Book – Solving Tough Problems

Solving Tough Problems

An open way of talking, listening and creating new realities Adam Kahane San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004

Part 1: Tough Problems

‘Tough problems usually don’t get solved peacefully. They either don’t get solved at all – they get stuck- or they get solved by force’ p1 There is another way to solve tough problems. The people involved can talk and listen to each other and there by work through a solution peacefully. But this way is often too difficult and too slow to produce results, and force the reform becomes the easier, default option.

Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and are hard to grasp from first hand experience. They are generatively complex, which means that they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people involved see things very differently, and so problems become polarized and stuck. P2

Seeing the World:

‘I now know that every trend had a countertrend every argument had a rebuttal and every solution produced a new problem. I knew that there was no longer a right answer. P15

The Miraculous Option:

South Africa – Mont Fleur Conference Center

-in 1992 a group of 22 influential South Africans come to talk; they can only ask two question “Why would that happen?’ or ‘What would happen next?’ when discussing future scenarios, about the White/Black establishment lines. The scenarios where narrowed down to nine where social, political, economical and international dimensions where fleshed out then the top four where chosen.

Part Two: Talking

Adam Kahane started up Generon Consulting with Joseph Jawoski who worked for Shell and Bill O’ Brien who worked for Hanover Insurance as president.

Being Stuck – not listening to the other side stuck in the mindset you are right.

‘Even if they are silent and pretending to listen, they are only “reloading”, rehearsing their rebuttals. They are in fact listening only to themselves, to the tapes they play over and over in their heads about why they are right and others are wrong.’ P42

The members usually make up their minds before the debate as to how they are going to vote, and so they don’t need to listen to the speeches. Not talking = Not listening


‘In a dictatorship, the director does not listen, and the people are afraid to talk. The results are pessimism and cynicism; lack of self confidence and self management; hesitation to speak and stand up; and painfully slow innovation.’ P47

The root of not listening is knowing. If I already know the truth, why do I need to listen to you? Perhaps out of politeness or guile I should pretend to listen, but what I really need to do is to tell you what I know, and if you don’t listen, to tell you again, more forcefully. P47

Most literature on strategic planning falls into “the rationalist school” which codifies thought and action separately. The tacit underlying assumption is there is one best solution and the job of the strategist is to get as close as to this as possible, within the limited resources available.’ P 51

‘This emperor has no clothes description of the rationalist school accurately summarizes the approach I learned at Berkeley and applied at PG & E’ p 51

Talking Politely

Politeness is a way of not talking. When we are being polite, we say what we think we should say: “How are you?” “I’m fine.”  Keeping the social system whole and unchanged, even though the whole may be

diseased or counterfeit

Speaking up

“The first step along an open way – is for actors in the system to speak up. Often this is extremely difficult. People hesitate to say what they are thinking for many reasons, fear of being killed or jailed or fired, or fear of been disliked considered impolite or stupid or not a team player.

Often when it’s most important for us to speak up, we find it most difficult.

Only Talking

Talking openly is better than talking guardedly it allows us to see more of the problem and understand it from multiple perspectives. The next step from talking , listening is even harder.

Part Three: Listening


Open listening is the bases for all creativity. “The challenges of product development are not about products. They are about interpersonal relations: power trust alignment. If we listen in the normal closed way, for what is right and what is wrong, then we won’t be able to hear what is possible: what might be but not is yet. We won’t be able to create any thing new.” Page 77


Listening openly but also reflectively: “questioned their own thinking ; they separated themselves from their ideas ( I am not my own ideas so you and I can reject them without rejecting me)” page 78 Mont Fleur workshop in South Africa.

  1. Page 85


  1. “Creativity requires all of ourselves: our thoughts, feelings, personalities, histories, desires, and spirits. It is not sufficient to listen rationally to inert facts and ideas; we also have to listen to listen to people in a way that encourages them to realise their own potential and the potential in their situation.”

The first kind of listening is downloading or listening from within our own story.

The second kind of listening is debating listen to other side of the story.

Third kind of listening is reflective dialog listening to ourselves reflectively and when we listen to others empathetically- listening from the inside, subjectively.

Forth kind of listening is generative dialog we listen not only from within ourselves or from within others but from the whole of a system.

Creating new Realities Part 3

Cracking through the shell:

A problem that is generatively complex cannot be solved with a prepackaged solution from the past.

Closed fist, open palm

That Wound that wants to be whole:

“We are unaware of the great richness in others. We do not see it. P115

Conclusion the open way

Nine suggestions

1. Pay attention to your state of being and to how you are talking and listening. Notice your own assumptions, reactions, contractions, anxieties, prejudices and projections.

2. Speak up. Notice and say what you are thinking feeling and wanting.

3. Remember that you don’t know the truth about anything. When you think that you are absolutely certain about the way things are, add “in my opinion” to your sentence. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

4. Engage with and listen to others who have stake in the system. Seek out people who have different, even opposing, perspectives from yours. Stretch beyond your comfort zone.

5. Reflect on your own role within the system. Examine how what you are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way they are.

6. Listen with empathy. Look at the system through the eyes of the other. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the other.

7. Listen to what is being said not just by yourself and others but through all of you. Listen to what is emerging in the system as a whole. Listen with your heart. Speak from your heart.

8. Stop talking. Camp out beside the questions and let answers come to you.

9. Relax and be fully present. Open up you mind, heart and will. Open yourself to be touched and transformed.


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