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Solving Tough Problems -- A Conversation with Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane is not a man you'd pick out of a crowd as having helped move post-Apartheid South Africa towards a peaceful resolution, or helped post-dictatorship Guatemala move beyond the longest civil war in the history of the Americas. He's a quiet man -- very much showing his Canadian roots -- and tends to thoughtful consideration of his words when he speaks. But listen to him for a moment, and you know you're dealing with someone who has a vision of what it takes to build a better world. He's seen how good organizations can take fatal missteps, and how seemingly-implacable enemies can embrace the need for peaceful change. He knows that avoiding the missteps and getting to the peaceful change is simple -- but by no means easy.

Adam Kahane's new book, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities,is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to understand how to grapple with deep-rooted dilemmas. Solving Tough Problems is not a guidebook so much as a travelogue, a set of stories about how Kahane came to understand the mechanisms of communication which allow some groups to overcome their differences when others, in equally dire situations, might fail. From his work on the 1991 Mont Fleur scenario project (PDF), which gave leaders from a number of South African factions a compelling, cooperative vision of a new nation, to the 1998 Visión Guatemala project, which broke new ground in getting political and social rivals to embrace a post-civil war democracy, Kahane has managed to help exhausted opponents see choices other than military force and political dominance. The stories serve as vivid reminders to those of us trying to figure out how to solve seemingly-overwhelming crises that success is possible.

Many of the book's stories come from Kahane's work as a founding partner of Generon Consulting, where WorldChanging's Zaid Hassan now works (Zaid and Adam are collaborating on a guidebook for facilitators to accompany Solving Tough Problems). I've known Adam since the mid-late 1990s, through my work at GBN, and I saw him speak there last night about the book. I had a chance to sit down with him today to talk about his work, his ideas, and just what it might take to solve some of the problems for which WorldChanging is seeking solutions.

Read the extended entry for my interview with Adam Kahane, and some excerpts from Solving Tough Problems.

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 so are hard to grasp from firsthand 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 the problems become polarized and stuck.

I asked Adam about global warming, a problem which reflects all three of his criteria for tough problems, and whether its diffuse nature -- so many sources, so many stakeholders -- makese it unusually difficult.

Adam: The first of our [Generon Leadership Project's] ten global projects is about global food supply, and when I started the project I had a meeting with Bob Watson at the World Bank, who used to be head of IPCC -- he was the guy who was fired by Bush administration -- and he had the opposite reaction. He said, this food thing, it's hard to get your arms around, there are so many players, but in contrast, global warming negotiations really has a limited number of players. I guess he was thinking of the international treaty negotiations, but he said that, even though he failed, it really is a manageable number of players, it's highly concentrated, at least in comparison to food. I think the real challenge is [...] what is it going to take to get the people to see what's going on -- how many models, how many IPCC reports, is it gonna take? The answer is, more than we have. What does it take for people to see?

A popular joke at the time said that, faced with the country's daunting challenges, South Africans had two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option was that we would all get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and fix things for us. The miraculous option was that we would continue to talk with each other until we found a way forward together. In the end, South Africans, contrary to everybody's predictions, succeeded in implementing the miraculous option. Forums like Mont Fleur were miracle-implementation processes.

I asked Adam if compromise was an inevitable part of effective problem solving.

Adam: I don't think it's inevitable. It's a contrast I make in the book about the comments made to me at the end of Mont Fleur and the end of Visión Guatemala. You remember in the book Rob Davies, a South African Communist Party member of the Parliament, said at the end of Mont Fleur that he felt he had to compromise about things that mattered to him. He was positive about the project, but... I carried around that comment for many years, asking myself is there any way of doing this that doesn't involve people feeling that they had to compromise on what mattered most to them, maybe doesn't involve people having to give up what they really cared about. And I think I found the answer to Rob Davies question with the quote from the Popul Vuh [the Mayan sacred book] that Elena told me at the end of Visión Guatemala -- that if we can find a place where our purposes meet, even if our ideas don't, then we don't have to compromise -- compromise our purposes, which is the most fundamental thing of all.


