Solving Tough Problems, Part 2

An Interview with Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems
By Vern Burkhardt
Last week we learned that the authoritarian approach to solving tough problems, where the expert, the boss or the politician attempts to solve it does not work. Rather, it hurts and as Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems, learned from his dental nurse, when something you are doing hurts then stop doing it.

This week we continue our discussion.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What were the most challenging problems you have worked on?

Adam Kahane:
Well I find everything pretty challenging.

Adam KahaneAt the moment I’m active in my home country of Canada on climate change. We’ve been working since August 2007 with a group that goes by the name of 3E, the Economy, Energy and Environment Initiative. It is trying to bring together business people from the industrial, finance and energy sectors, environmental activists, academics, researchers and politicians to shift Canada from being a laggard, which it is at the moment, terribly embarrassing, to a leader in this field. The aim is to mobilize public and private action to address the challenge of climate change. It’s actually going quite well. I think within the next few months you’ll be seeing some public statements in the media in Canada, which I’m happy about. Hopefully we can make a difference.

Climate change is a very difficult problem. Simply because it can only be addressed through international collective action, and there aren’t a lot of good precedents for that. Really big changes have to be made by a lot of parties quickly.

VB: While you were at Shell from 1988 to 1993 one of the global scenarios you worked on was related to climate change. If you were to develop those scenarios about global warming today for Shell would they be different?

Adam Kahane:
I would never describe myself as a futurist. I don’t think I have any particular skill in predicting the future but I am pleased that we saw that signal twenty years ago, and I think the essence of what we saw was exactly on target.

What I would say differently is that our understanding of the danger of climate change and the urgency is much, much greater than it was twenty years ago. And in the language of the book I am writing now, climate change represents the ultimate challenge for exercising power with love—because it’s the ultimate example of genuine interconnection amongst us and, in fact, with the planet. And it’s also a challenge that requires not simply a sense of connection but genuine power. Literally power in terms of power generation. So that’s how I’m currently thinking about climate change.

VB: There are so many vested interests involved. The exercise of the power of love and of actual new power sources is going to be a difficult one.

Adam Kahane:
Yes, there is so much to say about that.

I’m going to write about climate change in the book I am currently writing because it’s an extreme example of the general phenomenon of how to act in the real world with an understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence.

VB: A sense of urgency seems to exist with the issue of climate change, but translating it into actual action, rather than just window dressing, is the challenge. For example, the whole popular movement of “going green”, recycling, solar and wind power, and other such actions may divert attention from getting at the core of the climate change issue, which is fossil fuel and other serious contributors to greenhouse gases. That’s the real difficulty, isn’t it?

Adam Kahane:
Yet it’s a genuinely difficult problem, and there are multi-billion dollar interests at stake in preserving the status quo. So it’s definitely—well it’s not definitely—in some ways it’s the toughest of problems anyone has to deal with.

You are fortunate to live in Canada’s leading province on this matter. British Columbia is far and away in the lead.

I’m also working these days in Israel, for the first time, in a substantial way. The particular challenge about working in Israel is that the Israelis believe themselves to be faced with an existential threat. You may or may not agree with that view, but that’s how they see it. And it really is tough to make progress when you believe yourself to be faced with an existential threat. It causes, as we talked about ten minutes ago, fear, defensiveness, and wall building.

In a way it’s a sobering experience to work in Israel because I get to see what it looks like to be faced with an existential threat.

Mankind is faced with an existential threat in climate change but people don’t quite get that yet. But it’s sobering to see how that looks up close and personal.

VB: Who are some of the thinkers or authors who have had a significant influence on you and your approach to tough problem solving?

Adam Kahane:
The truth is I’m somebody who learns mostly not by reading but by bumping my head. I’ve been influenced very little by books, mostly by colleagues. I’ve learned in the trenches from people like Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Joseph Jaworski.

VB: Obviously you have a close professional relationship with Peter Sengemdash;"he wrote the forward to Solving Tough Problems. Does he work with you on various projects?

