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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, August 15, 2022
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Source Manager's Journal: Insoluble Management Problems

Insoluble Management Problems
Are there management and organizational problems that are simply insoluble? The writer John Gardner has said, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” Albert Einstein said something similar.
I am no Einstein, but over the years I have seen organizational and managerial problems that seem nearly impossible to solve. This sense of awareness has come during a period when being optimistic has become almost mandatory in American culture, despite much evidence that this optimism is often misplaced. Conversely, there is also something to be said for believing that the most difficult problems can be resolved. People may think something is impossible because they are too unimaginative or indifferent to try to find a solution.
In the classic children’s film, "The Princess Bride," the hero, after having been put on the rack by the evil prince, is taken to Max the Magician. The hero appears dead — an insoluble problem — but, as Max points out, “there’s dead and there’s mostly dead.” Thankfully, the hero was only mostly dead. The same is true of problems. There are insoluble problems, but there are also “mostly” insoluble problems.
It is very important to be able to make the distinction between the insoluble and the mostly insoluble, because in the end how we define a problem drives the choices that we make. And with extremely difficult — seemingly insoluble — problems, those choices often involve trying to find the least-worst outcome. It is in these situations that Descartes’ famous quote that “The most corrupting lies are problems misstated” has particular relevance.
Failing to correctly define the problem and our real choices can produce two bad outcomes. First, if an effectively insoluble problem is defined as soluble, the actions taken are very likely to make the situation even more insoluble and confront us with continually worsening choices. It is quite likely that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy — and the continued focus on “victory” — fall into this category and will produce solutions that are even worse than the currently horrific problem. There are many examples of this phenomenon in day-to-day organizational life as well. In the second instance, if the insolubility of the problem is over-defined, opportunities for finding a way out are forfeited and a bad outcome becomes inevitable.
So how do we determine if a problem is insoluble, and what are the choices when we reach that point? Seemingly insoluble problems tend to fall into categories. These categories give them their quality of hopelessness.
Lack of resources or capacity
The Adidas shoe company’s slogan for the American market is “Impossible is Nothing.” Let’s leave out the slogan’s stupidity for the moment and focus on its inaccuracy. As a sophomore in high school, I played on a basketball team that lost all of its games. In one game, we were trailing 24-0 before we got a basket. It was impossible for us to beat the opposing team. We did not have any of the resources or capabilities needed to defeat them, and we could never get them. Our problem as a team was insoluble.
Resource and capacity problems make resolving certain problems impossible. Our real situation is distorted if the problem is misdefined. If we are told that everyone can do more with less or that it is a matter of will, the problem will remain insoluble. Resources and commitment go together; one doesn’t replace the other.
Bad people
This category could more accurately be labeled bad leaders. Bad leaders create insoluble problems by their very presence. Here is an example: I once worked with an organization whose CEO was very narcissistic. The organization had an excellent product, a near monopoly in its service area, a toxic organizational culture and terrible customer service. The board was handpicked and never raised any important questions, including those related to the organization’s opaque finances.
Were these organizational problems soluble with standard issue tools and approaches? Of course.
Were they soluble with this CEO running the organization? No.
Was the board ever likely to take action to force change or improvement? No. Now, was the problem insoluble? Yes.
There are many examples of the bad-people problem at different levels of organizations. Managers are given orders or instructions by their superiors that are not achievable or are unethical. These problems are not soluble. The manager receiving such orders, especially if they pose a moral or ethical challenge, has three choices: resign, either in protest or quietly; resist the instruction internally; or be a good soldier and try to make the best of the situation. Bad people have created these situations, and none of the alternatives is a solution.
Culture
Culture creates insoluble problems in at least two ways. First, because cultural norms are so buried and we are so accustomed to them, it is difficult to see how they are creating insoluble problems. They simply become our reality. For example, cultures — national, religious or organizational — that define themselves as victims create situations in which all kinds of outrageous and destructive behaviors are justified by what “they” either have done or might do to “us.” The level of self-awareness of how destructive we are is usually so low as to make getting through very difficult or impossible, at least in the short term.
The second contributor to the intractability of culturally based problems is that we do not know how to change cultures — be they national, group or organizational. Academics, consultants and think-tank people typically throw the phrase “change the culture” around as if it were akin to putting in new light bulbs or getting a new wardrobe. It is not, but the starting point is to make the cultural norms that are causing the problem explicit and to get people to confront the costs that these norms are exacting. Without taking this first step, all manner of problems will remain insoluble.
Indifference
Indifference can be a culture, individual or group norm. In the end, it makes problems insoluble, simply because nobody cares enough to try. If there is a continuum that runs from total indifference to a sense of urgency, it would unfortunately be necessary to put the Virgin Islands far down toward the “indifferent” end of the spectrum. In my experience, it is indifference that makes so many problems in the territory seem insoluble. On the public-sector side, given the size of the public payroll, it would be absurd to suggest that problems of infrastructure, education, the environment and social services are insoluble because of a lack of resources. Indifference is a much better explanation, one which renders problems that have been resolved in many places seemingly insoluble in the territory.
