Medium 9781576754641

Solving Tough Problems

Views: 2156
Ratings: (0)

Adam Kahane has worked on some of the toughest, most complex problems in the world. He started out as an expert analyst and advisor to corporations and governments, convinced of the need to calculate “the one right answer.” After an unexpected experience in South Africa during the transition away from apartheid, he got involved in facilitating a series of extraordinary high-conflict, high-stakes problem-solving efforts: in Colombia during the civil war, in Argentina during the collapse, in Guatemala after the genocide, in Israel, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and the Basque Country. Through these experiences, he learned to create environments that enable new ideas and creative solutions to emerge even in the most stuck, polarized contexts. Here Kahane tells his stories and distills from them an approach all of us can use to solve our own toughest problems—at home, at work, in our communities, and in national and international affairs.
“This breakthrough book addresses the central challenge of our time: finding a way to work together to solve the problems we have created.”
—Nelson Mandela

List price: $17.95

Your Price: $13.46

You Save: 25%

Remix
Remove
 

15 Slices

Format Buy Remix

Contents

ePub

 

“There Is One Right Answer”

ePub

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I thought that the world’s toughest problems would be solved by the world’s smartest people, and I wanted to be one of them. So in 1978, when I started university at McGill in my home town of Montreal, I chose honors physics. This degree involved courses only in theoretical physics and advanced mathematics—nothing but the laws of nature and of pure reason.

My classmates and I were proud to be inducted into this elite intellectual fraternity. We trained by reproducing an increasingly difficult series of logical proofs. Our textbooks contained questions at the end of each chapter and the answers at the back of the book. Our quantum physics course was graded based on a single open-book exam. Before the exam I worked through every exercise in the text, and so I got a perfect grade.

We understood that there is only one right answer.

During the summers, I had electronics jobs in different laboratories. When you’re troubleshooting circuits, either the wires are connected properly and it works, or not: you’re completely in control. One weekend I went horseback riding, and I was concerned with how to get the horse to raise its leg to get over a log, when—without any instructions from me—the horse did it! I was not used to dealing with living, sentient systems.

 

Seeing the World

ePub

IN 1988 I LEFT PG&E and took a job in the strategic planning department of Royal Dutch/Shell, the giant Dutch-British energy and chemicals company: almost 100 years old, $100 billion in sales, and over 100,000 employees in more than 100 countries; the fourth largest industrial company in the world. The global petroleum business was much different from the California utility business. Shell was not concerned with regulatory hearings; it was dealing with the hurly-burly of the marketplace. It was wonderfully cosmopolitan, intellectual, and practical: a combination of British subtlety and Dutch bluntness. If Shell staff were arrogant, I thought, it was because they deserved to be: they were the best. Here I could learn how the world really worked.

My job was to come up with new ideas that would provoke, stretch, and challenge the managers’ thinking about tough business problems—to improve the quality of their strategic debates. From the window of my office in the London headquarters, I could see the Houses of Parliament. Like Parliament, Shell believed in the value of debate to hammer out a sound way forward. And like “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” our department had to ask the difficult and awkward questions that would challenge the managers and improve the quality of their thinking.

 

The Miraculous Option

ePub

IN THE MIDDLE OF 1991, Jaworski was in his at Shell when he received a telephone call from Pieter le Roux, a professor at the left-wing, black University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

One year before, the white minority government of E W. de Klerk had released Nelson Mandela from prison after twenty-seven years, and simultaneously legalized all the black opposition parties, including Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). This broke a deadlock in one of the world’s most stuck political situations. Now the government and the opposition were trying to do what nobody believed could be done: negotiate a peaceful transition from an authoritarian apartheid regime to a racially egalitarian democracy.

Le Roux wanted to organize a scenario project to help the opposition develop its strategy for this unprecedented transition. South Africa had had two previous scenario projects, both of which had been sponsored by big South African companies and advised by Pierre Wack, by then long-retired from Shell. Le Roux liked the idea of using a corporate methodology for “the world’s first scenario planning exercise of the left.” He also wanted an advisor from Shell and so called Jaworski to ask for one.

