Solving Tough Problems

An Interview with Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems
By Vern Burkhardt
Tough problems in families, businesses, communities, countries and other organizations often don’t get solved peacefully. They either remain unsolved or are dealt with by force. There is another way. Talk and listen to each other in order to reach a solution peacefully.

Our most common way of talking is telling; telling what must be rather than considering there may be other “truths” and possibilities. Our most common way of listening is to only listen to our own talking, not to others’ talking. Adam Kahane states that this type of talking and listening may be successful for simple problems but not for tough problems. And, by the way, it is no way to transform a company’s ability to innovate.

For over fifteen years Adam Kahane has been a leading designer and facilitator of processes through which business, government, and civil society leaders can work together to solve their toughest, most complex problems.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Your book provides a lot of insights related to solving tough problems. What is your most significant or useful insight?

Adam Kahane:
Adam KahaneThe title of my book is actually not quite accurate. I knew that when I titled the book Solving Tough Problems, and I like it because people can understand what it means.

It is important to realize that the situations we’re talking about are not really problems that can be solved. They’re situations that can be dealt with. So when you talk about problems that I have solved, I wouldn’t really say I’ve solved any problems, as it were.

But if I was to think of an example, I’m very proud of the contribution we made in Guatemala. In fact, I’m excited that I’m going back to Guatemala in June because it’s the tenth anniversary of the Vision Guatemala project. A member of our team is now the president of the country and is working hard to deal with a lot of Guatemala’s still very serious and difficult challenges. But I think we made a real contribution to working through it in a way that is less violent than the way people used to deal with things in Guatemala. And I’m very happy about that.

VB: I guess history would say it often takes decades to resolve these types of problems, but one has to make the effort rather than having perpetual strife and conflict.

Adam Kahane:
Well history would also show that, as I quote Immanuel Kant at the end of my book, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was every made." So things don’t go in a straight line.

You asked about my insight. I think the most important insight is the one that is central to the article I sent you, and which is not contained in Solving Tough Problems, but is the subject of a book I am working on right now. In fact I was working on it when you called. Solving Tough Problems only covers half the story. And I think that’s a serious misunderstanding or a serious partial understanding. My new book talks about opening up, about connection, and about love. I have learned in order to make a real difference in these problematic situations it’s necessary to be bilingual, as we would say in Canada, to speak two languages. Both the language of love and also the language of power. I'm very happy with that insight and it’s the core of the book I'm writing. I think it's a very useful insight.

VB: Complex problems can be solved peacefully, as you point out. But there are a lot of problems that are either not solved at all or are dealt with through conflict. In the end some complex problems end up being solved only after a lot of blood shed or other negative consequences. If you were given a soap box that would draw world attention to your message, what would it be?

Adam Kahane:
The main message I'm trying to get across, which is increasingly clear to me, is that the authoritarian approach that dominates problem solving, where the expert, the boss or the president solves it, really works less and less often. It's the point that Peter Senge makes in his foreword to my book. It's increasingly clear to me that that is a loosing recipe. Even though it's easy, it doesn't work.

I tell the story at the beginning of my second book that I had to have some dental surgery, very painful, and I was flying in a plane a few days after surgery. I bumped my head on the overhead storage bin, and it really, really hurt as it resonated down my jaw. I went back to the dentist's office when I got home and I said to the nurse "Look", and I showed her, “when I bang my fist on my head it really hurts”. And she gave me absolutely the best advice anybody's ever given me about anything. She said "Well, I think you should stop doing it."

We have a way of dealing with situations which just doesn't work. It hurts, and we should stop doing it. That's my message.

VB: In the process of solving tough problems telling a personal story seems to be very important. Why does that work so well?

Adam Kahane:
I think the reason the personal story is so effective is that it is the most straight forward way for people to open up and connect to one another at a human level. As Karl Roger, who was one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology, said "What is most personal is most universal". And lots of things come from that sense of connection. That's the principle of love. That's half the story.

VB: So the personal story allows people to look inward and open up, is that the major benefit of it?

Adam Kahane:
Well, the funny thing is it's not about looking inward.

If I hear you talk about something you really care about I open up spontaneously to you.

VB: So I become empathetic with you. I start to see where you're coming from; what your value systems are; what makes you tick. That's part of the process?

Adam Kahane:
Well its empathetic but beyond that it makes me see that maybe I have more in common with you than I assumed I had. Maybe we’re in the same boat more than I realized.

VB: You say organizational authoritarianism produces silence and subservience through coercion, seduction, and corruption. And that the authoritarian approach is the foundation of almost all private and public sector strategic planning. How is it that so many companies have prospered over the years when, as you say, this leads to the non-bosses talking cautiously in a closed way?

Adam Kahane:
I think it’s so dominant because it works for simple contexts. It just does not work for complex contexts.