Adam Kahane:
Peter Senge doesn’t work as a consultant; he’s an academic and an author. From the beginning we’ve had a collegial relationship with the Society for Organizational Learning and the Sloan School. Both our offices are in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Although he doesn’t normally work on projects with me, he has been very active in the Sustainable Food Lab. He’s been a big supporter of it. So that’s the first project I’ve worked on with him.

(Vern’s note: This global initiative is aimed at solving problems in the food system which produces a great deal of food, much of it too expensive for poor people, much of it unhealthy, and much of it negatively impacting the soil, water and atmosphere, while many farmers and farm workers are not able to earn a decent living,)

VB: You quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in your September 2007 speech in Botota—“The Language of Power and the Language of Love: Solving tough Problems in Practice”. Did he significantly influence in your thinking?

Adam Kahane:
Well only in one sense, but that sense is important.

The sentence which I quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech “…that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic…” is the precise summary of everything I’m working on right now. So he influenced me in the sense that I was stunned to see that insight, and I’ve spent several years excavating what’s underneath it. As a result I’ve learned a lot about him and have read the set of three biographies by a man named Taylor Branch, which is very good.

I knew of Martin Luther King Jr. but not much about him. Now that I know more about him I think he was remarkable. Not the only example, but a remarkable example, of somebody who was perfectly fluent in power and love. When you read his biography it becomes clear that even though he was a preacher and a theologian, he spent ninety percent of every day thinking about power. Thinking about should we march today, and should I be at the front of the march? What if we get arrested? Should I call the President of the USA? He was really a bilingual character in my language, and that I find important.

(Vern’s note: Taylor Branch’s three books are titled Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, published in 1988; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65, published in 1999; and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, published in 2007.)

VB: I guess Martin Luther King Jr. knew that he had to use the language of power in order to effect change.

Adam Kahane:
That’s the whole point of it. All activists think about power. But what he, Mandela and Ghandi did, the reason they’re such well known and revered figures, is they understood both power and love. And they were very vocal about both. I think that’s what they all have had in common.

Solving Tough ProblemsVB: When you were young you thought the world’s toughest problems would be solved by the world’s smartest people. Has your experience proven that to be true?

Adam Kahane:
Absolutely not, that’s the whole point.

VB: You say your experience dealing with complex problems has given you hope, hope that what you describe as “an open way” can actually resolve our world’s big problems. The opposite might also have been the case: pessimism, feelings of powerlessness, and being overwhelmed. Why are you left with hope?

Adam Kahane:
I think it’s a matter of disposition rather than deduction. I guess I would have to say it’s a gift. I can take no credit at all.

VB: The reason for that last question is that even though you’ve seen successes and witnessed positive results, there are still so many huge unsolved problems in the world that being aware of them, as you must be, strikes me as potentially overwhelming.

Adam Kahane:
I guess the reason I remain hopeful is that I occupy quite a privileged position and, even though the world may be falling apart, my life isn’t. So I think I should acknowledge that as well.

VB: You originally lived in Canada and you worked on the problems facing its aboriginal peoples. You described the process as a failure. Were you shocked at the plight of aboriginal peoples? Do you think it can be rectified or changed in the foreseeable future?

Adam Kahane:
I would say two things. First of all, yes I was deeply shocked. My whole self image, and the whole basis of my professional identity is that I came from a country where basically everything is sorted out. So I could go to other countries telling them what to do. And I realized that is not at all the case.

A civil servant from Canada said to me last year ‘Canadians are used to thinking of themselves as not being colonial but there is really no other word to describe the relationship between the settler society and the indigenous society in Canada other than “colonial”’.

I think the good news is the situation has the hope of coming right. Because aboriginal people in Canada are winning the power battle. At least in British Columbia the mood is pretty good. They’re winning slowly but surely, they will say, through the courts.

Somebody said to me in Israel that it’s almost impossible to solve, to create a peaceful solution to, a problem which is characterized by a severe power asymmetry. Because the powerful people can always walk away and say “to heck with you”. Which in that person’s point of view is the reason why negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are so difficult. The implication of that point of view is if you are the weak party, you have to do what you can to strengthen your position, including creating alliances and taking other measures.

