest mathematicians of all times.

After Davenport announced that he had solved the problem, his wife Anne recalled that “all was  relief and joy” among the people gathered to watch the process.  ”Everyone around them thought they were mad,” she said. “Of course, they were.”

Davenport and Erdos did what mathematicians everywhere often but not always do:  they worked out solutions to problems in their minds, silently and alone.   “That’s the beauty of it,” said Ronald Graham, a mathematician at AT & T.  ”You can lie back, close your eyes and work.”

Scientific Work is Problem Work

All scientists work on problems; that is the nature of science.  But they do not work on all problems, only the ones they believe that can be solved.  The ones they choose are always “solvable” problems, or, in the language of wicked problems, convergent or “tame” problems.  ”Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve.” writes Nobel Prize Winner P. B. Medawar in The Art of the Soluble. “It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” When scientists begin to work on a problem, they are never sure if it can actually be solved.  If they decide that it cannot, at least with the methods or technologies available, they will abandon it and turn to a more promising one.  Eventually, further down the road, new methods and technology may open the possibility of returning to the earlier problem that they abandoned.   But “good” scientists are interested in “solving” and not, in Medawar’s language, “merely to grapple with them.” They never set out to invest time and resources on a problem that they know cannot be solved.

When Davenport and Erdos were working out the same mathematics problem at the same time, they had no need to talk to each other.  They worked inside their minds, speaking at the end only to announce the solution.  While working on their own problems, most scientists are more verbal that Davenport and Erdos.  Yet conversational skills and communication competencies are often not seen as part of their armamentarium. Much of the work of science can be done in relative silence:  identifying a problem, reviewing the relevant literature, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, gathering and analyzing data, and writing up their results.  This is not to say that scientists do not talk about their work.  They do, frequently and often vigorously,  especially when their methods or conclusions are challenged by others. But when they are engaged in this kind of argument, they have left the role of scientist and have adopted one we all know well: “Person-Defending- a-Conclusion-or-Point-of-View.”

Working With Wicked Problems Means Talking

Compared to working with convergent problems, working on divergent or wicked problems is an entirely different experience.  Wicked problem work is social work in its most comprehensive sense.  Since divergent work always involves the beliefs, values, preferences, and often the biases, of other people,  emphasizing as it does their differences, disagreements and arguments along the way are inevitable.   From the first moment when someone expresses a concern to another person or persons, to when a team, having worked out an action plan designed to improve the situation,  sets out to implement it,  people are always talking to, and occasionally shouting, at each other.   One way to think about working with wicked problem work is understand that it is non-stop conversation.  And for those of us who are “conversationally-challenged” (most of us as it turns out), this presents us with a new problem:  In order to work on our problem, we are expected to keep talking to each to other about it, often touching upon difficult and threatening issues and subjects.  This requires a wide range of skills.  Most of us are not very good at this and  frequently prefer to ignore it.

Geneticist Eske Willerslev’s Contributions

Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, is consider to be among the world’s greatest geneticists.  Over the past several decades, by inventing new technologies and discovering new paths of inquiry, he has moved the science of genetics forward.   His pioneering work involves using DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history.  ”The findings have enriched our understanding of prehistory, shedding light on human development that can’t be found in pottery shards or studies of living cultures,” reported the New York Times on May 17, 2016.  ”He remains at the forefront of an increasingly competitive field.” Archeologist David J.Melzer, from Southern Methodist University described Willerslev as playing “[the] roles as catalyst, choreographer, conductor and cajoler, and sometimes all at once.”

Willerslev’s Wicked Problem

In 2010 Willerslev became interested in studying the genetic history of the aboriginal Australians.  Convinced that earlier studies of the origins of the earliest Australians were flawed by data gathered from living aboriginals, most of whom had DNA contaminated by the presence of European DNA, he wanted to find and analyze DNA from the earliest inhabitants that had lived before the arrival of the Europeans.

In 2010 he had a stroke of good luck. At the University of Cambridge he found a piece of hair collected in Australia in the 1920′s  and which proved to be free of European contamination.  He took the hair to his laboratory in Copenhagen and by applying the technological innovations that he had pioneered, was able to reconstruct the owner’s DNA.

The analysis revealed that the ancestors of aboriginal Australians split off from other non-Africans about 70,000 years ago.  That finding answered an important and much debated question:  the original settlers in Australia were the ancestors of today’s aboriginals.

