Tackling Complex Problems

Understand first - then fix!

Understand first – then fix!

Like everyone else, I was horrified by the killings in Paris.  130+ people went to a soccer game, a concert or dinner and never came home. Alongside that loss, countless additional people and families had their lives torn asunder.

News Junkie: Immediately afterwards, like most people, I devoured the news. The instant French military response, swift and brutal. The reams of political commentary across all sides of the debate.  Those on the ‘right’ of the spectrum argue that this was an inevitable consequence of an ‘open door’ refugee policy i.e. that Europe had invited terrorism in, much like the Trojan Horse subterfuge the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy. They question how we can co-exist with Muslims, a religion which denigrates women (under the outward guise of respect) and routinely uses medieval punishment methods for minor crimes.  Can the ideal of democracy – which separates the role of church and state – be squared with a belief system that the church and the state are indivisible? Those on the left, reminded us that millions have been killed in recent Middle-East ‘oil-wars’ and pose an equally troubling question: “Is a western life more valuable than innocent lives lost elsewhere?”  Economic refugees are not automatically ‘terrorists’. Indeed, many were fleeing the doctrinaire religious and political system that ISIS/Daesh want to impose.  Others argue that conflict is secretly promoted by the armaments lobby, people who view peace in the same way that Dracula would embrace a crucifix. Across the political divide, the arguments range from sophisticated historical analysis and reasoned debate to more emotional responses along the lines:  “Would you want your daughter to marry a Muslim?”

Truth Seeking:  So, where is the truth in all of the above? Can we make sense of these diametrically opposed views? If we can’t understand what’s actually happening, can we develop solutions? My overall sense is that this particular circle can’t be squared. The views expressed are mutually exclusive. To accept one line of argument blocks out the other. The bias has the effect of ‘blinding’ people to possibilities. Now, hold onto that idea for a moment.

University Notion: The historical notion of a University was a place of learning for the sons of ‘gentlemen’. Here, knowledge building was disconnected from the real world (the financial future of the scholars was already secured). While some of this has outwardly changed (e.g. women are allowed into University now!), this central idea of knowledge for it’s own sake has persisted in some organizations across several centuries. It has a downside. Michael Crow in Arizona State University tells the following story. Worried about climate change, the university assembled a group of technical experts from across the USA and further afield. They looked at historical patterns and made future weather predictions – developing a range of potential scenarios. They determined what needed to be done, particularly in ‘high risk’ areas like New Orleans. What happened next? Nothing. This information remained ‘locked away’ – available only to specialist researchers. It had no impact on policy makers. It was knowledge creation for it’s own sake. Then Hurricane Katrina smashed its way across the US with the consequences that we’ve all seen either first-hand or on CNN. In this example, the issue was less about a deficit in understanding – but a disconnect between those who understood what to do – and the policy makers tasked with acting.

Organizational Implications: I’m sure that you never want anyone to tell a similar story about your organization. As a corporate executive, your job is fixing real-world problems. On a daily basis you pit your expertise against technical, business, social and political challenges. I’m guessing that you can demonstrate examples of where you’ve made major changes – proving that it can be done. I’m also guessing that your historical successes incorporated three specific ‘ingredients’. Firstly, it required a deep understanding of the issues involved. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. And, here’s the kicker. Having ‘strident views’ on something is not the same as having a deep understanding of what’s happening. Some of the current Political leaders are like ducks in a thunderstorm. They hear the noise, but they haven’t a clue what’s actually happening. Secondly, effective change often requires courage – perhaps even swimming against the tide of popular opinion. For example, in the military arena, there are very few examples of ‘terrorist’ wars being ultimately resolved by force (leaving aside outright genocide e.g. the war against the Tamils in Sri Lanka). Most often, the solutions require some form of political diplomacy. However, Hawks on the ‘right’ ignore the core lessons of history. It was Theodore Roosevelt who first said: “When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”. There has always been support for the ’hang em, flog em’ argument. The problem with this analysis is that fighting ‘terrorism’ is different i.e. the rules of conventional warfare don’t apply.

