Language is vital for addressing complex issues

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 14, 2005
Filed in Collaboration

Dave Pollard is highlighting the similarities between wicked problems and complexity. I had a similar thought a few months back so it’s good to see others seeing a connection. Of course Dave does with much greater thoroughness.

I was interested in this comment because I agree that the word ‘problem’ is a problem when addressing complex issues.

They even avoid using the term ‘problem’ because its connotation is something that has a solution. But the terms that are appropriate instead are awkward, because they hit home the impotence of those trying to tackle them: instead of solutions and problems they talk of “approaches to deal with or cope with” a “situation”. And instead of analysis and cause they use complex-system terminology like “pattern recognition” and “correlation”.

If it is viewed as a problem you tend to want to fix it which encourages you to think in project management terms: tasks, milestones, targets, efficiency, pre-defined outcomes. For a complex issue the approach should be to improve the situation knowing full well that it can’t be ‘fixed’. At what point is culture fixed? When is trust fixed? When has an organisation done and dusted innovation?

What is frustrating is hearing professionals talk about issues like culture using metaphors that suggest it’s a mechanical problem. I’m referring here to a presentation I attended two weeks ago by someone using the Human Synergistics diagnostic. The talk was sprinkled with terms like ‘levers’ and ‘drivers’ and asking questions like ‘what is causing your culture?’

Language is vital. When I help clients design interventions I tell them to stop trying to solve the problem. Until people understand the importance of a new language for complex problems we are going to slip back into our old ways. And these old ways are not going to help.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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