Convinced that he and his team had come up with an important discovery, Willerslev was anxious to publish the findings. But then he ran into a  problem.  One of his colleagues, Rasmus Nielson of the University  of California, was opposed.  The research team had made a “grave mistake,” Nielson believed, by not getting the consent of the living aboriginal Australians to do the research on the hair sample or to publish the results.  ”It didn’t seem right to circumvent the wishes of the aboriginal community by using the sample.  I was [ready] to remove myself from the study due to these concerns.”  What  Nielson knew, and Willerslev didn’t, was that the native inhabitants felt resentful and angry at being exploited by European anatomists who had for decades plundered burial grounds and carried off bones to put in museums.

Willerslev was both perplexed and confused.  He could not see a problem.  Why would his colleague be opposed to publishing new and important discoveries? And the opposition that Nielson claimed existed among the aboriginal Australians made no sense to him.  ”My view was that human history belongs to us all because we’re all connected, and no people have a right to stop our understanding of human history.”

A Nested Problem

In the beginning, Willerslev saw his problem as a technical one:  Find a “pure” sample, take it to the lab, use the technology to reconstruct the genome, analyze the results, interpret the findings, and publish.  He was Doing Science, something in which he excelled.    Even after Nielson expressed his concerns,  he had no idea that the was facing not one but two problems. The first was  a scientific one – a tame one- and for this one he was well prepared.  His second problem was a social, cultural problem – a wicked one. There were people who cared deeply about the history of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia who were adamantly opposed.   Even if he had known that it existed, he would not have had an idea what to do about it.

The tame problem was nested in the middle of the wicked one.  Willerslev understanding of  his problem ended where the wicked problem began.

After hearing  Nielson’s concerns, Willerslev had several options:  He could ignore Nielson’s concerns and push forward with his scientific agenda; or he could pause to consider the possibility that Nielson could be on to something important.  Fortunately for all concerned, he chose the latter course.  Before publishing his results, he decided to travel to Australia and meet with the aboriginal representatives. His willingness to enter into a conversation with them demonstrated respect. After listening to their concerns and taking them seriously, he had an “aha” experience. His  consciousness was raised to another level. “Paying attention now, I could see why they had this skepticism and resistance” to European scientists.  ”In retrospect, I should have definitely approached those people before undertaking the study.  Just because it’s legally right doesn’t make it ethically right.”

Talking Is Required – And Can Help

Their conversation provided new understanding for everyone involved.  In Australia, Dr. Willersley arranged a meeting with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, which represents aboriginal people in the region where the hair sample had been obtained.  He not only gained a greater appreciation for their resistance and hostility, he was also able to describe the nature of his concerns, his methods of research, and explain why he thought it was important.  He then asked for permission to publish his findings.  The Council, now feeling respected and involved in the conversation, gave their permission. When the study was published, they praised the results.  ”Aboriginal people feel exonerated that they are by far the oldest, continuous civilization in the world,” the council said in a statement. Rather than having something taken from them, Willerslev gave them something they valued.

Discourse, Discussion, Debate, Dialogue

When Willerslev went to Australia to have a conversation with the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, he had several approaches to choose from:

  • Discourse:  Willerslev could have made a speech, emphasizing the values of science, how it has benefited humankind, and why his work was important.  If he would have chosen this option, his audience would probably at first felt patronized and then bored.  Almost certainly he would have made things worse.
  • Discussion:  Discussion is defined an extended exchange of views on a subject.  While they are often useful, and occasionally productive, discussions tend to be casual and at times superficial.  The situation that Willerslev faced as he began his conversation with the Land and Sea Council was unsuited for a discussion:  It was emotional, tense and fraught with the potential for negative outcomes.  Trying to have a discussion in such an environment  increased the risks of an unproductive eruption of emotions leading to an escalation of tensions.
  • Debate:  The purpose of a debate is  for one side to win and the other side to lose.  If they would have entered into a debate, both sides would have lost.
  • Dialogue:  A dialogue is an entirely different experience. There are five aspects of a conversation that, when present, change it from a discussion or a debate to a dialogue:  A strong feeling that all parties in the room are equal;  lack of coercion, or manipulation; exchanges  characterized by open expression and empathic listening;  the beliefs, assumptions, goals and purposes of all parties are brought out into the open; and an absence of judgement or criticism.