I was very struck last night about how hard it was for people to believe that this could be anything other than crisis-induced compromise. It was a very strong thread in the questioning. [...] It certainly could turn out like that, but I don't think that's interesting, that's the prize. The prize is, I act differently, I do something different from what I was doing before, because I have a felt sense of the whole. So yes, I'm doing something different from what I was doing before, but what I'm doing now seems like the only thing to do! So change, yes, but did I compromise? Not necessarily, I'm taking not only what I think but what I know in my heart what is the better course, or is actually the inevitable course.

Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, "If you're not part of the problem, you can't be part of the solution." If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are -- except from the outside, by persuasion or force.

Scenarios have played an important role in getting people to see the real possibility of positive change. But, in many of Adam's case studies, the participants had lived through traumatic events which led them directly to the desire for change. I asked Adam how these aspects related.

Adam: I think scenarios and traumas and wilderness retreats are all just different ways of realizing what's already there, already latent in the situation. I didn't talk about it at all last night, but I think that's the general process challenge, the challenge of seeing what's there.

Jamais: So can scenarios substitute for trauma, get people to see options before facing the crisis moment?

Adam: In theory, yes. Scenarios are about living the future in advance, including living traumas before they happen. But [...] whether that goes deep enough, beyond the intellectual interest, I don't know. I can't think of many examples that I know of where understanding a scenario was enough, was the main catalyst for people seeing. I mean, I always think of the example -- I am very proud of the first scenario project I was involved in at Shell, in 1986 or 1988, I participated in a group which wrote the first [Shell] environmental scenario, called Sustainable World, which dealt with climate change and, in general, the pressures on companies such as Shell to contribute to solving the problem. And I always found it instructive that that scenario did not, by itself, prevent Shell from having the Brent Spar and Nigeria missteps. So there was something about the intellectual exercise of scenarios that wasn't by itself sufficient to shift people's understanding.

Jamais: But can scenarios change the way people respond to mistakes?

Adam: That's I think a more plausible, more likely result of scenario work. It's more about sensitizing you to better see what's there, so when there's some real data, you go "oh, gosh, I know how to understand that, it's not just an accident, it's that thing we were talking about, it's that new scenario peeking its head out."

Simple problems, with low complexity, can be solved perfectly well -- efficiently and effectively -- using processes that are piecemeal, backward looking, and authoritarian. By contrast, highly complex problems can only be solved using processes that are systemic, emergent, and participatory.

Finally, I asked Adam whether he thought the method of problem solving he explores, which he occasionally refers to as "collaborative," has anything to learn from -- or teach -- collaborative creative systems such as free/open source software development.

Adam: I haven't thought about that -- I like the word, better than collaboration, "co-operation," the idea that we have to operate this thing together, it takes you with your levers and me with my levers, and no one person could operate this. But no, I don't know much about open source, although Zaid wants me to learn more about it.

I do think it's a good analogy, and one I haven't given much thought to -- and one I don't have much experience with. I know what is important is that if I'm saying that we need to operate from a model other than force, or other than authority, or hierarchy, or top-down, that it implies a different operating method.


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Comments (2)

Great post, Jamais!

Adam's comment "So there was something about the intellectual exercise of scenarios that wasn't by itself sufficient to shift people's understanding."

Made me wonder what other kinds of actions or processes *might* be sufficient. If intellectual activity is insufficient, do we need art? Religion? Shared induced trauma?

What would scenarios undertaken as an artistic process of co-creation look like?

Be interested to know what Adam would say.

Pieter le Roux:

As one of the organisers of the Mont Fleur exercises I am looking forward to reading Adam's book. Virtually every member of the Mont Fleur team was esseantial for its eventual success, but one of the best decisions we made at the outset was to ask Adam to be the facilitator. (Some of the members of the team had met him when he visited SA and decided he was the person we needed -- we did not approach Shell for someone, as Adam recalls).


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