With that perspective aboriginal people in Canada are stronger than they were ten or twenty years ago, and therefore there’s a better prospect of working these things out.

VB: It’s a complicated issue with a long history. But that’s not unique to Canada?

Adam Kahane:
One of the ways the world has changed very significantly in the fifteen years since I left Shell is there are now tens of situations around the world where very small communities of aboriginal people are blocking big powerful interests like oil companies and mining companies. This was unheard of fifteen years ago. The asymmetry of power is being reduced; this is promising for the finding of a long-term solution.

VB: Was there an “aha” moment while you were writing the five principles you talked about in your 2007 speech in Bogotá?

Adam Kahane:
Those five principles are actually not mine, but Otto Scharmer’s. I’ve put them in my language and I used the Food Lab example. They correspond to five parts of a process he describes in Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, which was published by the Society for Organizational Learning.

(Vern’s note: The five principles are in the conclusion section at the end of this article)

VB: When you first examined his five principles did you say “This really applies, this puts it together for me”?

Adam Kahane:
Yes. I think if I have a virtue it’s that I’m very diligent about trying to understand what I’m experiencing and what it means. Because I write and speak quite a lot I get to do that, and I get to say “oh, yeah, this really fits with what I’ve seen”. I’ve found many times that Otto’s works, his mental maps, correspond well to the territory I’m traversing.

VB: Are you still involved with Global Food Systems?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, the Sustainable Food Lab is continuing; you can look at the website for information about it. It’s been going now for four or five years. I’m not involved day to day but I remain connected to the project and it’s going from strength to strength. I’m very happy with it.

VB: When you say from strength to strength do you mean from one success to the next?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, I mean the alliance and the level of practical activity of the alliance continues to grow. And I think the Sustainable Food Lab is a significant player in a big system. So I’m proud of that.

VB: Have you had an opportunity to consciously practice the five principles other than at the Sustainable Food Lab?

Adam Kahane:
Yes, the so called “U” process that Otto Scharmer has written about in Theory U is the core of one hundred percent of our work. We’re elaborating on it, and the speciality of Generon Reos—the firm of which I’m a partner—is the application of that approach to collective work on complex social challenges. But one hundred percent of our work is using that “U” process and the five principles, including the work we’re doing in South Africa.

You should look at our website. It lists about twenty five projects, all of which are using these principles, from work on competitiveness in Columbia to climate change in Canada to orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa to the choices in Israel to aboriginal matters in Australia. This is our core social technology.

VB: I look forward to reading your next book. What is your target date for publication?

Adam Kahane:
I’m getting near a first draft but last time the distance between a first draft and a book was four years. But who knows, I may be a bit faster this time. It’s certainly not going to be this year; I’d like to publish it next year if I can. The hard part is writing the book, not dealing with my publisher. My publisher is a great publisher. (Vern’s note: the publisher of Solving Tough Problems is Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.)

VB: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that we should have talked about?

Adam Kahane:
No, Vern I been delighted to talk to you. And I appreciate the seriousness with which you are doing your work. So thank you for persevering in arranging for us to talk.

Adam Kahane’s message and approach to dealing with tough problems is not applicable only to large societal issues. Business leaders and, indeed, all of us should reflect on the lessons to be learned.

The five principles of the language of power and the language of love, according to Adam Kahane, are:
  • Convene a Microcosm of the System’s Leadership—for power recruit leaders who have the capacity to change the system, and for love recruit those committed to the wellbeing of the system as a whole.

  • Immerse in the Complexity of the System—for power focus on understanding how things really work and what it takes to change them, and for love focus on building connections and relationships across the system as a whole.

  • Retreat to the Source of Insight and Commitment—for power connect with our deepest purpose and will; and for love connect with what the system needs from us (not what we need from the system).

  • Try Out Systemic Innovations—for power learn not by theorizing, planning or recommending but by acting, by doing, by using our hands; and for love undertake this action in partnership with other stakeholders from across the system.

  • Grow Ecosystems of New Practices—for power keep focused on creating new and better realities, and for love create these new realities peacefully, not violently.

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.

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