Dialogue is the preferred language for working with wicked problems.  In fact, it is the only communication skill that consistently helps make things better rather than making things worse!   When done well, it avoids the most predictable outcome of people trying to talk about their problems: Ending up with new problems!

The reason that Willerslev and the Goldfields Land and Sea Council achieved such impressive results was that rather than that debate or discuss the issues, they entered in a dialogue: They treated each other as if they were equals; they listened; they shared openly their goals and assumptions; they made an effort to understand the position of the other, and both sides saw that the benefits of collaborating rather than opposing each other.

Learning the Skills for Dialogue

All progress with wicked problems requires us to talk with other people.  No forward movement is possible with silence, holding back, belittling, or criticizing.  If any progress is to be made, there can be no winners or losers.  Dialogue is by far the most important communication skill available when the problem is a wicked one.  Yet for most of us, it is a foreign language.  When it comes to effective communication skills, we grew up learning and practicing communication patterns that are the opposite of dialogue.

Like all skills, dialogue consists first of concepts and principles that provide background and context for behaviors, and then learning of new behaviors.  Dialogue only happens when people actually talk  to each other.   Concept and principles can be learned by reading and listening.  New behaviors can only be learned by taking those principle and concept and enacting them – by speaking the language of dialogue.  Learning to speak a new language requires hours and hours of practice, preferably in situations where feedback and support are available.

In a future essay I will describe in more detail the concepts and principles of dialogue.  For now, here are three references that I have found useful  in learning the basic ideas:

  • Danial Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue:  Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, 1999.
  • William Issacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, 1999.
  • Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, Dialogue:  Rediscovering  the  Transforming Power of Conversation, 1998.

A Success Story  

Whether Eske Willerslev ever learned that what he was struggling with had a name –  a nested problem – is unimportant.  What is important is that while in the midst of a solving a technical problem for which he was eminently prepared, a colleague signaled to him that another, more nebulous and undefined one existed – a wicked one –  one for which he lacked understanding and skill.  What happened next is not only important, it is praiseworthy. Rather that becoming defensive, ignoring Nielson’s concerns, or attacking him return, then moving on to publish his findings, he paused long enough to listen to his reasons for resisting and take them seriously.  And opened the way to learn something new.  By traveling to Australia and meeting with the aboriginal Australians, he learned that talking together – practicing dialogue – is  the path to creating outcomes that are satisfying and productive for all.











Becoming Skilled: Wicked Problem Language


May 8, 2016

When grappling with wicked problems:

Avoid Solve

Define Solution

Eliminate Fix


Two Wicked Problems

Any hope for success in the coming decades is closely tied to success in managing two difficult and related problems:  First, learning what needs to be learned, learning it quickly and efficiently, and then using it well;  and  second, even more problematic, forgetting what needs to be forgotten.  Both are complicated.


When it comes to learning what we need to learn,  we immediately come up against a dilemma:  a “separation-of the-wheat-from-the-chaff” problem.  Given the number of ideas, suggestions, advice, and recommendations that cascade down upon us, many which contradict others that seem equally authoritative, we can be easily overwhelmed.   How are we to know what is essential and what is fluff?   This dilemma is complicated by the fact that most of us have moved beyond our years of formal education, years when our parents and teachers offered us guidance.  Who can guide us now?  Who will help us separate signal from noise? One answer, as relevant today as when it was given in 1902 by Secretary of  State John Hay to the U. S. Congress,  is one that will make many uncomfortable:

The fathers,  where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever? The fathers are dead, the prophets are silent, the questions are new and have no answers. The past gives no clue to the future.  We ourselves are the fathers!  We ourselves are the prophets!

Deciding what needs to be learned, and then learning it, is up to us.  While many are ready to give advice, no one is able to tell us what is best.


The challenge of forgetting what needs to be forgotten is even more difficult.  We all carry with us ideas, principles, concepts and solutions that we not only struggled to learn in the past (making them more difficult to give up)  but we also learned many of them from important Others – parents, priests, rabbis, ministers, teachers – thus imbuing them with a sort of holy aura.  And then to make things even more difficult,  we have put many of these beliefs and ideas to the test and have become convinced – often wrongly – that they work!  Most of us resist being told that many of our cherished principles and beliefs are outmoded and are not going to be useful in the future.  ”Forget them?” you say.  ”Forget it!” we reply.

