August 18, 2016
An important question for us to consider as individuals and societies is “Are we in trouble?” The answer is “Of course we are!” Throughout history individuals and societies, facing unpredictable and unfriendly futures, have always been convinced that troubles were just ahead. What they did not understand was the nature of the troubles or what would to do about with them. In the past – as now – even though many claimed to know how to solve the problems, no one possessed final answers to the questions that confused them or solutions to the problems that afflicted them. Their only option – as is ours – was to do the best that they could.
And this leads to a second question: ”Are we in more trouble today than others have been in the past?”
I believe that we are. And so does Edward O. Wilson, a well-respected biologist at Harvard. In 2012 he explained his reasons for believing that the problems we face today are of a different order of magnitude than in the past:
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world…We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terrible confused…and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
In other words, what Wilson is suggesting is that there is a huge mismatch between the problems we face and our abilities to cope with them. We are overmatched by their numbers, their complexities, and the risks to our survival because of these problems. Global warming is among the most serious of these problems. It is now clear that unless we move aggressively to mitigate the effects of massive climate change, disasters on a scale never before imagined are to be expected. Yet we dither, equivocate, deny.
Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Primco Global Investments expresses the same ideas in different words: The Achilles heel of our times is that we are “driving without a spare:” “The world is on a journey to an unstable destination,” writes El-Erian, ”though unfamiliar territory, on an uneven road, and, critically, having already used its spare tire.” And making things worse, we are not at all clear on where we want to go, what we need to do to get there, and who should be driving. And finally, to continue the metaphor, there are reasons to believe that the vehicle in which we are traveling is not up to the task of making the journey.
Another reason why we are in more trouble today is that no matter the efforts we make, our problems don’t disappear from the scene. Here is how Robert M. Gates put it when he was Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration: ”When I had been in government before, problems or crises more often than not would arise, be dealt with, and go away…Now hardly any issue or problem could be resolved and put aside. Instead, problems accumulated.” In the complicated times in which we live, our master list of problems only gets longer.
The Most Important Problem?
Is there one problem that we face today that is more important than all of the others? Psychologist and author Joshua Greene thinks that there is. It isn’t global warming, or terrorism, or even corrupt and dysfunctional governments, though these are serious enough. In Moral Tribes, Greene states that “the problem of cooperation is the central problem of [our]existence.” And when Greene says that cooperation is our central problem he means, of course, the lack of cooperation. Our poor record with cooperation is caused primarily two factors: The predominance of individual interests over collective ones; and serious deficiencies in the knowledge and skills required for effective collaboration. Almost all of the troubles we are in today arise, persist, and become worse because of our inability to cooperate in either understanding or addressing them.
Cooperation Requires a Common Language
If we are to manage successfully the problems that threaten to overwhelm us, increasing our willingness and ability to cooperate is essential. An important first step is learning to speak the same language. A second step, equally important, is using this language in order to enter into productive conversations about the nature of our problems and what should be done about them. And what is the problem language that we need to learn in order to increase our cooperation? Organizational theorist and author Keith Glint argues that it is the language of tame and wicked problems. It is the only way of speaking about problems that is up to the challenge of describing accurately what is happening, communicating to others the nature of the problems that concern us, and finally, increasing cooperation in order to decide what we need to do in order for us to plan and implement actions that deal effectively with them. In his recent analyses of the challenges that face us in this century, Glint insists that understanding the differences between tame and wicked problems is essential in deciding what can be done about them. Glint highlights these differences with the following examples: ”A Tame problem, however complex, is teaching your children to pass their driving test; a Wicked problem is remaining a successful parent to them. A Tame problem is ‘winning’ the war in Iraq; a Wicked problem is securing a just and lasting peace in Iraq. A Tame problem is heart surgery; a Wicked problem is providing unlimited health services to all who need them on the basis of limited resources.”
Coming to terms with the chaos and confusion of our times is best achieved by understanding that the important problems we face are wicked, not tame, and that they must be understood and addressed as such. Glint makes this point when he concludes that “leadership is essentially about facing Wicked Problems that are essentially ‘unmanageable.’” The most important way to move toward cooperation in dealing with our problems is to talk about them in ways increase our understanding of what it is we are facing. Only conversations about problems make cooperation possible, and it goes without saying that effective conversations are better than ineffectual ones.