Deeper Understanding: It behooves our political leaders to ‘push’ for a deeper understanding of what exactly is happening with ISIS and how to respond in ways that won’t escalate the problem for future generations – to move away from condemnation of the latest atrocity towards a permanent fix. In this we are reminded of the following organization rule: You can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place. You need to bring alternative viewpoints to the table – from politics, the military, business and academia, some of which will be contradictory and uneasy bed partners. From a distance I don’t know what the ultimate solution will look like. But I hazard a guess that continuing the ‘war on terror’ – as it has been waged over the past 20 years with a 9-fold increase in recent deaths from terrorism – doesn’t seem like a good idea – on any side of this widening conflict.

Our World: For those of us who are not tasked with ‘addressing world terrorism’ – the same basic idea applies in the places we manage. We need to understand the core problems faced. We then need the courage to address issues that range from ‘socially awkward’ (e.g. tackling underperformance) to ‘physically threatening’ (e.g. the establishment of CAB). Finally, we need the political will to keep this issue centre stage – on the agenda until it gets resolved. Change is not big announcements by new leaders, stating “I’ve arrived”. Real change is based on the 3-pronged formula outlined above. It’s simple, but it’s not simplistic.

2016 Resolution: Could you make 2016 the year in which you address and resolve your most difficult business or personal challenge? You may not be able to resolve World Problems. But you can tackle the central problems in your world. Oprah Winfrey captured this sentiment when she said: “Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.”

I wish you and your family a safe, happy and healthy New Year.

Warm Regards,


 PPS: Lighter Moment:  The Art Collector (from Kevin Griffin)

A New York attorney representing a wealthy art collector called and asked to speak to his client: “Saul, I have some good news and, I have some bad news.” The art collector replied: “I’ve had an awful day. Let’s hear the good news first.”

The lawyer said: “Well, I met with your wife today, and she informed me that she invested $5,000 in two pictures that she thinks will bring a minimum of $15-$20 million.  I think she could be right.” Saul replied enthusiastically: “Well done!  My wife is a brilliant businesswoman!  You’ve just made my day.  Now I can handle the bad news.  What is it?”

The lawyer replied, “The pictures are of you with your secretary.”

2 Cats: How about this one from Tony Mooney (my brother in Canada). Two cats wanted to swim across from either side of the English Channel and were training for months for the event. The English Cat was called 1,2,3.   The French Cat was called un, deux, trois. Anyway, the English Cat 1,2,3 made it all the way across. The un, deux, trios cat sank!

Yes, you knew that Leaving Certificate French was going to come in useful someday!

Terrible Discrimination: It’s just awful. Coming from the Northside of Dublin, there is so much discrimination, even if you’re Captain of the Irish Rugby team…. Here’s a clip courtesy of Andrew O’Connell…


Christmas Bonus Stories: Fed up with Christmas stories at this point? No, I thought you’d still have a bit of Yuletide spirit in the tank.  First vignette is about Linda’s niece. Megan is 9 years old and totally innocent. Her Mam brought her into Arnotts to see Santa and there was great excitement.  Until they got there. Arnotts have ‘re-engineered’ the system and you have to go in – take a ticket – and come back in your time slot.  They were in at 09:30.  They were told to come back at 17:20.  Megan’s mam asked to see the manager.  She told him: “Do you see that little girl over there in the sparkly top? Well, you tell her that she can’t see Santa.  Because I can’t face her disappointment”.  Sense prevailed and she got in straight away. Yes, that’s 1-0 for clever mammies.  The second story is also about Megan.  We were at the cinema to see Star Wars and discussing Christmas in general.  I asked: “What’s a good time to go to bed on Christmas Eve?”  She said: “When Santa is over Wicklow” (the county next to Dublin for all our international readers).  It’s the quote of the year! Final one.  Was in The Stags Head pub in Dublin on a fun night out with clients.  In a visit to men’s toilets (as you do) there was another guy standing at the urinal.  He was using his right hand to ‘sort himself out’. And using his left hand to send a text message on an iPhone. Horray! An old chestnut has finally been put to bed. Men can multi-task.  And if you are ever offered part-time work in a phone repair shop, turn it down immediately.  You never know where those phones have been!


Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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1 Response to Tackling Complex Problems

  1. laurencemcgivern says:

    Great read Paul and a good start to the new year. Happy new year to you and the family

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