VB: And yet in many complex situations authoritarian approaches seem to be used?

Adam Kahane:
Well, not all situations are complex. My very first job as an arrogant young man was at Pacific Gas and Electric, and all of us young employees were convinced our bosses were complete idiots. We used to joke with each other that making electricity must be an easy business if these people can do it. And the truth is it’s not a highly complex problem. It’s a complicated problem, but it’s not a complex problem. So you can run an electricity company from the top down to a large extent.

But that doesn‘t mean you can deal with child nutrition, for example, from the top down.

VB: Why is it that open listening in business and politics is everything when it comes to creativity?

Adam Kahane:
Because creativity by definition means creating something out of a void. If it already exists, you know the answer already. It’s not creativity.

I have a colleague, Jeff Barnum, who is an artist by vocation; he is a partner in our firm. He says the essence of the creative process is you are trying to get from A to B, but you don’t know what B is when you start. You can’t see B from A; it’s hidden around the corner. You have to go searching for it. So you have to listen.

VB: You say to connect and have a full conversation with someone you must focus on their ideas, feelings, values and intentions. That type of deep conversation is foreign to many of us. How do you recommend we go about developing these skills?

Adam Kahane:
Solving Tough ProblemsIt’s not very complicated—at least the skills I refer to in Solving Tough Problems. It’s a matter simply of practicing listening without judging. Most of us have the tendency of listening only to make up our minds whether we agree or disagree. We’re not, as Otto Sharmer says, listening, we’re re-loading.

VB: While somebody is speaking we are thinking about what we are going to say by way of response or counterargument, rather than actually hearing what is being said.

Adam Kahane:
Exactly, that’s what he means by “re-loading”. I don’t think that’s very complicated. I’m not saying it’s easy. As I said, simple but not easy.

VB: You talk about the need for a facilitator to be neutral and to use a process that ensures openness, inclusion and collaboration. How do you ensure this type of process actually occurs?

Adam Kahane:
You can’t ensure anything. If you’re trying to work in a non-authoritarian way, you can’t ensure anything at all.

But there are design principles; this is about social design. And the three design principles are to try to design processes that are systemic, participative and emergent. That’s what I always pay attention to.

VB: You say creativity requires that all aspects of our selfhood be involved. Our thoughts, feelings, personalities, histories, desires, and spirits. Do you think we often short change our creative potential?

Adam Kahane:

VB: You say creative thinking does not occur when we are merely “downloading”, meaning listening from inside our own story, or when we are debating. It can only occur during reflective or generative dialogue. It seems this would be useful to teach students of business administration. Are you aware of that occurring in any universities?

(Vern’s note: The conclusion section at the end of this article describes these four types of talking and listening.)

Adam Kahane:
I don’t know about all the business schools as I am not very active in that field.

I know of some famous examples where this is being taught. There’s probably the most popular course at Stanford Business School. It used to be the one by Michael Ray, which I think involved creativity and a lot of these things. Otto Scharmer at MIT teaches this. Those are two good examples. (Vern’s note: Michael Ray is author of Creativity in Business and The Highest Goal: The Secret that Sustains You in Every Moment).

VB: You made an interesting observation when you said someone wanting to help resolve complex problems has to get out of the way when the problems are resolving themselves. Is this a key attribute of a highly skilled facilitator and problem solver?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, I think that the mistake in facilitation work is to think it’s all about pushing. And to a large extent it’s not about pushing at all; it’s about letting go. Letting go, and letting come, in the words of Otto Scharmer. That’s the key attribute.

VB: You have obviously practiced that attribute, and been very successful at it.

Adam Kahane:
Well, there was a guy I worked with in Guatemala who during the course of the project went to work at the Jesuit University, the most important university in Guatemala City. He said that the Jesuits were very big on gifts. In the Jesuit way of thinking about things, the reason they’re called “gifts” is they were given to you. The big sin is not using them.

I think I do have some gifts for which I can’t take any credit at all. That’s why they’re called gifts. But they are in this area.

VB: When talking about the work you did in Guatemala you related an instance when silence had power. Do you think more use should be made of silence in solving complex problems?

Adam Kahane:

I think silence has power because the most important thing is to stop talking. Or more specifically, to stop habitually repeating. To stop downloading. To stop repeating over and over what you always say. To stop thinking over and over what you always think. To stop arguing over and over for the position you always take. So if you’re stuck, or as is often said, if you’re digging yourself into a hole the first step is to stop digging.

If what you’re doing isn’t working the first step is to stop. And silence is about stopping.

VB: In reference to the Food Lab Team you talked about retreating to the desert in Arizona, which included seventy two hours alone in silence. You came out of that with three very tangible actions. Is that a good example of the power of silence, which causes one to reflect?

Adam Kahane:
That’s the main purpose, you can do it in ten seconds or in five minutes.

