Monthly Archives: April 2017

Success Story: “Into the Belly of the Beast.”



April 24, 2017


Maura Sullivan was restless.  After graduate degrees at Stanford and Emory University focusing upon predictive modeling of casualties and earthquakes, she spent eight years in Silicon Valley  building predictive models “of things that could basically kill lots of people or cause people to live a long time…or cause major market disruptions.” Eventually she realized that there was more to life than helping start-ups make money.  She was looking for new challenges.  What she didn’t know at the time was that Wicked Problems were calling.

In 2013, when the opportunity for a White House fellowship came along, she accepted it;  and during that year became convinced that real progress isn’t achieved by either research or business, but is “catalyzed at the intersection of research, business, and government.” She knew a great deal about research, and had spent years making contributions in business. Now it seemed to her that government was the last frontier.

At the end of the fellowship, she decided not to return to the private sector or to accept a position in academia. When she was recruited by the Department of the Navy (DON)  - “handpicked to transform the Navy’s use of IT and data” –  and after she looked into the challenges inherent in the job, she accepted a position at the Pentagon. When asked why she chose the DON, her answer  tells us a great deal about what kind of a person she is: “When I first got here and looked at the Department of the Navy network, it looked to me like the biggest catastrophic risk I had ever seen.”  It was just what she was looking for. “You go where the problems are the biggest and most complex,” she said later.  ”This is very much like going to the belly of the beast of government…If you’re going to find a problem and make an impact, you might as well pick the biggest and most complex and thorniest you can find.”

Wicked Problems in the Department of the Navy

And the  problems she found in the belly of that beast were not just big, complex and thorny, they were also wicked:  ”Some problems are wicked,” she told an interviewer from the online site NextGov. “They’re not meant to be solved; they’re meant to be managed.” Early in Sullivan’s career, when she was working on predicting earthquakes and on the complexities of energy engineering, she discovered that some problems were wicked:  ”Earthquakes aren’t a problem that’ll be solved, energy isn’t a problem that’s solvable.  It’s a wicked problem.” This knowledge changed her life.

Early on, Sullivan discovered  that there were three “messes” that the Navy was struggling with, and from which she would have to formulate actionable problems:

Linear Thinking:  When the Navy made the decision to go nuclear, they also made the decision to cultivate, recruit, train and promote linear thinkers.  ”The truth is,” said Sullivan,” we live in a much different world now, especially with the physical-digital intersection.”  When the problem requires flexibility, agility and creativity, linear thinking …”is an enormous problem…”

Bureaucratic Organization:   Sullivan quickly learned that in government bureaucracies there were many stakeholders but no owners.  Her challenge was daunting: “How do you find a way to bring stakeholders together in such a way that you convince everyone to say yes when everyone wants to say no?” She had found a quintessential wicked problem.

Hierarchical Structure:  Being part of the military, the DON was extremely hierarchical.  Decisions were made at the top, often with insufficient data, and then the lower levels were informed and expected to implement them.  For Sullivan, this was frustrating.  She was used to a culture  ”where everyone is the captain of their own ship.”  Once in the Navy, however, she learned that even though she and others could “aggregate” data, they had no opportunity to interpret the data or make decisions based upon them.

Sullivan Attacks Wicked Problems at The DON

Once Sullivan had drilled down into the culture of the DON, she discovered that the most important wicked problem situations that were relevant for her mission were also part of the foundation of the organization:  how people thought; how they were organized; and how power was distributed and decisions were made.

Her challenge was to find ways to attack them.

She  began with three overarching principles:  First, people in the organization from the highest to the lowest levels should be “owners” of these problems; second, she was committed to bringing conversations about these problems “out in the open;” and third, she would encourage “buy-in” from employees at all levels.

Working within the bureaucratic structures and procedures of the DON at the Pentagon she quickly learned that she had few levers she could bring to bear upon ineffectual norms and practices of the system.  Working with her team, they “identified four major tools:  policy changes, seed funding, best practice promotion, and thought leadership.”

She Made Structural Changes First:  Keenly aware that the DON was a system that was both bureaucratic and hierarchical, her first target was the structure:  ”I started by reorganizing the management organization to bring the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and business functions closer together.”  Her next step was to create a strategy and innovation office that “could scan the horizon and figure out how we [could] incorporate emerging technologies…”

She Created an Inclusive Task Force:  “And after that,” said Sullivan, “we kicked off Taskforce Innovation…a nine-month effort across the organization to simultaneously make changes in how we think about workforce information processes… in order to cut horizontally across the organization.”  The efforts of the Task Force were impressive: During the first two months her department was able to solicit ideas from 30 organizations resulting in 150 credible, specific policy or project ideas.  ”This helped to greatly decentralize the innovation platform and remove hierarchical blockages that were hindering experimentation due to rank or location,” said Sullivan.

