Ever wonder why some problems don't get solved? You are not alone | Mike Cook

Mike Cook
Contributing writer

Do you ever think about the fact that as a nation we’ve been able to send manned vehicles to the moon and yet we are seemingly unable to deal with issues much closer to our planet like education reform? Education reform would seem much simpler than aiming a projectile at a moving target 240,000 miles away and managing to hit it not once but several times. And yet, despite the best minds applied to the problem, our educational issues continue to mount.

Though the scale may be different we can recognize similar quandaries in our businesses. What gives?

Some years back I was working with a group of medical administrators around problems similar in nature to the ones described above. In the course of one discussion we distinguished that in many cases we are mightily frustrated when faced with problems that seem to be solvable on their surface yet persist over time despite plenty of applied effort, time and expense. These are the problems that keep us up at night because we know we are smart enough to solve them but cannot.

As this discussion continued I noted one of the attendees was weeping quietly. At a break I asked about her tears.

She said that while we were talking she was reminded that for several years she had been ready to start a family while her husband, who claimed his mutual interest, continued to find ways to stall the process — first it was buying their first home, then something else, always claiming that there was need to not further complicate their lives at the time. After listening for a few minutes I offered that she had misidentified the challenge she was facing. She agreed and said that she now had insight into a course of action that would give her what she had been waiting for.

About three months later we convened the same group of administrators for further discussion. As she entered the room on our first day back the weeping woman took me aside and confided, with a grin, that she was pregnant. “Wow,” I said, “that was fast. What happened?” She said the evening after our last workshop she went home and declared to her husband that she was done waiting and she was going to start a family—with him or without him! Boom! Problem solved. Well, at least her gambit worked and her husband chose to abandon his delaying tactics.

If you are wondering how this story relates to the distinction between space programs and educational reform let me explain.

Some years back researchers at Harvard University, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, developed a framework for categorizing and addressing problems that drew a distinction between those that were “technical” in nature (hit the moon with a missile) and adaptive, (resolve a dispute with your spouse). They deemed the latter category “adaptive” in nature because the problems always involved people, required change on the part of some or all of the parties involved, and were resolved primarily as a function of relationship rather than knowledge.

Now, armed with this distinction, you tell me—which category of problem is more at the heart of why we are unable to reform our educational system? You probably intuitively knew this but maybe did not have a vocabulary to name the dilemma.

Adaptive challenges persist because there is no possibility for resolution, not because there are no opportunities for solution. In fact that is what makes them most frustrating—we can see that they can be resolved, we just cannot implement the solution. And, we continue to work on the wrong thing, the technical nature of the challenge, in hopes that maybe one time we’ll get lucky. We also pursue this course because it means we will not have to change or give anything up!

Organizationally adaptive challenges are addressed any number of ineffectual ways. Maybe its time to develop a new organizational chart? Maybe we should create a committee? Perhaps it is time to employ a consultant. A new position may seem to provide a new perspective. As you read this you may roll your eyes because you’ve been down this road.

There is no resolution for adaptive challenge save for creating a new space of possibility. Someone, maybe more than one someone needs to relinquish a position or perspective held dear. You’ve got to talk about what you’ll give up, not what there is to do. You’ve got to create an agenda where everyone involved wins to some degree that satisfies him or her.

Until work begins on creating possibility there is no amount of opportunity that will suffice.


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