11-20-13 Know Thyself OracleofDelphiWeb  


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How Leaders Solve Unsolvable Problems

My boss at UCLA, Mike, and I marched through the labyrinth of UCLA’s hallways reviewing the meeting we had just man stretching to step on another box, best practicescompleted with the Dean. The Dean and his CFO had accepted our new budget and our bold strategic plan. We stopped outside Mike’s office and I commented that it was a great sign that “the Dean declared that our issues are number one on his priority list.”

Mike turned the knob, pushed his office door open, and looked back me, “the problem is we don’t know how many number one priorities he has.”

How many number one priorities do you have? More importantly, how many of the issues on your priority list are not problems to be solved, but unsolvable problems?

To clarify the difference, look at the results of my interviews conducted last week with several transportation executives for our upcoming two-day executive retreat. Their top issues are:

  • Optimize operations
  • Boost ridership
  • Manage funding issues
  • Address our local transit demand
  • Achieve my objectives
  • Be more strategic
  • Deliver superior service
  • Develop the team
  • Meet regional needs
  • Increase teamwork/collaboration

How many of these issues are on your priority list? Do you try to address these issues by asking questions, such as;

How do we  ________? OR Should we focus on ______or ___________? (Fill in the blank with an issue from above.) That’s what most leaders do and the Dean at UCLA probably did. But there’s another way to look at these issues.

The more I studied their 10 issues, the more it became clear that these transit executives didn’t have 10 problems to solve; they had five “unsolvable problems” as Barry Johnson calls them (1). This became evident as I changed from asking either/or to both/and questions, such as; How do we   _________? (Fill in the blank with a statement from below)

  • Optimize operations AND Be more strategic
  • Boost ridership AND Deliver superior service
  • Manage funding issues AND Develop the team
  • Address our local transit demand AND Meet regional needs
  • Achieve my objectives AND Increase teamwork/collaboration

One of the best ways to distinguish between problems to solve (the ten issues) from unsolvable problems (the five statements) is to ask if you’re dealing with two issues that seem to be interdependent and opposing (i.e., a paradox). Then, test it by asking both/and questions, like those in the above five statements.

This distinction is critical because researchers tell us that we’ll experience negative consequences if we focus on one issue of a paradox without considering the other side. (1, 2) For example, I have found that the “Me AND We” paradox is commonly mismanaged. You can prove it to yourself by considering how often you hear/ask these seemingly appropriate either/or questions:

  • How do I find more time for myself at home?
  • How can we eliminate silos at work?
  • Why do we need to cut carbon emissions when China won’t?

At our executive retreats, leaders learn how to avoid lopsided leadership caused by focusing only on one issue/side of a paradox, illustrated by the above questions. Instead, they discover the power of both/and questions by asking:

  • How can our family manage the tension between meeting each person’s needs AND those of the entire family?
  • How can I achieve my objectives AND collaborate across our organization?
  • How can we meet our country’s energy needs AND our global sustainability responsibilities?

Do you see how asking both/and questions should lead you to better outcomes when dealing with a paradox? Perhaps we could have been more effective working with the Dean at UCLA if we knew we were all dealing with a variation of the “Me AND We” paradox. Instead of talking about who’s number one on his list, we should have asked,

“How can we help manage the tension between meeting our needs AND the needs of the entire school of medicine?”

At UCLA, we didn’t ask the right question, and thus failed to generate our desired outcomes. We didn’t understand that effective leaders solve unsolvable problems by asking both/and questions. You can avoid our error by asking both/and questions more often, especially when reviewing your priority list. How surprised will you be when things get better because your questions help you stretch when you’re pulled by opposing demands?


Keep stretching when you’re pulled,

  1. Barry Johnson, Ph.D., Polarity Management – Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.
  2. Jason Jay, Navigating Paradox as a Mechanism of Change and Innovation in Hybrid Organizations, Academy of Management Journal, 2013, Vol. 56, No. 1, 137-159.

2 comments to How Leaders Solve Unsolvable Problems

  • kathryn woods

    This was useful to me personally and professionally. I looked at the list of problems and I thought a few of them would be difficult or impossible to achieve.
    What I learned was that when paired with something that worked well they were all achievable.
    good article. thank you.

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