She Introduced a Collectively Sponsored Form of Participation:  As Sullivan became more familiar with how the DON functioned, she became aware of a critical gap – one that occurs in most organizations – between the people who have the knowledge and the people who hold the power.  Her response was to turn to crowdsourcing.  In order to encourage conversations about the problem and bring them out into the open, Sullivan designed and implemented the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI), a system-wide simulation that encouraged wide-spread participation and involvement of thousands of employees.

Information was sent to all inviting them to “Play the Game: Help the DON Adapt to the Future in the Information Age .”  The wicked problem at the center of the simulation was identified as the “Data Dilemma: Sharing vs. Silo.” People were encouraged to “Join the Data Dilemma (Sharing vs Silo) MMOWGLI game” and were promised that they could help “Determine how the Department of the Navy (DON) should use data to drive mission success, fuel innovation, and adapt to the future.”  ”Your opinion matters” they were told, “and you can help influence change.”

“She “Lit People’s Fires:” “You are in this traditionally controlled and rigid governmental environment,”  stated the interviewer.  ”How do you encourage bold thinking and how have you gotten stakeholders to buy into the ideas you’ve had?” ”Sometimes, you have to light fires,” was Sullivan’s answer.  Instead of bringing in a problem and talking about it – something that didn’t work well in an environment where the senior leadership’s rank unduly  influenced the conversation – she used an approach that could be described as “Careful, Cautious, Confrontation.”  In order to demonstrate how failures in technology affected the system, she would present a very tangible example.  She would bring an IT product into a meeting and demonstrate in front of the leadership “how the system is very much not working.”  By eschewing traditional approaches  -  Power Point slides and lectures – and choosing a “show rather than tell” approach, she was much more successful in getting the attention of the senior leadership.

Honors and Promotions

Maura Sullivan’s approaches in tacking wicked problems in the Navy have been recognized and rewarded.  The position of Chief of Strategy and Innovation was created for her, and she was  given the mission to oversee technology and map it into a strategy for the future. In addition, Sullivan’s courage and creativity were honored outside of the Navy.   She was awarded the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, honoring an outstanding computer science professional under the age of 35, and for her creative efforts in designing and implementing MMOWGLI,  Sullivan was one of 10 federal employees honored with Nextgov’s Bold Award, proving that the federal government is full of “bold, innovative federal employees who are disrupting the status quo.”

 Away, Against, or Toward Wicked Problems

Three choices open up for people when “called by wicked problems:”   Move away, move against, and move toward.

 Away:  People move away from wicked problems by  ”getting out of town.”  If possible, they delegate them to someone else.  If not, they either pretend that they don’t exist or if that’s not possible, argue that “if we leave them alone, they will go away.”

 Against:  Others deal with wicked problems, not by addressing the problems themselves but by aggressively attacking the idea of wicked problems and often the people who express concerns about them.  They prefer to see problems as superficial and simple, and  the solutions they support as shallow and simple-minded.  The possibility that there are complexities below the surface and that drilling down into the problem to take account of these complexities is beyond their comprehension.  In Rollo May’s insightful phrase, “they make molehills out of mountains.”  Rather than examining carefully the nature of the problem and enlisting others in “finding solutions,” they bloviate about how they can solve it themselves and quickly.  Listening to the noise, one is reminded of MacBeth’s description of life as “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Loudly insisting that they are qualified and competent problems solvers, they are more recognizable as drugstore cowboys who, in Texas-talk, are”all hat and no cattle.”


Most people avoid getting down into the “belly of the beast” where the problems are messy, complex, and often politically risky.  For Sullivan, however,  it was the opportunity she had been looking for. When she heard  wicked problems calling, she was quick to answer.  From the beginning, she understood that the problems she would face were wicked and not tame, a perspective that made a difference in how she attacked them. She moved toward them, embraced them, and addressed them with creativity and courage.  She involved others and encouraged them to become participants and “owners” rather than observers or critics. She experimented with innovative ways of coming at problems from different perspectives and unusual angles,

And she not only survived but flourished.  She found ways to make bad situations better, and in the process changed the culture of the Department of the Navy by leaving in place new knowledge and better strategies for dealing with complex, messy and thorny problems in the future.














