The Problem with Problems

Nov 08, 2021 | EDR Blog

By Bruce Waltuck


“The Problem With Problems,” by Miles Waltuck, bouncehausart on Instagram

Understanding the types of our lived experiences, and the optimal patterns of response, for improved conflict resolution and outcomes.

“The bear hunt is canceled this year.”

“What do you mean the bear hunt is canceled?”

“Holy bleep! That is a huge hawk in my back yard . . . this is the suburbs . . .”

“We never had FOXES here in the burbs . . . maybe they are chasing the squirrels. Last year the bleeping squirrels destroyed 99% of my tomato crop. This year my crop is the best EVER.”

“Holy BLEEP! What is it—3a.m., and another tornado warning? Hurry up all, get dressed and get to the basement now.”

Before we think about the true statements above, all of which come from my town in central New Jersey, I want to ask you something: What are the two questions every human is trying to answer every moment we are alive? Now there is no official right answer, but here are my answers:

What does this mean?

What will I/we do about it?

Do you agree? Now, as we think about these questions, let’s consider how each of us will answer and act. How and why we know what we know, think what we think, believe what we believe, and want what we want. I believe we always look through the lens of every moment we have lived. The experiences of family, friends, teachers, experts both real and imagined.

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I look at it this way, but maybe you look at it that way. Maybe one of us is probably right, and one of us probably wrong. Will the right one persuade the wrong one? Why or why not?

What if there is no known or knowable answer? How did huge hawks, and predatory foxes suddenly turn up in my suburban yard? What are we to do about the historic occurrences of hurricanes and unprecedented flooding right here in central New Jersey, and other inland areas?

As we find ourselves in dispute about environmental, and, really, any issues in life, we will offer or be offered perceived issues, positions, and options. Do this. This way. Don’t do that. That way.

Yet it turns out that besides the limits of our knowledge and understanding, there is a more fundamental issue most of us do not yet know about.

This is the problems with problems.

Research in human systems over the last 20 plus years has made clear that not all situations are the same. And more important, there is a best pattern of thinking and acting to get the best results, depending on the type of situation we are experiencing. (See the References and hyperlinks at the end of the post for core articles on this research and insights.)

Some stuff is clear, or obvious. Everyone who looks at it knows what it is, and what to do about it. Got a flat tire? Yup, we can fix that. The best pattern of acting is to sense what the situation is; categorize it by comparing it to what we already know; and respond with a proven best practice.

Some stuff is complicated. Need a heart bypass? No, you and I don’t know how to do that. Several doctors gave us somewhat different opinions. But they are all skilled and experienced . . . we’re confident it will be ok. The best pattern of acting is to sense what is going on; analyze the expert options; and respond with a highly reliable established good practice.

Some stuff is complex. What the heck does that really mean? Well, when there are so many moving parts each impacting and being impacted by each other . . . no expert can give us a reliable answer . . . right now. What can we do about the urban and suburban flooding brought on by the unprecedented hurricanes and tornados? The best pattern of acting is to try promising ideas; sense what the impacts and outcomes are, as best we can; and respond by then acting with newly emergent practices that stabilize and spread the stuff we did that is working, and acting to stop the stuff that is getting undesired results.

So, perhaps you’re now asking “where is the problem with problems?”

In my forty years of dispute resolution and organization change work, the problem, which I believe to be the single biggest mistake is where leaders, policy advocates, consultants and disputants treat truly complex situations as if they were merely complicated. As if some expert could provide a workable solution. As if it was possible to know prospectively the outcome of what they propose to do.

But no one knows. It is simply not knowable. And making this kind of mistake creates a high probability of failure. So why do leaders and disputants make this mistake time and again?

In a word—fear. Fear of failure. Fear of admitting we don’t know what to do. Even fear of success (if it works, they’ll want me to do it every time).

So as we act into disputes and negotiations, what must we do to avoid this problem?

  • learn and understand the differences between the complicated and complex stuff we experience.
  • learn and understand the best patterns to act for the best results.
  • accept the uncertainty and ambiguity of truly complex situations—from pandemics and tornado warnings to the bears, coyotes, foxes, and hawks.
  • learn and understand yourself as a sense-making human. Understand how your knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and more, impact your perception, preference, and behaviors in negotiation.

Understanding the problem with problems is a critical first step in helping you become a more effective advocate and negotiator.

You can do it. I truly hope you will.



Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” IBM Systems Journal, 2003.

Dave Snowden and Mary Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.



Bruce Waltuck has spent over 40 years practicing and teaching negotiation, dispute resolution, and organization change. He was a negotiator of the first “win-win” collective bargaining agreement in the Federal sector. He has handled over 2,000 workplace disputes. Bruce is a past board member of the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators, and currently a board member of the Plexus Institute. Bruce has presented to over 25,000 people throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Southeast Asia. He holds a unique MA, in Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity. Yes, it really says that on the diploma. Bruce also teaches at Kean University’s College of Business and Public Management.