When Problems Aren’t Problems—Part II

When Problems Aren't Problems: Part II by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

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”Can you take a quick look at this issue?” (A quick looks turns into several hours and quite a few phone calls, and still no resolution.) “We need a simple method to organize this dimension of our business.” (The actual result involves months of work, an system involving several people, and new, custom software.) “We’re having trouble with Joe’s department. They’re complaining about being kept out of the loop.” (Talk about icebergs! It turns out this involves conflict management, selfish motives, poor communication, ineffective leadership, …)

These are the “normal” things of organizations. What’s abnormal? Abnormal is not having people and process problems to solve. We need new ways to look at these issues, though. We need to learn more effective methods for navigating these normalities.

Last week, in When Problems Aren’t Problems, Part I, I presented some insights on problem solving from an article by Barry Johnson, Ph.D. (See the footnote to this article for a link to his article). The first major “Aha!” from that article is that there are two kinds of problems: solvable and unsolvable. Solvable problems include issues such as how to change the oil on your car, finding the area of a piece of land, and what to eat for dinner tonight. Johnson said that solvable problems have either one right answer or multiple right answers that are independent of one another.

Most or our formal education focuses on answers to solvable problems (solving math problems, learning events in history and how to spell, various methods for writing an essay, techniques for constructing a building, and so on). This baseline of knowledge and problem solving is very important, but frankly, it doesn’t help us deal with the real challenges of work and life. I do believe that the formal educational process is important and helps prepare us for dealing with the more challenging “unsolvable” problems. However, Johnson warns us that application of traditional problem solving skills to unsolvable problems doesn’t solve the problem and may make it worse.

For example, in the debate over centralization vs. decentralization of systems in an organization, we already know that an attempt to find the one right solution is futile. What about multiple “right” answers that are independent of another? Nope. Experienced leaders know there are just too many variables in the centralization/decentralization issue to expect there to even be multiple right, independent answers.

So what is Johnson’s approach to these unsolvable problems?

Johnson uses the metaphor of inhaling and exhaling to explain how to understand and deal with unsolvable problems. Inhaling and exhaling involves four distinct phases:

  1. Inhale and bring in oxygen
  2. The body consumes the oxygen and carbon dioxide builds up
  3. Exhale to clean out the carbon dioxide
  4. The body has consumed all available oxygen (thus return to phase 1)

In a healthy adult human at rest, this process automatically repeats 12-18 times per minute, 24 hours a day. (It’s pretty amazing actually. God’s creativity and awesomeness is evident in something as simple as breathing.)

However, try an experiment with me. Perform phase 1, inhale, and stop there. Hold your breath. Hold it! Longer! Ok—exhale. While you were focused on phase 1 and tried to stop there, your body automatically moved to phase 2 and experienced the effects of too much carbon dioxide. Depending on how long you held your breath, it got pretty uncomfortable. When you finally exhaled (phase 3), you got rid of the surplus carbon dioxide and then commenced normal processing of the cycle with phase 4, running out of oxygen.

So what does this have to do with “unsolvable problems?” Actually, quite a lot. Let’s return to the centralization vs decentralization debate as a stereotypical organizational challenge. In the search to find the perfect balance of centralization and decentralization, many organizations go through a “breathing” process:

  1. Organization is highly coordinated and centrally controlled (inhaling)
  2. Customers and employees complain of too much control and distance from the customer (build up of carbon dioxide)
  3. The organization enacts a program of employee empowerment and customer involvement (carbon dioxide is cleaned out)
  4. Silos emerge and a lack of coordination results in duplication and inefficiency (run out of oxygen)

Of course the cycle returns to phase 1 in which centralization and control are used to fix the problems of phase 4.

Instead of centralization vs decentralization, insert your problem du jour:

  • Balancing the principles of being a non-profit serving the community with running a business
  • Academic institutions serving “customers” vs educating students
  • Process that instill quality and control vs flexibility and creativity to address unmet needs
  • The value of providing affordable healthcare vs fiscally responsibility
  • Leadership focus on customers vs focus on employees

The list could get very long. The challenge of navigating these issues through the four phases is what Johnson calls “polarity management.”

The solution to these unsolvable problems, these “polarities” is not found in one answer, nor is it in multiple independent answers. Rather the solution is found in understanding how your problem works through the four phases like breathing and learning to manage the polarities.

Avoid the extremes. Don’t hold your breath at your problem’s phase 1. Don’t hold your problem’s exhale at phase 3. The wisdom of Johnson’s polartity management approach is in recognizing the benefits of phases 1 and 3 and the warning signs of phases 2 and 4. As you learn to read what you polarity problem looks like in each phase you will get better at managing the normal breathing cycle and avoid holding an inhale or exhale too long.

What are the polarities you are dealing with? Which phase of the breathing cycle do you tend to sit at? What can you do to move to the next phase and find some natural balance?

1: Barry Johnson. “Polarity Management: A Summary Introduction,” Polarity Management Associates, June, 1998, http://westonatwood.com/uploads/2/8/4/4/2844368/polarity_management_-_summary.pdf

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