Infect Others, Become Infected



March 31, 2017

“Infect others?” “Become infected?”  Suggestions such as these seem to be not only unusual but possibly dangerous.  Most of the time we resist becoming infected and are usually careful not to infect others.   A recommendation to “infect” others goes against common sense and good hygiene and is contrary to everything we have been taught about good health since we were children.

Yet defining infection as a medical problems is not the only way to think about it.  People often infect each other with enthusiasm and positive energy  and when these are brought to bear on a difficult problem that is going badly, they can help turn things around.  One person who dives into the problem with an upbeat attitude and positive resolve is contagious, and can infect others with his or her enthusiasm.

An example of infecting others toward positive attitudes is found in Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn.  It tells the story of a Marine company in Vietnam during the worst months of the war.  Lt. Mellas, the protagonist in the story and commander of the first platoon of Bravo Company, is ordered to prepare a landing site in the dense jungle where a helicopter can land  and pick up several wounded Marines. It was for Mellas an overwhelming task. The Company had been moving for days in impossible terrain and terrible weather with no food.  Everyone was exhausted, frustrated and depressed.  The only possible site was covered with an impenetrable mass of bamboo and elephant grass.  ”Mellas felt physically ill,” writes Marlantes.  ”His small K-bar and dull E-tool seemed useless in the face of this clotted, dense plant life…His mind wouldn’t focus.  Clear the jungle – with no tools and no food.  He closed his eyes.”  For the first time since he had been in Vietnam, he felt defeated, and not by the enemy.

Suddenly he heard a commotion behind him, and without warning Jackson, a member of his platoon, came rushing past him, screaming at the top of his lungs, and threw his body into the wall of bamboo and grass.  ”The mass yielded slightly,” wrote Marantes.  ”Jackson ran back to the group, let out a whoop, and again threw himself at the tangled mass.  It bent.  He backed off and jumped into it feet first, cursing it.  He began jumping up and down on it, shouting an exultant chant.  The bamboo broke.  The grass sagged and fell.”  And then another marine charged into the mass of jungle, and then another and another, all screaming and shouting obscenities, until dozens of men were charging into the massed vegetation.  One large marine picked up the smallest member of the platoon and threw him at the resistant bamboo.  Within an hour the marines had cleared away the jungle with their bodies so the helicopter could land.

Infecting with Perplexities

We understand how people can be infected with unfriendly bacteria – and seek to avoid it – and also infected with positive attitudes and joyful enthusiasm – and seek to encourage it.  But there is yet another way that we can become infected and can also infect others, a way that is extremely useful when struggling with wicked problems.  A comment made by the American philosopher Hannah Arendt opens the way to thinking differently  about becoming infected and infecting others.  Her interest was in teaching people to think and her insight was that”…the only way to teach people to think is to infect them with the perplexities that one is confronting.”

She is interested in changing people’s behavior, helping them move from “not-thinking” about problems to “thinking” about them.  Her approach was to share with them the perplexities she herself is confronting – her doubts,  frustration, concerns,  puzzlements,  confusions – and in this process of self-disclosure,  draw them into becoming interested in what in what interests her.  In short, to infect them with what she is worried about.

Later I will come back to Arendt’s approach of “infecting others” in the context of grappling with wicked problems .  For now, I want to return to an idea I have discussed in several previous essays:  There is little we can do by ourselves.

“It Takes Two”

At the beginning of Stephen Sondheim’s musical play, Into the Woods, the principle characters – Cinderella, Jack, (from Jack and the Beanstalk), and the Baker – a member of that well-known group, The Butcher, The Baker and The Candlestick Maker – express their dissatisfaction with the way their lives are going and desperately want things to change. Suddenly, a witch appears and promises them that their wishes will be granted if they will go “into the woods” and find the answers to several complicated problems that she gives them.

As the Baker starts off on his quest, his wife wants to go, but he insists that he can do it alone and  tells her to stay at home.  After a number setbacks and failures, however, the Baker learns that going it alone is not a good idea. After his wife joins him in the woods and they work together to meet the challenges, they sing a lovely duet, “It Takes Two,” which makes clear the Baker’s new understanding of the importance of working together when facing difficult problems:

“It takes two,” he sings,
“I thought one was enough,
It’s not true:
It takes two of us.
You came through
When the journey was rough.
It took you.
It took two of us.

Previously I suggested that most of the important things we need in our lives – understanding, support, respect, different points of view, affection, recognition, different skill-sets and so on – come only when other people are willing to offer them to us.  Cooperation is required and for this “It takes  two of us” and usually more. However, cooperating with others is not something that we are good at, especially when our differences are wide and deep.  Too many of us are like the Baker who think we can go “Into the Woods” by ourselves and be successful.