The 59th Story Crisis
Making the troubles that we are facing even more complicated is the fact that many of them arrive as crises, bringing with them a sense of urgency and the threat of danger. When the wicked problems of modern life are perceived as crises, deciding what should be done about them becomes even more difficult. William J. LeMessurier’s ”59th Story Crisis” is the story of a person who faced up to a serious wicked problem, one that could have become a major catastrophe. He decided that rather than deny that there was a problem, or pretend that it wasn’t important, or procrastinate taking action, he would move toward the problem by initiating a series of conversations with the key people involved. And because of his courage, capability and skill in these conversations, he not only survived, but helped turn it into a positive and constructive experience for all concerned.
A Startling Discovery
On the afternoon of a warm June afternoon in 1978, LeMessurier (pronounced LeMeasure) was called out of a meeting to take a phone call. LeMessurier was among the most respected and accomplished structural engineers in the country. His proudest achievement was designing the Citicorp Tower that had been constructed the previous year in downtown Manhattan. The call was from an engineering student in New Jersey whose professor had assigned him to write a paper on the Citicorp Tower which once completed, was the seventh-tallest building in the world.
The student had a question about the four columns which provided support for the building. “My professor says that they are in the wrong place,” said the student, ” and in a strong windstorm, the building may fall down.”
“I was very nice to this young man,” LeMessurier recalls. ”But I said, ‘Listen, I want you to tell your teacher that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, because he doesn’t know the problem that had to be solved.’”
The “problem” that LeMessurier referred to was that the building had to be designed around an old church that occupied the northwest corner of the block which the building was to occupy. In order to clear space for the construction of a new church to replace it, LeMesssurier and Hugh Stubbins, the architect, had set their tower on four massive, nine-story-high stilts, and had positioned them at the center of each side, rather than on each corner.
When LeMessurier called the student back he described with pride that the peculiar geometry of the support columns, far from being a mistake, put them in the strongest position for the building to resist what sailors call “quartering winds” – those that come from a diagonal and, by flowing across two sides of the building at once, greatly increase the forces upon the building. ”I gave him a lot of information,” recalled LeMessurier. ”Now you really have something on your professor, because you can explain all of this to him.”
Later in the day, now interested in reviewing the design challenges he had faced, and deciding that his conversation with the engineering student would be an interesting anecdote to relate to his own students at Harvard, he began to review the decisions that went into the design of the building. The innovation of which he was most proud had been an unusual system of wind braces which, according to Joe Morgenstern writing in The New Yorker in May 1995, ”had first been sketched out, in a burst of almost ecstatic invention on a napkin in a Greek restaurant in Cambridge: forty-eight braces in six tiers of eight, arranged like giant chevrons behind the building’s curtain of aluminum and glass.”
Over the next several days as he reviewed the decisions that had been made during the design and construction of the building, his confidence began to wane, and was gradually replaced, first by concern and then by the beginnings of panic. The most serious problem that he discovered was that the joints of the wind braces, which were to have been welded, had been bolted together instead. He had learned about this when he had asked Stanley Goldsmith, who had been in charge of the construction, about the welded joints. Goldsmith said, “Oh, didn’t you know? They were changed. They were never welded at all, because Bethlehem steel came to us and said they didn’t think we needed to do it.”
Over the next month, he made several additional discoveries that raised his level of anxiety. LeMessurier detailed a series of decisions into a thirty-page document, some of which with hindsight could be seen as mistakes, he called “Project SERENE.” The acronym, both rueful and apt, stood for “Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Envisioned. ” On July 26th, LeMessurier flew to London, Ontario, and shared his conclusions with a Canadian engineer named Alan Davenport, director of the Boundary Wind Tunnel Laboratory, at the University of Western Ontario, and a world authority on the behavior of buildings in high winds. ”And you have to tell me the truth,” LeMessurier told Davenport. ”Don’t go easy if it doesn’t come out the right way.” Their analyses didn’t in fact, come out the “right way,” and they didn’t go easy on him. What they told him shocked him out of any remaining complacency that he had left.
When LeMessurier returned to Cambridge he told his wife, “I think we have a problem here, and I am going to sit down and try to think about it.” On July 28th, he drove to the northern shore of Sebago Lake, took an outboard motorboat a quarter of a mile across the water to his house on a twelve-acre private island, and worked through the numbers that Davenport had given him, joint by joint, floor by floor. He discovered that the weakest point in the structure was the thirtieth floor, and, taking the New York City weather records that Davenport had given him, learned that the bolted braces on that floor would fail in a storm that had a statistical probability of occurring as often as every sixteen years. ”To put it another way,” said LeMessurier, “there was one chance in sixteen that in any one year, including that one, a storm could occur that would cause the building to collapse.”