 

Being Stuck

ePub

SOUTH AFRICA had been stuck in apartheid for decades, but by the time I first went there in 1991, South Africans were in the middle of changing that. What does a tough problem look like when it is still stuck in the apartheid syndrome?

It looks like the Basque Country did in October 2002. When I went there to share my South African experiences, Basque nationalists were fighting for independence from Spain, or at least for the right to vote on it. Non-nationalists and the Spanish government wanted the Basque Country to remain part of Spain. Over the previous five years, this conflict had grown increasingly polarized and violent. The nationalist terrorist group ETA (Euzkadi to Askatasuna, which means “Basque Homeland and Freedom” in the Basque language) had killed more than 850 people and planted bombs in Bilbao, Madrid, and tourist resorts, so that hundreds of public officials needed full-time bodyguards. The police had killed 170 people and made more than 11,000 arrests. The Basque Country was thoroughly stuck and therefore increasingly dangerous. As one local peace researcher explained to me, “A conflict that does not move positively, moves negatively.”

 

Dictating

ePub

IN ORDER TO UNSTICK a stuck problem peacefully, the people involved in the problem have to talk with and listen to one another. But there is more than one way of talking and listening, and some ways hardly help at all.

I observed such hardly helpful communication in the problem—ridden context of Paraguay. Paraguayans seem to enjoy telling awful and bizarre stories about their country. The first evening I was there, in 2001, a presidential candidate boasted to me about the suicidal War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870), in which Paraguay battled its three much larger neighbors, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, and lost half of its people. Men had to be imported to re-grow the population. “We are,” he concluded with a flourish, “a fierce and crazy people.”

Their recent history has been similarly awful. General Alfredo Stroessner was elected president in 1954 and stayed in power for thirty-five years through siege, harassment, murder, political purges, and bogus elections. His overthrow in 1989 released a wave of excitement and optimism. Then resignation set in again. Many of the country’s institutions are corrupt. A Paraguayan CEO told me that the majority of his law school class did not study because they had purchased their degrees in advance. At the time, he was fighting a trumped-up fraud case in the Supreme Court in which his opponent had paid off several of the judges. A journalist told me that the president of Paraguay drives a stolen car and that the president of Uruguay had his watch stolen off the lectern when he gave a speech to the Paraguayan Congress. “An optimist in Paraguay,” someone quipped, “is someone who says, ‘Things are good! We are better off today than we will be tomorrow!’”

 

Talking Politely

ePub

In ORDER TO SOLVE tough problems peacefully, people must be willing to talk openly. In Paraguay and in the communications company, people hesitated to speak openly because they were afraid of authoritarian reprisal. In Canada, my native country, I worked on a project in which I noticed a different kind of hesitancy—people hesitating to speak openly because they were afraid of offending someone, or of being embarrassed.

We Canadians are polite. It is not that we do not have the same conflicts and passions as other people, just that we prefer not to talk about them. As Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said, “Just because English Canadians don’t move their faces much doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings.” Sometimes this politeness helps us deal with our challenges, but sometimes it hinders us.

In 1996, I worked with a Canadian team that was trying to make progress on the long-running constitutional tension between Quebec separatists and Canadian federalists (like the Basque conflict, but less violent). Politicians and civil servants had been trying to resolve this issue for decades, without success.

 

Speaking Up

ePub

IN COLOMBIA, the most violent country in the world, the status quo works for almost no one. In proportion to its population, Colombia has the highest number of murders and kidnappings in the world. It has a home-grown academic discipline called violentology. In the first half of the 1900s, it had two bloody civil wars, the second one called simply “The Violence.” Since the 1960s it has suffered from an increasingly violent mess of conflicts among the military, drug traffickers, left-wing guerrilla armies, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes. Yet Colombia has also elected civilian governments for all but 5 of its 185-year history, making it the longest-lasting democracy in Latin America. The country is, like many places, both a disaster and a wonder.