“This Idea Must Die”

These twin problems,  learning what needs to be learned and forgetting what needs to be forgotten, are not new.  What is new is that knowledgeable people are signaling that these challenges are more important than ever before.  John Brockman, in a series of books published during the past decade, makes this point with enthusiasm.  His approach is to select an important question, then invite the most renowned experts available to write short answers.  Here are several of these titles that can help guide us toward what is important:

  • The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years.
  • The Next Fifty Years.
  • What We Believe but Cannot Prove.
  • What is Your Dangerous Idea?.
  • What Have You Changed Your Mind About?.
  • This Will Change Everything.
  • This Will Make You Smarter.
  • This Explains Everything;
  • What Should We Be Worried About?

What should we forget? Brockton deals with this directly in This Idea Must Die, published in 2015.  Among the ideas selected by 175 experts that need to die and be forgotten are:

  • IQ (Scott Adran).
  • Cause and Effect (W. Daniel Hillis).
  • Human Nature (Perter Richardson).
  • The Self (Bruce Hood).
  • Free Will (Jerry Coyne).
  • Common Sense (Robert Provine).
  • Things are Either True or False (Alan Alda).
  • The Rational Individual (Andy Peatland).
  • Certainty. Absolute Truth. Exactitude (Richard Saul Wurman).
  • Altruism (Tor Norrentranders).

A careful examination of these ideas, together with hundreds more that can be found in the book, leads to an unsettling conclusion: We are being told to forget things that we have long held as central to our view of the world and how it works. There is a better chance of a snowball surviving in hell than most of us forgetting such ideas as self, free will, common sense, true or false, absolute truth, and on and on.  Forgetting what has always been true in the past, and for good measure seems self-evident, is an Everest that we are asked to climb without oxygen and little equipment.

What About Wicked Problems?

When grappling with wicked problems, there are also “Ideas that Must Die.”  Here are three of the most important:

 They Can be Solved.

  They Have Solutions.

   They be Fixed


“Problem” is among our few indispensable words. If it didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.  Pick any day at random and during the that day you will hear, read, or say “problem” dozens or even hundreds times.  Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, believes that problems are what life is made of:    ”Life is a series of problems,” he writes, “…and since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult.”

Problem is a word with an important function.   It signals that attention is needed.  In a society where individuals are constantly striving to improve themselves, their friends, their children, their employees, teams,  and organizations, and  their societies, “problem” is one of our most effective words.  Without it we would be hard pressed to know which aspects of our lives and society are not working as expected and need to be improved.

People who insist that there are no problems (only opportunities?) or that they are not important, are missing an important insight:  Describing a situation or an issue as a “problem” is immensely useful. We can’t get along without doing it.  When someone says “this is a problem,” or “we have a problem,” we “get it:”  Something is off-kilter, below standard, off-the-rails, inadequate, inappropriate, etc., etc.,   and action is needed.  Say “serious problem” and people will move at once to mobilize efforts, allocate resources, and begin to plan actions that may be used to “solve” it.  It is unlikely there is any language anywhere without a word for “problem.”  In all societies, things fail to work as planned,  fall apart, and need attention. All need to have available a way of signaling where, how and when attention should be directed and what steps should be taken to remedy the situation.

Problem rarely stands alone.  When we hear “problem”  we will almost always hear “solve” in the next breath.  They are inextricably connected to each other, not unlike the  Sinatra song of 1955: “Love and marriage, love and marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage.”

And this presents us with a dilemma:  The Idea of Problem,  necessary and useful, leads automatically to “solve.” And yet for wicked problems, there is no solve!  Authors who write about problems – and there are literally thousands of them – can’t seem to get along without “solve.”Here are just four titles of books on problems that I have selected among the  hundreds from in library:

  • Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane.
  • The 3rd Alternative:  Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems by Stephen R. Covey.
  • Solved by Sunset, by Carol Osborn.
  • Solving Life’s Problems:  A 5-Step Guide to Enhanced Well-Being by Arthur M. Nezu et. al.

Study carefully as I have the problems that these authors write about, and you will discover that none of them can actually be solved!

I repeat:  For our most important problems – the ones I am calling wicked – there is no solve!  Do we ever “solve” the wicked problem of making marriage work?  Of raising our children to be the kind of people we want them to be? Of creating a high-performing team?  Of creating what we all agree is “good government?” Of  establishing a health care system that can meet everyone’s needs?  The answers are no, no, no, no, and no. We work on them, yet they persist.  We attack them, and while they may retreat for a while, they return. We bring new ideas, technology and resources to combat them, and they adapt.