The first thing LeMessurier did was devise an engineering solution to the problem. With money and materials, the bolted joints could be reinforced by welding heavy steel plates over them, like “giant Band-Aids.” Problem solved. But LeMessurier realized that the real problem was not an engineering one to be solved with a technical solution, but a human and cultural problem. How would the people in Citibank react when they learned that their new, landmark building could fall down in a windstorm. How about architect? The insurance company? The city of New York? If the possibility of disaster were to be averted, LeMessurier would have to blow the whistle on himself. He would have to tell others what he had learned, and then make every effort to convince them to work with him on the solution. Telling others about the problem with the building, Morgenstern writes, ”meant facing the pain of possible protracted litigation, probable bankruptcy, and professional disgrace. It also meant shock and dismay for Citicorp’s officers and shareholders when they learned that the bank’s proud new corporate symbol, built at a cost of a hundred and seventy-five million dollars, was threatened with collapse.” And the time was short. It was the end of July, and the height of the hurricane season was approaching. Could 1978 be the year for a “once-in-a-sixteen-year storm?”
After his in-depth analysis and review, LeMessurier finally understood the seriousness of problem. The possibility of the Citibank Tower collapsing into the center of downtown Manhattan was a reality. He considered his options: Since he was the only one who knew the existence of a problem, he could choose silence and hope for the best. Another choice was suicide. ”If LeMessurier drove along the Maine Turnpike at a hundred miles an hour and steered into bridge abutment, that would be that,” wrote Morgenstern. Or he could face up to the problem and do his best.
He quickly discarded the first two options and choose the third. He would sit down with all of the people involved and talk it out. What seized him moments after making this decision, writes Morgenstern, was an “unexpected almost giddy sense of power.” ”I had information that nobody else in the world had,” recalled LeMessurier. ”I had power in my hands to effect extraordinary events that only I could initiate. I mean sixteen years to failure – that was very simple, very clear cut. I almost said, thank you Lord, for making this problem so sharply defined that there’s no choice to make.”
With his plan clear in his mind, LeMessurier left the island and began a series of conversations, first with Hugh Stubbins the architect, then with the insurance company (who sent out a battery of lawyers who wanted to meet with him to “find out if I was nutty”), then with another design engineer brought in by the insurance company to provide a second opinion – and who told the lawyers that “if this is the case, you have a serious problem” – and finally with Citicorp executives. When LeMessurier and Stubbins were finally able to meet with John Reed, Citicorp’s executive vice-president, LeMessurier began the conversation by saying “I have a real problem for you sir.” In every conversation, LeMessurier described the problem in clear, unambiguous language, accepted full responsibility for causing it, made no excuses, blamed no one else, and outlined the technical solution that he had developed. And each conversation resulted in a strong commitment to work together to make the eventual solution possible. Finally, LeMessurier spoke with Walter Winston, Chairman of Citibank. ”Winston was fantastic,” LeMessurier said. Rather than blaming or shaming, Winston signed on to help. ”I guess my job is to handle the public relations of this, “he said, ” so I’ll have to to start drafting a press release.” But he didn’t have anything to write on, so someone handed him a yellow pad. That made him laugh. According to LeMessurier, Winston said, “All wars are won by generals writing on yellow pads.” His laughter put the others at ease. Citicorp’s general was on their side.
LeMessurier faced more difficulties. A decision was made that in the event of a high-wind warning, a plan needed to be in place to evacuate the building and the surrounding blocks of downtown Manhattan. Meetings were held with the American Red Cross and the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management which resulted in the creation of an evacuation plan for the area. Several weeks later, LeMessurier told the whole truth to the New York City’s Acting Building Commissioner and nine other senior city officials. For over an hour LeMessurier spoke about the effects of diagonal winds on the Citicorp tower, and spelled out in detail the failure of his office to anticipate the possible dangers. He also shared with them the technical solution that he had devised and what would be needed to implement it.
As the city officials left the meeting, they commended LeMessurier for his truthfulness and courage. ”It wasn’t a case of ‘We caught you, you skunk,’” said one. ”It started with a guy who stood up and said ‘I’ve got a problem, I made the problem, let’s fix the problem.’ If you’re going to kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk.”