Insoluble problems are often created by people, sometimes a majority, who oppose solving the problem because it would affect or inconvenience them in some way. Indifference allows them to, in effect, "mobilize inaction" and create a sense of futility that makes solutions seem impossible. Victory for some through passivity; defeat for all of the rest.
In numerous ways, these categories intersect and overlap. They also exist in various shades of gray. So are there approaches or guidelines for addressing and resolving problems that are seemingly insoluble? Here are some suggestions:
• The first step is inevitably to try to define the problem correctly and to understand what the realistic choices — and their likely consequences — are. It is important to understand that it is almost always worth choosing between a bad solution and a very bad solution if those are the choices.
• Closely related to accurate definition of the problem is doing our best to see the situation as it is, rather than as we would like it
to be. This means avoiding either rosy or apocalyptic perceptions of the problem that are not warranted by the facts.
• Accurate definition of the problem is related to presenting it in an honest manner. Very few problems that we face in organizations are the result of impersonal forces or inevitability. They have concrete — often human –causes. Solutions almost invariably will offend someone or some group that is wedded to the status quo. It is important to tell the truth about a situation, including the likelihood that failure to address it will make the situation worse in the future.
• Think in terms of choices and potential outcomes. If there were a happy choice, it wouldn’t seem like an insoluble problem. Limiting damage is sometimes the most worthwhile, as well as the best, achievable goal.
• Focus on the problem and not on people, unless removing someone is a prerequisite to solving the problem. If a person or people are at the heart of the problem, there are only two choices: change the people or change the people.
• For problems defined as “cultural,” focus on the overt behaviors that you want to change. We know how to change behaviors with carrots and sticks. We do not know how to change cultures.
• In situations in which there are moral or ethical considerations, be very clear about where your red lines are and what your options are if and when those lines are crossed. There are situations in which the only reasonable solution is to leave the organization.
• See building understanding of the costs of this problem among key audiences as an ongoing activity rather than a one-time thing.
• Time is important. Whatever the mess is, it almost certainly took a long time to make it. Similarly, it will take time and patience to fix it.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said “It’s much easier to point out the problem than it is to say just how it should be solved.” For the most difficult organizational problems that we are considering, multiply by at least three.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
Readers are invited to submit questions, topics or issues that they would like addressed in a column.Submit by clicking here.

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Insoluble Management Problems
Are there management and organizational problems that are simply insoluble? The writer John Gardner has said, “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” Albert Einstein said something similar.
I am no Einstein, but over the years I have seen organizational and managerial problems that seem nearly impossible to solve. This sense of awareness has come during a period when being optimistic has become almost mandatory in American culture, despite much evidence that this optimism is often misplaced. Conversely, there is also something to be said for believing that the most difficult problems can be resolved. People may think something is impossible because they are too unimaginative or indifferent to try to find a solution.
In the classic children’s film, "The Princess Bride," the hero, after having been put on the rack by the evil prince, is taken to Max the Magician. The hero appears dead -- an insoluble problem -- but, as Max points out, “there’s dead and there’s mostly dead.” Thankfully, the hero was only mostly dead. The same is true of problems. There are insoluble problems, but there are also “mostly” insoluble problems.
It is very important to be able to make the distinction between the insoluble and the mostly insoluble, because in the end how we define a problem drives the choices that we make. And with extremely difficult -- seemingly insoluble -- problems, those choices often involve trying to find the least-worst outcome. It is in these situations that Descartes’ famous quote that “The most corrupting lies are problems misstated” has particular relevance.
Failing to correctly define the problem and our real choices can produce two bad outcomes. First, if an effectively insoluble problem is defined as soluble, the actions taken are very likely to make the situation even more insoluble and confront us with continually worsening choices. It is quite likely that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy -- and the continued focus on “victory” -- fall into this category and will produce solutions that are even worse than the currently horrific problem. There are many examples of this phenomenon in day-to-day organizational life as well. In the second instance, if the insolubility of the problem is over-defined, opportunities for finding a way out are forfeited and a bad outcome becomes inevitable.
So how do we determine if a problem is insoluble, and what are the choices when we reach that point? Seemingly insoluble problems tend to fall into categories. These categories give them their quality of hopelessness.
Lack of resources or capacity
The Adidas shoe company’s slogan for the American market is “Impossible is Nothing.” Let’s leave out the slogan’s stupidity for the moment and focus on its inaccuracy. As a sophomore in high school, I played on a basketball team that lost all of its games. In one game, we were trailing 24-0 before we got a basket. It was impossible for us to beat the opposing team. We did not have any of the resources or capabilities needed to defeat them, and we could never get them. Our problem as a team was insoluble.