Being Willing to Cooperate Comes First

If cooperation it is to happen, the first step is to show a willingness to join in.  People must sit at the same table and address the same issues, then stay with them long enough until they reach a shared understanding of the problem,  With this,  there is a possibility to keep moving forward.  But even when people are willing, things still go badly. Good intentions, while important and even necessary, are never enough.  When troubles arise,  many people are unaware of what’s going wrong and what chould be done to get things back on track.  Instead of pulling back from the conversation and shifting it from the task at hand to the fact that things are not going well-  Meta-Talk – they often press forward with even more energy and volume and end up making things worse.  Without making a deliberate decision to do so, they often find themselves participating in an escalation from differences, to misunderstandings, to frustrations, and finally to anger.  ”Things fall apart, The center cannot hold,”  wrote the poet Yeats, and  though he was referring to society in general, it fits people sitting around a table trying to reach consensus just as well.

Even when people express a willingness to work together and begin to see progress, there are more obstacles in the way.  Many bring to the table baggage from previously failed attempts and spend their time complaining about how difficult it all is. Rather than plunge in and participate, they stand back and criticize.   Others underestimate the difficulties they are facing and are unprepared for the moment when things start to go off the rails.  What they do not understand is successful cooperation on important issues and dilemmas is a wicked problem and needs to be understood and acted upon as one.

And even we reach a successful level of cooperation, there is more wickedness ahead.  After cooperation – a willingness to work together – must come  consensus – an agreement about the nature of the problem – which then needs to be followed by collaboration – moving to action.

Michael Schrage’s Frustration

Collaboration and collaboration are not only desirable but necessary argues Michael Schrage in Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration.   As evidence, he lists what calls “joint ventures: ”Picasso and Braque creating Cubism and reshaping the geometries of art; Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and the quantum physicists joining together to map the subatomic universe; Watson and Crick discovering the double helix of life itself; the Wright brothers launching the aviation industry; and seventy-five years later, the ‘Two Steves’ – Wozniak and Jobs-  popularizing personal computing through Apple.”

But when Schrage moves to the table and tries to cooperate and collaborate in a joint venture with his colleagues,  he is flummoxed:

A deep sense of frustration… came from an annoying inability to make my thoughts and ideas clear to my colleagues as we worked together.  This was particularly galling because, as a bright and daily articulate journalist, I was supposed to be good at communicating.  My colleagues weren’t stupid – on the contrary, they were all bright, articulate, and competent.  Yet somehow, basic concepts we discussed became garbled, and vital nuances were smeared beyond recognition.  Meetings called to remove confusion often ended up amplifying it.  The same words meant different things to different people.  As a result, things didn’t get done or they didn’t get done right.  Something was fundamentally wrong: there had to be a better way.

Schrage’s dilemma is not unusual.  Most of us could write our own paragraph describing our past frustrations in trying to cooperate with others.  The consequences of these frustrating experiences are destructive:  We  avoid trying to work things out with others and attempt to go it alone;  we boycott meetings;  and we complain loudly that “meetings don’t work;” we lobby to have fewer of them.   When we can no longer find an excuse  for staying away and find ourselves at the table, we often adopt a stance of boredom and apathy.  At the first sign of difficulties we move from boredom to irritation and, if things go badly enough, to outrage.

“Something was… wrong,” says Schrage. “There had to a better way.”   I believe that there is, and it starts with reminding ourselves that the “reality” one person sees is very different from what someone else sees.   Once we become clear about our differences, then, and only then, can we can move toward finding agreement on perspectives, definitions, or alternatives that makes sense to us both.

Walter Lippmann’s Insight

Why is cooperation so difficult?  There is a clue in Schrage’s comment, “The same words meant different things to different people.”  A recent review in a local newspaper of a new art project titled “Sonder” presents Schrage’s observation that we hear things differently as a remarkable achievement.   “Sonder” was described in the paper as an” original,” a merger between arts, entertainment, design, and entrepreneurship.  The producer claimed that “From the audience experience, this show is unlike anything else that is happening…Every audience member is going to have a different and unique experience.”

Reading this comment, my first reaction was “Duh!” Was he kidding or was it just hype?  As individuals, “unique and different experiences” are all we ever have!  We only get past these unique perspectives by sharing them with each other, and, then, if we are skillful and patient, reaching an agreement on what is happening “out there.”