Even those who use wicked problem language and should know better fall into the “solve” trap.  Here is the title of an article that appeared Forbes India on July 8, 2015:  “The importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems.”  Does the author, Alpheus Bingham, understand that if the problem is wicked, then “solving” doesn’t apply?  Apparently not. While diversity of thought is important, even essential, no matter how much diversity is brought to bear, wicked problems do not get solved!

It is imperative that we free ourselves from the linguistic habit of connecting solve to wicked problems for the simple reason that no matter what we do,  they do not get solved.  They can only be worked on, over and over again.  Claiming to solve them is inaccurate. It creates confusion and encourages unhealthy expectations.


An integral part of a struggle with any problem the expectation – or hope – of finding a “solution.”  When the problem is a wicked one, thinking about a solution puts us in a  quandary  similar to the one we have with solve, only more so.  Using the term solution with a wicked problem increases confusion and leads to misunderstanding. Consider for a moment two phrases that are widely used when people in organizations talk about problems:  ”Don’t bring me problems,” says the boss to members of his team, “bring me solutions;”  and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

In the first example, if someone has a a solution to take to the boss, then the problem cannot be a wicked one.  No single individual in an organization can understand the nature of a wicked problem, let alone have a solution available.  All he or she may have to take to the boss is a concern, an idea, a hunch, or a “best guess,” all miles away from “solution.”   As we have seen, wicked problems are extracted from “messes” by the efforts of many people, a process which is results  in the creation of the problem. It comes into existence from the efforts people working together.  The same is true of  solution, what I prefer to call “action plan.”  It will always be the result of many people struggling to come up with they think is the best thing to do. If  a person has a solution to take to the boss,  then the problem in question will almost always be a technical one from math, chemistry, physics, or some other discipline that has answers and solutions to offer.

The second example,  ”If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” is equally nonsensical.  When it comes to wicked problems whether in relationships,  families, teams, or organizations, everyone in the neighborhood is by definition part of the problem!  Whether a person can be part of a solution depends entirely upon the knowledge and skills that he or she possesses.

“Solution” presents us with a special challenge.  What we usually mean when we say solution is  that we have something to offer that will disable, destroy, or “disappear” the problem.  But as I have said, for wicked problems, there is no disabling, destroying or disappearing.  While we can diminish their effects by making some things better, we don’t get rid of them.  We can narrow the gap, but we can never entirely close it.

A better way to think about a solution to a wicked problem is to see it as an Action Plan.  Once we gain an understanding of what we are up against, we can move toward defining it.  And then, and only then, can we  set about creating a plan to attack the problem.

A useful definition of a solution for a wicked problem is to see it as a temporary arrangement that we put in place in the hopes of reducing the pain and confusion associated with the problem and increasing the  chances for positive movement toward goals.  Any arrangement we come up will always be temporary and never final.  As the times change, and as we change, the original problem will have morphed into something new. We will have to revisit it to see what needs to be added or subtracted.


Politicians and other leaders are fond of  claiming that they can “fix” our most serious problems.  In Fortune for July 7, 2008,  the Republican candidate, John McCain, appears on the cover with this quote:  ”How I’ll Fix the Economy.”  Eight years later, in April of 2016, the presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump identified the Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS as among our most important international problems.  He not only claimed that he will “fix” this problem but that he will do it easily and fast.   “You’ll be surprised how fast I can fix it” he said. In fact, he continued, “We will win if I become president…I’m the only one who knows how to fix it.”

In June of 2015, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, speaking to the graduating students at Washington University said “Let me apologize in advance on behalf of all of the people up here.  We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it.”

Burns is confused.   “We” didn’t break it, and “they” can’t fix it for the simple reason that “it” – and from the context, it is clear that Burns means the United States – isn’t broken!  Computers break, washing machines break, toasters break,  shoelaces break, but countries do not.  What people mean when they  claim that the country is broken is that things are not going the way they would like them to.   Other people, however, may be perfectly satisfied with the way things are. Using a machine analogy to describe a country is a fundamental error.   It suggests that if we just can find the “broken” part and replace it,  things will work as they are supposed to.  There is no broken part in society that, when found and replaced, will guarantee that things will work as we think they should.