During 1996 and 1997, a team called “Destino Colombia” wanted to use the Mont Fleur approach to find a better way forward for their country. It was then, and as of this writing still is, the only time that all of the armed actors (except the drug traffickers)—plus a diverse group of politicians, businesspeople, and representatives of civil society—met to talk with and listen to one another, and search for a way out of the violence.

 

Only Talking

ePub

TALKING OPENLY (as I observed in Colombia) is better than talking guardedly (Paraguay) or politely (Canada) or not at all (Basque Country), in that it allows us to see more of the problem and understand it from multiple perspectives. But by itself, talking about a problem does not change anything. Something more is required.

I learned this when I participated in a series of meetings in the Caribbean. The convenors invited sixty prominent leaders, from all walks of life, to talk about what was going on in the region and what they might do about it. The participants spoke with discouragement about their complex mess of problems: poverty, AIDS, drug trafficking, emigration, political factionalism, economic stagnation, and social deterioration. They also spoke with pride about their democracy and free speech: politicians who argued vigorously in Parliament and in public; newspapers that were full of sharp reporting and serious analysis; and ordinary people who spent hours “reasoning,” talking openly and at length in their homes and neighborhoods and on call-in radio programs.

 

Opennes

ePub

IF TALKING OPENLY means being willing to expose to others what is inside of us, then listening openly means being willing to expose ourselves to something new from others.

I observed the power of this simple directional shift in Houston, Texas. I was working with a group of powerful and public-spirited businessmen. They had a high confidence in their ability to wisely guide the city into the future and a low confidence in government and politicians.

The businessmen were concerned that the younger generation of business leaders were not sufficiently enthusiastic about becoming responsible “city fathers” and that politicians would step into this vacuum and ruin the city. They organized a team that included younger and minority businesspeople and a few leaders of large nonprofit organizations to talk about the situation and decide what to do. They were reluctant, however, to broaden the membership of the team further to include politicians and community leaders. They were afraid that a more diverse group would be both more awkward to work with and unnecessary. Businesspeople had previously figured out amongst themselves what was best for the city, and they could continue to do so.

 

Reflectiveness

ePub

THE SOUTH AFRICAN apartheid system was based on separating people—where they could live, study, work, and play—according to their race. People who challenged the system were banned from speaking in public, jailed, exiled, or assassinated. It was therefore not surprising that the members of the Mont Fleur team, coming from all races and political histories, some only recently released from jail or returned from exile, arrived at their first workshop in 1991 with radically different and strongly held views.

Given this background, the most extraordinary characteristic of the Mont Fleur process was the relaxed openness of the conversation. The team members not only spoke openly but, over the course of the meetings, changed what they said. They stretched more than the Basques, Paraguayans, and Canadians. This contrast allowed me to begin to answer the second question that I had been left with at the conclusion of Mont Fleur: How can we solve tough problems peacefully?

The members of the Mont Fleur team had listened, not only openly, but also reflectively. When they listened, they were not just reloading their old tapes. They were receptive to new ideas. More than that, they were willing to be influenced and changed. They held their ideas lightly; they noticed and questioned their own thinking; they separated themselves from their ideas (“I am not my ideas, and so you and I can reject them without rejecting me”). They “suspended” their ideas, as if on strings from the ceiling, and walked around and looked at these ideas from different perspectives.

 

Empathy

ePub

WHEN I DID MY SCENARIO WORK at Shell and Mont Fleur, I believed that the key to solving complex problems was for people to listen openly and reflectively enough to change their thinking. Then I discovered that I was missing something.

I was leading a workshop in South Africa for the University of the North, a rural, apartheid-era institution with a history of conflict between radical black students and conservative white faculty and administration. The workshop included 100 students, faculty, and administrators. My fellow facilitator was a renowned black community organizer and political leader named Ishmael Mkhabela.