“Nothing Bad Happened”
During most of August and into September the welding of the steel plates to the wind braces was accomplished. The result was a building strong enough to withstand in excess of a two-hundred-year storm. But this is not the most noteworthy outcome of LeMessurier’s honest and courageous conversations about the problems in the Citibank Tower. Unlike many other attempts to resolve complicated problems, here there were no lawsuits, no blaming or accusing, no charges of incompetence or malfeasance. ”The crisis at Citicorp Center was noteworthy,” wrote Morgenstern, in that “it produced heroes, but no villains; everyone concerned with the repairs behaved in exemplary fashion from Walter Winston and his Citicorp management team to the officials in the city’s Department of Buildings. The most striking example, or course, was set by LeMessurier, who emerged with his reputation not merely unscathed but enhanced.”
During the ensuing years, LeMessurier talked openly to his students at Harvard about the summer of 1978. His story, as he told it, was “by turns painful, self-deprecating and self- dramatizing – an engineer who did the right thing.” He also spoke often about the larger issues: the responsibilities that professions have to society. ”You have a social obligation,” he would remind his students. ”In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interests of yourself and your client to society as a whole. And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did that nothing bad happened.”
Success With Wicked Problems Requires Cooperation
Most wicked problems present us with a dilemma. They have the potential to affect negatively dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. The only feasible approach is collaboration – working with others to define the problem and develop an action plan which, when implemented, offers a chance to improve the situation. Yet we are inept, even incompetent, in cooperating effectively with others. In short, while cooperation is the sine qua non for success, we are not good at it. This weakness is, as Joshua Greene said, the most serious problem we face. When we grapple with wicked problems, what is needed is to cooperate effectively with others. Yet we often we fall short, either because we put our personal interests first, or even when we try, we lack the necessary skills.
The ending to the story that LeMessurier would tell his students – that he did the right thing and “nothing bad happened” – is an understatement. He did the right thing and many good things happened! Once he understood the nature of the problem of the Citibank Tower and identified his possible choices, he eschewed the individualist options of silence or suicide that, while they may have protected his reputation, would have put many thousands of others in jeopardy. He chose instead the more difficult and risky option of cooperating with others, and even though he opened himself up to the possibility that his career and reputation could be destroyed, he made it possible to eventually address the tame problem that would solve the problem.
Cooperation Requires Effective Conversations
Cooperation can only happen when people talk to each other. Silence leads to confusion, frustration and a guarantee that things will only get worse. Conversations between those who are involved in problems allow the possibilities of cooperation to flourish. And it is only when we cooperate with each other that we have a chance of making progress toward our goals. Excellence in working successfully with wicked problems requires us not only to cooperate with others but to be good at it. And being good at cooperation requires us to enter into and maintain effective conversations about the problems that concern us. A husband and wife are never going to make progress in managing their problems unless they are able to talk about them. Members of a work team will never move toward a greater level of effectiveness without helpful, open, relevant, and energetic conversations. And when they are skilled with difficult conversations, the chances of moving forward are greatly increased.
Earlier I named the two primary obstacles to cooperation: First, an excessive attachment to individualist goals and objectives; and second, a lack of conversation skills and abilities. LeMesseur’s decision to involve others in the problem with the Citibank Tower removed the first obstacle – his personal concerns about career and reputation were put on the back burners – and his conversation skills took care of the second. That “Nothing bad happened” was not an accident. LeMessierur was primarily responsible for “the good things that happened” because he chose to confront the problem openly and directly, and also because he had the conversation skills that created in others a willingness to cooperate.
Wicked Problem First, Tame Problem Second
In the “59th Story Crisis” LeMessurier faced two different of problems – one tame and one wicked. He had before him a problem that I have referred to in earlier essays as a “nested problem.” The tame problem, which was solvable, was nested in the middle of a wicked one. Once LeMessurier understood the nature of the tame problem – technical flaws in the building design and construction that threatened to bring it crashing down – finding a technical “fix” was relatively easy. Yet the wicked one blocked the way to getting to that solution and implementing it. Until the wicked problem was addressed – increasing awareness, understanding, cooperation and support from the key players in the situation – there was no way to solve the tame one. The complexities of dealing with a “nested problem” makes LeMessurier’s achievement all the more impressive. With no clear idea of how to proceed, with no understanding of how the other key people would react once they heard the bad news, and aware that there were great personal risks involved, LeMessurier moved toward rather than away from the problem. Rather than reject it or deny that it existed, he embraced it and began a series of skillful, effective, conversations that led to positive outcomes all the way around.