Problem Type Overview

Definitions and issues for all 6 problem types

For each of the brief definitions provided below, just click on the graphic for a more detailed description of that problem type.

Puzzles have objective solutions, and typically have known and reliable methods for resolution. The problems are technical, mechanical, financial, or mathematical in nature. The most pressing need is for expertise. Once found, the solution will be obvious to any appropriate observer. The problem can be carved up into pieces and addressed separately. And solutions can be imported (purchased, copied, stolen) from elsewhere, as in "best practices".

Issues: We are so comfortable with Puzzle problems that we often over use the category. The linear, rational process for puzzle problem solving can be seductively attractive precisely when the emotional, interpersonal issues are dominant. And that also means other problem types are probably more appropriate.

The main challenges are ensuring the problem solvers have a stable definition of the problem, the requisite skills, and a clean group process.

Problems that are too rich are almost the exact opposite from Puzzles. While we are often certain there is at least one answer, the solution is not objective. In fact, we are typically facing a wide array of possible choices. The situation calls for a visionary or artistic effort, not a technical one. Once found, the solution will not be obvious; it may remain controversial well into implementation. Rather than expertise, the most pressing need is for judgment, intuition, innovation, even courage.

Issues: These problems require attention to an eventual audience (employees, investors, customers, directors, regulators, etc.) but also looking beyond what that audience might be able to articulate. They should be inspired by the final outcome, but also surprised by it.

The other major concern is how to leverage a group, when the essential activity is typically private. A group composition of a vision statement is usually a bland compromise; an individual vision statement has the potential for being bold and innovative.

uncertainties are dominated by the unknown or unknowable variation in key variables. Typically solutions would vary significantly depending on some uncertain future development. The "solution" has to be contingent on future events, making for multiple possible solutions rather than one best solution. The problem solving effort has to be drawn out into the future so we can watch unfolding events and modify the solution as needed. The problem solving team cannot disperse; they have to remain engaged to oversee the adjustment of solutions as circumstances reveal themselves.

ISSUES: By their very nature, these problems require making assumptions about an unknowable future; the process is fragile and easily attacked, but it is also essential. Assuming there is only one possible future would be the worst possible choice.

Writing compelling scenarios is the essential kernel of this problem type, and it is a rare skill. The pressure to settle on just the most likely scenario will be intense, and it will challenge the leader to keep the group attentive to multiple futures.

Be careful not to confuse uncertainty in the observer with uncertainty in the world; just because we are confused does not mean the world is random. Sometimes we just have not done our homework.

Dilemmas come from our simultaneous commitment to incompatible goals. Our efforts to maximize one undermines our success at the other. Faced with an apparent conflict of interest, the representatives of each side tend to become even more ardent advocates, which only provokes an equal escalation on the other side. Dilemmas are never really resolved, only managed more or less well. The on-going nature of dilemmas makes a process for finding solutions more valuable than any particular solution.

ISSUES:  It requires a mind shift to see "one dilemma" instead of "two goals", but until we make the perceptual shift, it is extremely hard to envision the synergy required for managing a dilemma. Without that insight, people only work for a compromise, which will leave both sides unsatisfied.

Since there is no permanent resolution, the process for exploring options and for learning from experience becomes more important than the actual "solution" proposed for the present.

Ongoing management requires a relationship among people who used to be antagonistic to each other; a sense of respect and mutual regard is essential. This is very different from the relationship we might seek in a Dispute, which is the other problem type often confused with a true dilemma.

Disputes are the classic conflicts of multiple stakeholders with colliding interests. While cooperation may be difficult it is also essential, since no one can proceed without the tacit permission of the others (although that power is usually expressed through a veto rather than positive support). The driving need is for a safe and equitable forum where parties can surface their interests and explore options for the most satisfying outcome for all parties concerned.

ISSUES: In other problem types, it is appropriate to seek a solution; in this problem type, we strive for a safe forum where the participants can find their own solution. The neutral facilitator becomes more critical than the subject matter expert. Without the safe forum for negotiation, the players will be tempted to pursue political solutions.

Once the appropriate forum and norms are established, it is usually possible to bring all the players to the table and explore the interests behind their opening bargaining positions. If they can find a joint solution, they still have to create a structure for enforcing compliance among possibly reluctant parties.

Complexities emerge when enough actors behaving independently form an almost organic entity: A marketplace of buyers and sellers, employees in a company, companies in a market segment, all the supply chains feeding into a single company. All of these phenomena exhibit order and structure well outside the intentions of any one ostensibly "in charge". The organization of such systems is emergent, an unpredictable property spawned by the relationships among the players.

ISSUES: Complex systems are fundamentally unknowable. We can capture trends and patterns, but they are mostly heuristic, and never exhaustive. We can "nudge" a system, but we cannot totally control it or drive a specific solution. A complex system will "answer back", and often with a message we did not expect.

The difficulty in observing systems is remember that we are in the system, not outside of it. Our observations and learnings change the system, so it is no longer what we thought it was. Attempts at fixing a problem also change the system. It is an ever shifting target.