A few hours into the workshop, a shouting match broke out between the students and the staff. One year earlier, a student had been killed, and now the student leaders in the workshop were demanding a moment of silence in memory of their “martyr.” The faculty did not want to celebrate a “troublemaker.” The temperature in the room was rising, and my attempts to get everyone to be reasonable and cool down weren’t working. I knew that I was stuck but did not know what to do, and I started to panic. Then Mkhabela calmly stepped forward to rescue me. “I suggest a moment of silence,” he said, “both for this student and for all the others, students and staff, who have been hurt in this conflict … and for those who will come after us, for whom we are doing this work. Let us close our eyes …” The room fell silent and the fight dissolved.

 

Cracking Through the Egg Shell

ePub

I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY to witness generative dialogue in the shambles of Argentina. In December 2001, after three years of deepening recession and rising unemployment, Argentines marched, rioted, looted, and brought down their elected government. The country had five presidents in two weeks. When I started making trips to Argentina in the months that followed, things were going from bad to worse: the currency crashed, the country defaulted, banks closed, professionals emigrated. Suddenly, in a country that had had the highest standard of living in Latin America, one-half of the population was living in poverty, one-quarter in destitution, and children were dying of hunger.

Almost nobody believed that Argentines could solve their own problems. Month after month, political leaders failed to agree on an emergency reform program. Politicians hesitated to walk in the streets because people so despised them. One popular slogan was “They Must All Go!” International commentators wrote the country off. The conventional wisdom among both locals and foreigners was that Argentines were too closed, partisan, confrontational, and egotistical to sit down together and agree on what to do. I heard many quips: “The best business in the world is to buy Argentines for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth.” “In Argentina, consensus means that you agree with me.” I was told over and over: “Argentines are incapable of dialogue.” The only solutions I heard people mention were ones imposed from outside or above: a new, strong, dynamic president—like Peron; an economic regime imposed by the International Monetary Fund; a military government.

 

Closed Fist, Open Palm

ePub

THE WAY TO LISTEN is to stop talking. One reason we cannot hear what others are saying is that their voices are drowned out by our own internal voices. We keep reacting and projecting, judging and prejudging, anticipating and expecting, reloading and drifting off. The biggest challenge of listening is quieting down our internal chatter. When we succeed in doing so, we see the world anew.

Jaworski and I were helping a team from a European multinational company that was working to turn around the dismal sales performance of their oldest and biggest division. They had been studying the situation for months, interviewing colleagues, customers, competitors, and people in other industries. We met for a three-day workshop in a small inn in the French Pyrenees. We spent the first morning analyzing the overwhelming mass of interview material. Then we walked up a nearby mountain and spread out along a ridge with magnificent views of snow-capped peaks and rocky valleys. We spent the next sixteen hours there, each with our own tent, alone and silent, without cell phones or watches or books or paper. We had no problem-solving assignment. Our guide, meditation teacher John Milton, simply asked us to relax and be fully present with what was going on inside and around us.

 

The Wound That Wants to Be Whole

ePub

IN GUATEMALA, I observed this generative dance in a beautiful and terrible context. Guatemala had, from 1960 to 1996, the longest-running and most brutal civil war in Latin America. Even the torture instructors hired from Argentina were appalled by what they witnessed. Out of a total population of 7 million, more than 200,000 people were “disappeared” (killed), and more than 1 million were forcibly displaced. The Guatemalan state was responsible for almost all of this violence, and they directed almost all of it against the country’s indigenous people, the Mayans.

The official, internationally supported investigation of this period was the “Commission for Historical Clarification.” Their report is appalling to read. It documents the use of terror, torture, kidnappings, child soldiers, a militarized police, arbitrary executions, rape, and semi-official death squads; the closing of political spaces, weakening of social organizations, and denial of justice; massacres and genocide. Guatemala exhibited the most extreme possible version of the apartheid syndrome.

 

Details

Print Book
E-Books
Slices

Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Sku
B000000023255
Isbn
9781605098975
File size
1.87 MB
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata