Solving Tough Problems

Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane is a short book with a powerful message. It is a series of stories about Kahane’s progress from an analytical researcher with a degree in physics to an internationally-recognized facilitator of participatory problem solving. I picked up this book in Montreal last week and later noticed that Kahane is originally from Montreal. He tells the story of his early work with Shell and the likes of Peter Senge and then the eye-opening Mont Fleur sessions in South Africa just prior to the end of apartheid. A major theme in the book is how to overcome ‘apartheid thinking’:

“My analysis also allowed me to recognize a widespread “apartheid syndrome”. By this I mean trying to solve a highly complex problem using a piecemeal, backward-looking, and authoritarian process that is suitable only for solving simple problems. In this syndrome, people at the top of a complex system try to manage its development through a divide-and-conquer strategy: through compartmentalization – the Africaans word apartheid means “apartness” – and command and control. Because the people at the bottom resist these commands, the syndrome either becomes stuck, or ends up becoming unstuck by force.”

At just under 150 pages, this is a short book but one that I will read many times over. The main lesson for me so far is that it is necessary to focus on listening, and that many answers are already there; we just have to relax and let them come to us. I see learning in the same way – when the learner is ready, the teacher will appear. As Kahane says, “If we want to help resolve complex situations, we have to get out of the way of situations that are resolving themselves”.

This way of approaching complex problems has worked, but requires a shift in approach, much like Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This is where we don’t actually let go of our so-called ‘left brain’ analytical processes, but park them in order to open up our ‘right brain’ conceptualization and feeling abilities. Here is some advice from Kahane’s colleague at Shell, Alain Wouters:

There is not “a” problem out there that we can react to and fix. There is a “problem situation” of which each of us is a part, the way an organ is part of a body. We can’t see the situation objectively: we can just appreciate it subjectively. We affect the situation and it affects us. The best we can do is to engage with it from multiple persectives, and try, in action-learning mode, to improve it. It’s more like unfolding a marriage than it is like fixing a car.”

I strongly recommend this book for anyone working in groups, meetings, committees, or any other form of social organisation.

2 Responses to “Solving Tough Problems”

  1. Anonymous

    Adam Kahane teaching in Nova Scotia late June
    Harold, Adam Kahane will be in your own back yard June 22- July 1, presenting a module on “Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities” at the Shambhala Institute’s annual summer program. From the description: “The participants in the module will work with a current and real social challenge in Nova Scotia: How will this relatively small and rural province, with its unique traditions and culture, become a welcoming community to immigrants from around the world?”

    – Mark Szpakowski

  2. Anonymous

    Sounds very interesting Mark, but it’s a bit pricey for my professional development budget. Maybe next time.


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