Resource and capacity problems make resolving certain problems impossible. Our real situation is distorted if the problem is misdefined. If we are told that everyone can do more with less or that it is a matter of will, the problem will remain insoluble. Resources and commitment go together; one doesn’t replace the other.
Bad people
This category could more accurately be labeled bad leaders. Bad leaders create insoluble problems by their very presence. Here is an example: I once worked with an organization whose CEO was very narcissistic. The organization had an excellent product, a near monopoly in its service area, a toxic organizational culture and terrible customer service. The board was handpicked and never raised any important questions, including those related to the organization’s opaque finances.
Were these organizational problems soluble with standard issue tools and approaches? Of course.
Were they soluble with this CEO running the organization? No.
Was the board ever likely to take action to force change or improvement? No. Now, was the problem insoluble? Yes.
There are many examples of the bad-people problem at different levels of organizations. Managers are given orders or instructions by their superiors that are not achievable or are unethical. These problems are not soluble. The manager receiving such orders, especially if they pose a moral or ethical challenge, has three choices: resign, either in protest or quietly; resist the instruction internally; or be a good soldier and try to make the best of the situation. Bad people have created these situations, and none of the alternatives is a solution.
Culture
Culture creates insoluble problems in at least two ways. First, because cultural norms are so buried and we are so accustomed to them, it is difficult to see how they are creating insoluble problems. They simply become our reality. For example, cultures -- national, religious or organizational -- that define themselves as victims create situations in which all kinds of outrageous and destructive behaviors are justified by what “they” either have done or might do to “us.” The level of self-awareness of how destructive we are is usually so low as to make getting through very difficult or impossible, at least in the short term.
The second contributor to the intractability of culturally based problems is that we do not know how to change cultures -- be they national, group or organizational. Academics, consultants and think-tank people typically throw the phrase “change the culture” around as if it were akin to putting in new light bulbs or getting a new wardrobe. It is not, but the starting point is to make the cultural norms that are causing the problem explicit and to get people to confront the costs that these norms are exacting. Without taking this first step, all manner of problems will remain insoluble.
Indifference
Indifference can be a culture, individual or group norm. In the end, it makes problems insoluble, simply because nobody cares enough to try. If there is a continuum that runs from total indifference to a sense of urgency, it would unfortunately be necessary to put the Virgin Islands far down toward the “indifferent” end of the spectrum. In my experience, it is indifference that makes so many problems in the territory seem insoluble. On the public-sector side, given the size of the public payroll, it would be absurd to suggest that problems of infrastructure, education, the environment and social services are insoluble because of a lack of resources. Indifference is a much better explanation, one which renders problems that have been resolved in many places seemingly insoluble in the territory.
Insoluble problems are often created by people, sometimes a majority, who oppose solving the problem because it would affect or inconvenience them in some way. Indifference allows them to, in effect, "mobilize inaction" and create a sense of futility that makes solutions seem impossible. Victory for some through passivity; defeat for all of the rest.
In numerous ways, these categories intersect and overlap. They also exist in various shades of gray. So are there approaches or guidelines for addressing and resolving problems that are seemingly insoluble? Here are some suggestions:
• The first step is inevitably to try to define the problem correctly and to understand what the realistic choices -- and their likely consequences -- are. It is important to understand that it is almost always worth choosing between a bad solution and a very bad solution if those are the choices.
• Closely related to accurate definition of the problem is doing our best to see the situation as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. This means avoiding either rosy or apocalyptic perceptions of the problem that are not warranted by the facts.
• Accurate definition of the problem is related to presenting it in an honest manner. Very few problems that we face in organizations are the result of impersonal forces or inevitability. They have concrete -- often human --causes. Solutions almost invariably will offend someone or some group that is wedded to the status quo. It is important to tell the truth about a situation, including the likelihood that failure to address it will make the situation worse in the future.
• Think in terms of choices and potential outcomes. If there were a happy choice, it wouldn’t seem like an insoluble problem. Limiting damage is sometimes the most worthwhile, as well as the best, achievable goal.
• Focus on the problem and not on people, unless removing someone is a prerequisite to solving the problem. If a person or people are at the heart of the problem, there are only two choices: change the people or change the people.
• For problems defined as “cultural,” focus on the overt behaviors that you want to change. We know how to change behaviors with carrots and sticks. We do not know how to change cultures.
• In situations in which there are moral or ethical considerations, be very clear about where your red lines are and what your options are if and when those lines are crossed. There are situations in which the only reasonable solution is to leave the organization.
• See building understanding of the costs of this problem among key audiences as an ongoing activity rather than a one-time thing.
• Time is important. Whatever the mess is, it almost certainly took a long time to make it. Similarly, it will take time and patience to fix it.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said “It’s much easier to point out the problem than it is to say just how it should be solved.” For the most difficult organizational problems that we are considering, multiply by at least three.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
Readers are invited to submit questions, topics or issues that they would like addressed in a column.Submit by clicking here.