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The 3 Types of Problems

Updated: Mar 12

by Eddie Ross.

Here is something I find extremely interesting, that I learned some years ago while studying at the Oxford University business school with some teachers that I greatly admired and still do… they are very clever people.


I’m going to describe a way to think about the problems of the world today. Lindsey, I’m going to pick on you first. I’m going to say… Imagine you are in your office… you’re on the eleventh floor and there is a funny smell, but you carry on working. Suddenly, a man wearing a yellow outfit and a helmet and breathing apparatus runs into the office, tears off his mask and says “The place is on fire, all of you to the fire escape, now!” What do you think happens?


Lyndsey: “I just get up and run out.”

Right! Correct. You are a very rational person, so might you not say, “Can you tell us a little more about this fire, please?”

Lyndsey: “There’s no time.”

Right, okay. This is the first type of problem. We call it a Critical Problem. It is something very urgent and it needs a solution right now.


The second type of problem is called a Tame Problem. There are tons and tons of tame problems we are dealing with all the time. The thing about tame problems is that they are all things that have happened before and have been dealt with before and they can be studied. This can be anything from making a cup of coffee, it’s a process… stick the coffee in, stick the spoon in, put your sugar in, maybe some milk, stir it around and how does it taste? Hmm... a bit bitter, I think I’ll add a bit more sugar. It’s a process that can be studied.


Let’s take that right up to the other end and think of flying a fighter jet or doing a brain operation. These are also processes that have been done many, many times before and they have been studied, they’ve been improved. For example, think of medicine 30 or 40 years ago and compare it to what we have today. The improvement is because these tame medical problems have been constantly studied. It doesn’t mean that those problems are easy, they can be extremely complicated. Often they are very complicated, but they can be studied.


The third kind of problem is called a Wicked Problem. Wicked problems are a little bit different because typically they don’t have a solution. Most of the tame problems in the world have some kind of solution, and you can certainly work on and improve them. If you think about going in for a medical operation, you hope to be better than you were before. There is something to attack, something to study.


The thing about wicked problems is they tend to be complex rather than just complicated. A good example in the world of a wicked problem is the problem of obesity. Think of all the different elements that go into creating obesity. There are the individuals themselves, there’s the doctor they are talking to, there are the food companies, there are governments, there are NGOs, there are people in Africa who have nothing to eat… they’re somehow involved in that as well, aren’t they? The interesting thing about wicked problems is that they can typically never be completely solved, and they definitely can’t be solved by one simple solution.


If you think about the obesity situation, what do politicians do? They campaign like crazy to have soda banded in schools. And they say, “We are fighting obesity, we are going to get rid of obesity.” But what they are actually doing is they are using a tame type problem solution to attack a wicked problem and you will never really solve a wicked problem with a tame type solution.


So, if you think about how you deal with these different problems. What kind of manager would you need for a critical problem? You would need a Commander and what does a commander do? Well, he provides answers. There’s no time for Lindsey to say “That’s a very interesting situation with this fire… what kind of fire is it? Have you dealt with these types of fires before? When you say, ‘run’ do you mean run very fast or medium fast? Because I’m wearing my high heels today.” You just get out of there, you can’t argue.


Tame problems need Managers. Managers who are going to study the problem. What managers do is they enable the problem to be studied. They enable its solution to be improved over the years, and they are focused. If you think about how companies work, tame problems exist all the way through companies. That is what companies do most of the time in business is improve their process, they improve their factories, they improve whatever they do... their products… in order to make more money and be more successful.


A wicked problem needs a Leader. The leader’s role is to ask questions. The really powerful leaders don’t tell you what to do, or how to manage something, the really great leaders ask you “What more do you need to improve your management and optimization of your processes? What equipment do you need down here to make sure that when the place is on fire, you can get it out quickly?”


The response to these issues in the case of a critical problem is basically a Physical response. Lyndsey needs to run. In the case of the tame problems, you need a Rational response. We need to think about this very deeply. And the wicked problems require something closer to an Emotional response. The leader needs to take everybody with them on this journey.


Let’s just think about this in terms of what goes on in our offices. Most of us work in offices.

Leaders should be in their offices with their top people doing wicked thinking. “Where’s this company going to be in ten years from now? Who is our competition and what are they going to do, and how’s that going to change? How are our products going to work? What should we be doing? Let’s go and talk to one of our managers about what they are doing and find out, listen to them to take some actions in the future.”


But what actually happens in a tremendous amount of offices is that the leaders spend their time irritating the managers by interfering with what they are doing. “So, what are you doing today? Fantastic, tell me about it. Why do you do this? Tell me about the other… Oh, shouldn’t you be…? I think it would be better if you moved Harry across and put him in that department because I think he would be a lot more effective because I like him… he’s in my golf club. Etc…”


Leaders, because it is so often more difficult to deal with the wicked problems, prefer to deal with the tame problems. Let me give you another example. Boss comes into the office in the morning. He’s in a foul mood and says, “I need that press release on my desk by 11:30.” Everyone runs around… they’re writing, they’re bringing drafts, making him cups of coffee, everyone's totally stressed, they're saying “everyone come in he’s not happy, he wants his press release.” It all eventually happens, and the press release is on his desk, and he looks at it and says “hum, alright, fine, at least someone has done some work in this office today.” He walks out and goes to lunch and thinks ‘goodness me, haven’t I done a fantastic job!’


What he’s actually done is he’s come to an office which is a fundamentally tame environment where people should be managing processes and improving what happens, and he should be thinking about the wicked problems and how the company should be moving forward and the right strategies … and he’s turned the whole thing into a critical problem. In this case, it doesn’t cause a life and death reaction, but it does require people to leap from their desks and run around to do things they really shouldn’t be doing.


I hope you might find this a useful framework to think about the problem

s we all face. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about today and I hope you found it interesting, thank you very much.


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