The retreat in nature by the Food Lab Team is an extreme example of that approach. When in nature for a long time, eventually even the most obsessive and relentless person will calm down. My colleague, Joseph Jaworski, argues that there’s something very specific about nature which allows that process to occur. It would be different from sitting in your room, or sitting in front of your computer.

In terms of the seventy two hours in the desert, there are lots of spiritual analogies, from the native American vision quest to Jesus’ forty days and forty nights. So there’s a long tradition of sitting alone in nature as a way of inferring insight.

(Vern’s note: Joseph Jaworski is the author of Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership)

VB: Do you have any advice for those of our readers who would like to assist in solving tough problems in developing countries?

Adam Kahane:
That question is very interesting. I would say the main thing I learned from my India experience, which I talk about in the speech I sent you titled “The Language of Power and the Language of Love: Solving tough Problems in Practice”, is that I actually think there is a very limited role for experts from outside. That doesn’t mean there’s no way to be helpful. But in general, what I’m arguing is that the expert from outside, or the expert from on top of the organization model, is the one that doesn’t work.

Experts solving problems in developing countries—in a way that’s the worst combination of all. In a way that’s exactly the trap I fell into in India with disastrous results. The traditional word for that phenomenon is colonialism. That doesn’t mean there is no way for outsiders to be helpful but people from outside, who know best, coming to solve other people’s problems is the root of a lot of problems in the world. So I don’t think it’s the right starting point.

VB: While you were facilitating major reconciliation initiatives in South Africa, Spain, Argentina, Columbia, and Paraguay, for example, the development of scenarios seems to have been an important component of the process. Why is that the case?

Adam Kahane:
I no longer think of scenarios as being the central tool or the central activity. But there is an important reason why scenarios have turned out to be an important tool. And that’s simply because they allow people to open up their thinking and their seeing. They allow telling stories of what might happen rather than defending my view of what must happen.

VB: Do scenarios help people think about a more positive future rather than about how to preserve the status quo?

Adam Kahane:
Well thinking about the future isn’t necessarily positive, as the climate change scenario spells out. But what I think it does do is open up more options. When we think about the future, particularly about an uncertain future, by definition we are thinking about options. What can we really do here? So in that sense that’s the idea, rather than the way we are—thinking being stuck or being constrained by the way things are. And there are always options that would make things worse and options that would make things better.

I think it just opens up more degrees of freedom, if I was to put it mathematically.

VB: You talk about the apartheid syndrome as occurring in all kinds of social systems, including families, organizations, communities and countries. And you say it can only be sustained by force. Do you think its frequent occurrence reflects a basic aspect of human nature?

Adam Kahane:
I am not sure I know very much about human nature, but I would say there’s a very basic dynamic at work here, even in myself, which is: if I’m afraid or if I believe myself to be in danger I will put up a wall. I will either attack or I will put up a wall.

So in as much as there are lots of things we are afraid of—some of them are well founded and some of them are not. It’s not surprising there are a lot of walls. And of course the word apartheid, as you know, simply means apartness—there’s separation.

So I don’t know if it’s part of human nature but I think it’s a very basic dynamic of fear leading us to attempt to separate ourselves.

VB: South Africa of the past was a good example of that, wasn’t it?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, the whites believed they couldn’t get what they wanted unless they separated themselves from the blacks. And that dynamic continues—people are afraid of crime or whatever—and they build higher walls. So the phenomenon is still there but it’s no longer the basis for the political organization of the country.

VB: It must have been challenging, yet humbling, to have played such an important role in nation building for South Africa at the Mont Fleur meetings. As you reflect on it now, what memories stand out the most for you?

Adam Kahane:
What stands out for me about the Mont Fleur meetings is the surprising openness of the situation. It really was an open moment in history. And the openness of the thinking, talking and listening of the team. And for that matter my own openness to everything that was going on. So that still stands out in my mind as an amazing phenomenon.

(Vern’s note: These four meetings began in September 1991 and continued into 1992; one year after the F.W. de Klerk minority government had released Nelson Mandela from prison and legalized all the black opposition parties. The Mont Fleur meetings were intended to reach a peaceful transition from an authoritarian apartheid regime to a “racially egalitarian democracy”, a “New South Africa”.)

VB: How did that situation emerge, how did the openness get established? I got the sense you were able to help the participants realize their future was not necessarily positive, and got them looked inwardly. Given the conflict, strife, and incredible depth of animosity it must have been an intriguing process to have them come together to meet and then to realize they had to work together.

Adam Kahane:
Well, no. I wouldn’t put it that way at all.

The openness I observed was present when I arrived. I was just lucky to walk into a context that was very open. Everybody realized that a crack in history had been opened up and they had to seize it. People were frightened, worried and uncertain. But they also understood that there was a real possibility if they could seize the opportunity.