Yet politicians and pundits alike keep insisting that our “real” problem is that important parts of society are broken and need to be fixed:  health care, education, government, the judicial system, Social Security, politics,  and on and on.  And, echoing Trump,  politicians insist that those on the other side are responsible for “breaking” them, and they are the ones who can “fix” them.  Once again, wrong and wrong.

Fixing wicked problems is a contradiction in terms.   Wicked problems cannot be broken, and saying the they should be fixed makes no sense.  If there is no fixing wicked problems, then what?  Here are some options that are both more accurate and useful:  Tackling; grappling; struggling; addressing; managing.

A little humility would also be a plus.  The first sentence in Wallace Steven’s poem,  ”Two Versions of the Same Poem,” captures this well:

“Once more he turned to that which could not be fixed.”

Dangerous Idea?

 What is  Your Most Dangerous Idea, by John Brockman, published in 2007 has as its subtitle: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable.  The ideas that appear in the book are dangerous because they are deemed to be “unthinkable.” When people are exposed to them,  they are generally notpleased. They are either offended or outraged or both.

Here are some examples:

  • “We Have No Souls;”
  • “We Are Entirely Alone;”
  • “Choosing the Sex of One’s Child;”
  • “Science Must Destroy Religion.”

The central  idea of this essay – that for wicked problems there is no “solve,” no “solving” and no “fix”-  could be for many people a dangerous idea. It may lead to confusion, irritation and even frustration.  ”What do you mean that this problem can be solved?” Fred says.  ”The hell you say!  If we can’t solve them, what are we supposed to do with them?” shouts Richard.

There are several reasons why there could be danger in suggesting that for wicked problems, there is no solve, no  solution, or no fix.  First, most people have never heard that there are tame and wicked problems.  They believe that while some problem are simple and others complex, they are basically the same and so can be treated the same.  To insist otherwise may be seen as a pedantic game.   Second, whenever persons say or read “problem,”  what next appears next on the tip of their tongues  is “solve”or “solution” as in” “We’ve got a problem and we need a solution – fast!”  But what then?  Seeking a solution when there isn’t one can quickly turn into a trip down a blind alley or worse.   Third, as I suggested earlier,  even though problem is among our most indispensable words, we have few good alternatives for  identifying something that isn’t working, or needs “fixing.”   We are trapped by our language.  People don’t appreciate being told that they are “trapped” by the way they speak.

Some Suggestions for Wicked Problem Language

When it comes to talking about problems, our everyday language complicates things.  John hears, “problem” and thinks “solve.”  Melissa hears, “We’ve got to do something,” and thinks “solution,” or, even worse, “fix.” These words are not appropriate for wicked problems.  Once a so-called solution is found and applied, most people, assuming that the problem has been solved, are ready to move on to whatever comes next. This is a serious mistake.  When it comes to wicked problems,  as long as we care about them, it’s never over.  As the Nike marketeers tell us:  ”There is no finish line.”

When we talk about problems, we are trapped by language.  Say “solve” and people think it will be taken care of it.  Say “solution” and people feel relief that it will soon be over.  But we don’t have to stay in this linguistic prison.   We can learn to speak differently:

  • Instead of Solve we can say grapple, tackle, struggle, address, manage;
  • Instead of Solution we can say action plan, temporary arrangement;
  • We can avoid saying Fix when referring to a wicked problem.  It is never appropriate and only adds to the confusion.

One of the benefits of gaining  greater understanding of the nature of wicked problems, to use a term from the 1960′s,  is that our consciousnesses have been raised.  We gain higher levels of awareness of the complexity of those things we call “problems,” greater understanding of what can be done about them, and greater skill in talking about them with others.  By using more appropriate language to talk about problems, our abilities to tackle (not solve nor fix) wicked problems is increased.

We’re Never Finished 

Over sixty years ago, January 1953,  in his State of the Union Address, President Harry S. Truman got it right:

The nation”s business is never finished. The basic questions we have been dealing with…present themselves anew.  That is the way of our society.  Circumstances change and current questions take on different forms, new complications, year by year.  But underneath, the great issue remain the same – prosperity , welfare, human rights, effective democracy, and, above, all, peace.

The great issues we face as a society, “prosperity, welfare, human rights, effective democracy, and, above all,  peace,” and for the similar ones we face as individuals, partners, and leaders, will always “present themselves anew.”  There is no solve, no solution, no fix.  And yet there is much we can do – much we must do – if we are to gain from our lives, our relationships, and our careers, the satisfaction, success, and growth that is possible.