Monthly Archives: October 2016

Starting Productive Conversations


October 29, 2016


The lead story  in Engineering News for October 24 begins with this headline:  ”Collaborative Thinking Needed to Tackle ‘Wicked’ Problems.”  Kudos to the author, Martin Loosemore, for choosing “tackle”  instead of the much more common “solve.” It’s a sign that at least some of those who talk about wicked problems are beginning to use language that makes sense.

In the article, Loosemore suggests that there are three approaches for dealing with wicked problems:  authoritative, competitive, and collaborative.   When the problems are wicked,  he argues, then the most productive strategy is collaboration.  And I couldn’t agree more.  An authoritative approach – expecting that an authority will come up with a solution – is guaranteed to fail,  since an authority – any authority – can only have a narrow and incomplete idea about the nature of the problem and even less knowledge about what to do about it. As I have said, wicked problems are not like apples waiting to be picked from trees and put into  baskets.  Rather, they begin as parts of “messes” –  large, amorphous,    dynamic, ever-changing combinations of many potential problems.  Poverty is a “mess,” for example, as is adequate health care and quality education for all.  Within the boundaries of poverty,  health care, or quality education,  there are hundreds of possible problems waiting to be identified.  For a situation to become a problem, it must be created –  extracted from the mess by human beings – then named and defined.

Setting up a competition to try and solve a wicked problem is little better that an authoritative approach.  The nature of competition is that someone wins and someone loses.   If this approach is chosen for working on wicked problems, then in the end everybody loses.

Collaboration is really the only effective style for working on wicked problems.  Until people begin sharing their perceptions and observations about a situation or an event, no one is sure if there really is a problem, what the problem is,  or what to do about it.  And collaboration always begins with conversation.   Loosemore’s suggestion that “thinking” is needed is obvious (it’s always a good thing to think about problems) and is a necessary first step.  However, for progress to occur with wicked problems, people need to get beyond their  thinking and begin talking and listening to others. At times, however, it is difficult to know how to begin a conversation about wicked problems.

Starting Helpful  Conversations about Problems

There are three strategies that are helpful in starting conversations:

- A shared external event or experience;

- A diagnostic exercise;

- Appropriate and timely self-disclosure

A Shared Event:  Google’s Michael Jackson Gambit

When the Michael Jackson concert movie, This is It, was first released in October , 2009,  Jonathan Rosenberg, manager of  design and development for Google’s consumer, advertiser, and partner products, got an idea.  He bought a number of tickets for the premier and invited the product team members to attend.  Hundreds of his Google colleagues took him up on the offer.

Rosenberg was criticized by some friends and coworkers.  ”Was it really worth the cost and lost production  just so a bunch of Googlers could go see a movie?”   In Google:  How Google Works,  authors  Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt gave their answer:  ”The answer was a resounding yes.  The movie showed a world-class creative creature pushing his team and himself to be great by paying attention to every detail and always taking the concert audience’s point of view.”

But Rosenberg had another reason for wanting the members of his team to see the movie:  The Jackson movie was a way to start conversations.  ”For months afterward,” wrote Rosenberg and Schmidt, “members of Rosenberg team, from senior leaders to associates right out of college, would stop him by the expresso machine or in the cafe to thank him for the movie.  Jonathan usually asked them what they liked about it, and the conversation always took off from there.”

When people share events that are related in some way to the challenges that they are facing, especially if the events are powerful and meaningful,  doors can open that lead to rich and relevant  conversations that can lead to   tackling the problems that they are facing.

Diagnostic Activities 

No competent physician would give a patient medication or perform a surgical procedure without knowing as much as possible about the medical problem of the patient.  Reputable physicians everywhere diagnose before they treat.  They use multiple methods to locate the primary cause of the illness, and then they work to eliminate it.

While the same principle holds true for wicked problems –  we need to understand the nature of the problem before taking action – a diagnostic process with wicked problems is very different from the one used in medicine.  The most important difference is that for messy, complicated problems there is no “root cause” that, once found, can be eliminated to solve the problem.  There is no “curing” wicked problems. Another difference is that in medicine, symptoms signal that there is an underlying problem that needs attention.  With wicked problems, however, there may no underlying problem to be found  It is the symptoms themselves that constitute the problem and they need to be addressed.  A third difference is that in medicine, it is the “expert” who diagnoses the problem and then decide which treatment to use.  With wicked problems, there are no “experts” beyond those who are living the problem.  They are the ones who know what it is that is bothering them and causing them concern.  And each one only knows one version of the dilemma.  A full definition of a problem only emerges as people talk and listen to each other.

