The Real Work of Problem Solving

August 25, 2020 By Katherine Tyler Scott


The Real Work of Problem Solving

Katherine Tyler Scott

I recently reconnected with four colleagues via ZOOM.  Our convenor is a highly regarded, visionary leader in the philanthropic sector; another is an expert in network theory and social change; one is a managing partner in a financial investment firm, and the fourth a university professor and researcher. It has been a couple of years since we had all been together, and the joy in seeing one other again was evident in our smiles and greetings.

As usual our conversation began with a “check-in” during which time we each brought the others up to date on where we are in our lives and what we are doing personally and professionally. We spent considerable time discussing the new project that precipitated the invitation to reconvene and what form it would take. Our diverse professional perspectives could easily have devolved into a mish mash of competing and conflicting contributions. But it didn’t and hadn’t before; this time was no exception. What emerged from the multiplicity of thoughts and ideas we shared resulted in a reconceptualization and modification of the end product- what I call an “Aha moment.”

I have been thinking for some time why this happens with us but doesn’t happen often in so many other groups and organizations. Might it be a lack of trust; no history of working together; unclear purpose and goals; a lack of consensus about norms, weak leadership? All of these are factors in effective problem solving.

What might be missing?

A 1980’s study by a computer technology company examined how people solve problems.[1] The findings showed that the prevalent stairstep model to “Gather the data-Analyze the data-Formulate the solution-Implement the solution” is not what naturally happens in a group. What they found is a pattern of problem solving that looks more like a waterfall or seismograph, and that in tackling problems, problem definition and solution-making occur simultaneously.

In Jeffery Conklin’s article, Social Complexity and Wicked Problems, he beautifully describes what this looks like: “The natural pattern of problem solving behavior may appear chaotic on the surface, but it is the chaos of an earthquake or the breaking of an ocean wave – it reflects a deeper order in the cognitive process. The non-linear pattern of activity that expert designers go through gives us fresh insight into what is happening when we are working on a complex and novel problem. It reveals that the feeling that we are wandering all over is not a mark of stupidity or lack of training. This non-linear process is not a defect, but rather the mark of an intelligent and creative learning process.”[2]

This non-linear process is not a defect, but rather the mark of an intelligent and creative learning process.” This is vital knowledge that needs to be included in the canon of leadership and organizational change. The teaching tools used and processes of learning developed will be notably different from those thst have emanated out of the stairstep model of problem solving.

We know that ninety percent of the problems leaders face are adaptive or wicked problems. Many have been trained in the traditional stair step model which emphasizes technical approaches to adaptive issues. While in line with a top/down hierarchical power structure it is ineffective in the circular model of shared power which is better suited to adaptive challenges.

 Horst Rittel, the renown urban planner and designer who coined the term “wicked problem,” invented the Issue-based Information based system (IBIS) a structure for rational dialogue among a set of diverse stakeholders that places human relationships and social interactions at the center. It is this perspective that is necessary in dealing with the wicked problems of this age.[3]

If we pay attention to the research findings, we will see why continued conversation about how to integrate the what and how in the work we do, in and with a wide variety of socially complex systems responsible for dealing with wicked problems, is imperative. We have the additional adaptive challenge of defining the how and identifying the specific ways we can equip others with the skills to effectively problem solve. This means valuing processes as much as content. Providing leaders with data without also providing them with the ability to use the data in a manner that strengthens relationships and social interaction, creates healthy cultures, and develops shared understanding and shared commitment to the work we do will not result in substantial change.


[1] This study was conducted in the 1980’s at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC). A group of design engineers were observed while tackling a problem of  designing an elevator.

[2] Social Complexity and Wicked Problems, Jeffery Conklin, p.7

[3] Conklin, p.2