In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in Public Opinion, described this human dilemma:  ”There is a world outside and there are pictures in our heads,” he wrote, and it is the pictures in our heads that that describe and define the outside world for us.  ”Man [sic]  behaves not according to the world as it really is, but to the world as he thinks it is.” It is the pictures in our minds, then, that determine our actions.  Unless confronted by contrary evidence, it is easy to believe that our “pictures” are the real ones.  Until we are able to share these mental pictures with each other and made a successful effort to reach agreement about which pictures make the most sense,  it is difficult if not impossible to cooperate.  Without any awareness of why, we frequently get bogged down arguing over whose pictures are the “true” ones.

Twenty Men Crossing Twenty Bridges?

As is almost always the case, it is the poets and artists who most clearly understand the boxes we get trapped in.  In the opening lines of his poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” the American poet Wallace Stevens translates Lippman’s observation into poetry:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

 This dilemma is clear:  If we expect the men crossing the bridge to cooperate, they must come to understand that rather than crossing “twenty bridges into twenty villages,” their only hope is to cross on the same bridge to the same village.  In this possible?  Stevens is pessimistic.  His next lines suggest that it won’t happen:  ”This is old song/That will not declare itself…”  He is right that the “old song…will not declare itself.” But that need not be the end of the story.  What is needed is  to change the picture of bridges and villages we hold in our minds.

If we want to increase cooperation – as we must if we are going make headway with our wicked problems – we need to begin with an understanding that at the beginning of any conversation we are all crossing on our own bridge.  And then, in order for all “twenty” of us to work together, we then must understand and accept that we must all cross on one bridge.  We must become “infected” with new ways of seeing and understanding “bridges.”

Infect Others, Become Infected

 I am more sanguine than Stevens. I believe that we can move from twenty bridges to one bridge. The question is how to do it.  And the answer is to begin a conversation, one in which we first become aware that even though in the beginning there are twenty bridges,  by the end of our sharing, we are able to  get it down to just one.

Returning to Arendt’s metaphor,  ”…the only way to teach people to think [and to think differently] is to infect them with [my] perplexities,” – when I share with you my perplexities , as well as my preferences, perceptions,  concerns, anxieties, fears and frustrations,  I “expose” you to how I see things.  My hope is that you will “catch” what I have.

And of course, this works both ways.  I “infect” you by sharing my perplexities, and you infect me by sharing yours in return.  Sharing one’s concerns,  if it is done skillfully, is compelling, and opens the door to continuing conversations.  As we become “infected” with each other’s perplexities and concerns, we increase the chances of cooperating with each other.

If  this sharing is skillful, sincere and relevant, the gaps that exist between us can be narrowed, and we have, perhaps for the first time,  an opportunity to examine our differences in an atmosphere of acceptance, mutual support and understanding.  And learning more about our differences – and accepting them as valid – is an important first step in getting to “one bridge” – increasing the possibilities of cooperation between us.

I-Messages Are the Key

The remedy to the “twenty bridges” problem, then, lies with our abilities to infect others with our perplexities and be willing to be infected in return.  I make you aware of what I see, think, prefer, etc.  by sharing them with you and when you do the same, I listen without judging or criticizing.  This is not always easy.  As I said, in order to be successful in “infecting” each other,  we must be skillful.  Most of our concerns and frustrations involve what others do or don’t do,  and talking about them may make one or both of us feel threatened or defensive.   Effective conversations are required – fierce ones are best –  and they are most successful when they begin with I-Messages.  By beginning with an I-Message, I am able to make you aware of my perplexities and, at the same time, reducing the chances that you may be offended.

Here are some opening lines about “perplexities”  that can open the door to longer conversations and, further down the road, lead to cooperation:

- I am worried about how much we are spending on recreation.

 - I am frustrated we have not started a meeting on time once in the past three months;

  -I am concerned that we are way over budget.

-  This sounds like over-promising on results I’m not sure we can deliver. This worries me a lot.

- I left the meeting really upset.  While I was trying to explain my idea for the Franklin project, you interrupted me three times.

 - I am really uncomfortable right now, and would prefer to come back and talk about it later.

First sentences are not all there is to conversations that “infect” others.  The next step is to encourage the other to share his or her perception of the situation or event, and then, once each understands the perspective of the other, work together to find a better way to handle the problems.

Encouraging Infections

“Infecting” others with our concerns and perplexities, and allowing them to “infect” us in return, offers us an opportunity to stand together on the same bridge and look toward the same village. For this task, helpful language is the key, and conversations that make frequent, skillful, and appropriate use of I-Messages greatly increase our chances of moving together in the same direction toward the same village.   Then we can grasp hands and, whooping and hollering, cross the bridge and “throw our bodies” at a wicked problem with enough energy and for enough time that we eventually smash it to the ground.