When Carter Murray was CEO of the advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, because of a noncompete agreement, he had to wait six months before he took over.  ”So not surprising, people were pretty wound up about my arrival,” he told Adam Bryant of the New York Times.  When I got this job, I was 38, and I could tell people were wondering.  ’Who is this guy? He’s probably going to come in and think he has all the answers.’ ”

But Murray was wise enough to know that he had no answers at all for the problems that the company was facing.  Only those who were in the middle of it all at any idea.  Before taking actions to “fix”any  problems – the reason that he was hired – he needed to learn what they were.  The first thing he did was  invite the top 100 executives to meet with him – 25 at a time – for a series of diagnostic meetings. “We started with blank pieces of paper.  What are our 10 biggest challenges?”  he asked.   One hundred executives, each writing down 10 problems, could potentially result in hundreds of possible problems.  But the value of Murray’s exercise was that now the conversations could begin.

Timely and Appropriate Self-Disclosure

The most powerful stimulus – as well as the most risky – for meaningful and productive conversations about important problems is a sincere and honest expression of one’s personal concerns. One person disclosing to another, or to a team, or organization, his or her most deeply-held concerns, and then inviting the others to share their own perceptions of the situation or dilemma,  can be the most effective way to begin crucial conversations about important problems.

In the process of self-disclosure, it is essential that the person who shares her or his concerns is experienced by others  as sincere and open – no game playing or manipulation allowed.

For self-disclosure to be effective, the language used is important.  What is most helpful is to use what psychologists call an I-message.  An I-message begins with personal statement about one’s state of mind or emotion:  I think… I feel… I believe…I am concerned… I am worried… and is followed with a clear invitation for the others to share their perceptions or experiences as they relates to the issue or situation.

Here are some examples:

“Is this a good time?  I have something that’s bothering me that I want to share with you.”

“I am very concerned about what we learned from our recent diagnostic exercise that almost 15 percent of our key executives would leave if they had a chance;”

“I am very discouraged.  Here we are arguing again about money.  It seems that no matter how hard we try, we slip back into the same argument. How do you see it?”

“I am very concerned about what seems to me a loss of trust among members on our team.  How do you see it?

“I have a problem and I need your help.”

There is a pattern that is important:  Sincere self-disclosure is followed by an invitation to the others to share their views. These exchanges can become collaborations,  characterized by openness and honesty and deep and non-judgmental listening.

Is creative self-disclosure possible?  The answer is clearly yes.  An example is when members of a work team made collages of themselves, then shared the meaning of the pictures and phrases with the other team members.  Team members were then invited to add additional pictures to each collage as feedback to the creator of the work.

Urs Holzle, an engineering executive at Google, wrote and published a “user manual” about himself, and made it available to the two thousand members of his team.  It was his idea of self-disclosure.  The team members were encouraged to read it in order to understand more about Holzle and discover ways to approach and work with him.  Among the information that Holzle included in his “user manual”  was:  ”I didn’t grow up in the US, and I tend to be more direct when I talk about something…I tend to overstate points for clarity of argument…If you think I am wrong, you need to tell me.  I’ll never blame anyone for speaking up…If you feel I’m beating you up and all you’re getting is negative feedback, then it’s very likely that this wasn’t intentional.”

Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, who reported this story about Holzle’s “user manual” in , Google:  How Google Works, didn’t mention whether the team members who reported to Holzle were encouraged to add their own observations about him to his manual, but if not, then Holzle missed a great opportunity to learn from his team members by means of a continuing conversation.

Conversations are Required for Collaboration 

No wicked problem that involves other people can ever by addressed successfully by just one person.   John cannot tell Mary what is the nature of their problem.  He can only share his concerns and his perceptions of what isn’t working in their relationship, and then listen as she does the same.  Then, working together, they can begin to give shape and structure to the emerging problem.   Working together – constructive collaboration – is the sine qua non of moving forward.  And collaboration is not possible unless the people who are concerned with the problem or affected by it, become active participants in serious, meaningful, and productive conversations.  Getting these conversations started, and then keeping them going until they lead to an action plan that can be implemented, is the only way that wicked problems can be understood, defined, and then addressed.