So, no, the openness was not caused by me. I helped them methodologically work their way through the scenarios, and draw the conclusions they did. The openness was something that was present, and I got to witness it and it had such a big impact on me.

VB: Obviously a profound impact, a lifelong impact on you, would you say?

Adam Kahane:
As my book makes clear, it really was the first hinge of my life. Everything turned on that. Maybe there will be another.

VB: Since 1994 South Africa, a country you have obviously come to love, has been on a slow, steady, collaborative ascent using the scenario called “Flight of the Flamingos”, as opposed to the dark scenario prophecies developed at the Mont Fleur meetings—”Ostrich”, “Lame Duck”, and “Icarus”. Are you optimistic about South Africa’s future?

Adam Kahane:
I would quote Václav Havel who is a writer and was President of the Czech Republic in 1998 when he said “I’m not really optimistic or pessimistic but I’m hopeful”. The present is always a confusing and troubling mixture of things going well and things going badly.

So I wouldn’t describe myself as an optimist but I would describe myself as someone who is hopeful. And I see that as not really very much related to the situation as related to my own disposition.

(Vern’s note: As Adam Kahane reports, “Flight of the Flamingos” was a positive scenario in which the transition from apartheid would follow a path of inclusive growth and democracy, succeeding “because all the key building blocks are put in place, with everyone in the society rising slowly and together”. The “Ostrich” scenario was “the white government sticks its head in the sand to try to avoid a negotiated settlement with the black majority, and the country’s government continues to be non-representative”. Under the “Lame Duck” scenario there would be “a prolonged transition with a constitutionally weakened government” that is indecisive, and satisfies no one as it tries to respond to all demands. And under the “Icarus” scenario the black government, being constitutionally unconstrained, would proceed with “a huge and unsustainable public spending program, which crashes the economy”.)

VB: You seem to have gained a great deal of respect for Nelson Mandela and others who participated in the nation building at the Mont Fleur meetings. Can the Mont Fleur phenomenon be replicated to solve some of the complex political, socio-economic, and environmental problems we face today?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, that’s essentially what I’ve been working on for fifteen years in the belief that there are lots of contexts, lots of situations which are characterized by the same high level of complexity that I witnessed in South Africa. And I didn’t invent this approach; rather I discovered it in South Africa.

Simple problems that are not complex can usually be solved efficiently and effectively using piecemeal, backward-looking, and authoritarian processes and approaches.

In a way the key point in my book is that situations which are dynamically, socially and generatively complex can only be addressed by processes that are systemic, participative and emergent. And really that one insight, from reflecting on Mont Fleur, is the basis of everything I’m doing now.

(Vern’s note: Adam Kahane describes as “dynamically complex” those problems where the cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and thus hard to grasp from first hand experience. “Socially complex” means that the people involved perceive things in very different ways, resulting in the problems becoming polarized and stuck. “Generatively complex” means the situations are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways.)

VB: What were the most challenging problems you have worked on?

Adam Kahane:
Well I find everything pretty challenging.

(Vern’s note: The rest of Adam Kahane’s response to this and other questions about what he has learned while helping leadership teams address some of the most difficult world problems will be included in next week’s issue of the IdeaConnection Newsletter.

“As leaders, we have ultimately only one instrument: how we talk and listen.” Author Adam Kahane describes four ways of talking and listening, and points out that the third and fourth are essential if our goal is bringing about deep change:

  1. Downloading consists of polite, socially accepted, conventional conversation. We say what we are expected to say, we do not listen carefully, and nothing new is explored. This type of talking is okay when the context requires predictable efficient answers, but is powerless, even counterproductive, when addressing serious problems.

  2. Debating involves actively searching out alternative facts, perspectives and options. We say what we really think, welcome challenge and do not back away from open argument. We learn.

  3. Reflective Dialogue is characterized by moving outside ourselves. We stand in the shoes of others and see through their eyes. We listen self-reflectively to ourselves, hearing ourselves through the ears of others. We examine how things became what they are today and envision how they might change.

  4. Generative Dialogue occurs when a group moves from reflective dialogue to experiencing for periods of time a “whole collective ‘I’”. The normal sense of separation between people is lessened and the group exists in its common purpose.

Adam Kahane has a B.Sc. in Physics (First Class Honors) from McGill University (Montreal), an M.A. in Energy and Resource Economics from the University of California (Berkeley), and an M. A. in Applied Behavioral Science from Bastyr University (Seattle). He has also studied negotiation at Harvard Law School and cello performance at the Institut Marguerite-Bourgeoys.

[Solving Tough Problems, Part 2]


Vern, What a wonderful interview with Adam K. I read his book and look forward to his next one. I wonder if you have plans to interview some of the people mentioned: Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Michael Ray. I don't usually read articles all the way through...nor do I take time to give feedback, but I thought you interview was exceptional. Keep up the great work!

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