Problem transformation: A definition


How problem transformation differs from problem solving

Problem transformation and wicked problems

Problem transformation in action

Selected quotes about problems

Related articles

Problem transformation services

Problem transformation: A definition

Problem transformation is a way of perceiving and responding to tough challenges such that ambitious outcomes are achieved, abundant value is generated, and the value creation capability of the individual or collective is increased.
“Transformation is a shift in one’s perception of what is possible.”
Mo Cohen

Mo Cohen, narrative transformation practitioner, executive coach and solo autobiographical theatre pioneer.


Problem transformation as described here was first articulated by Jack Martin Leith (that’s me) with input from Alan Arnett, Mo Cohen and Angus Jenkinson and inspired by the conflict transformation approach originated by John Paul Lederach and Johan Galtung.

Read about more about conflict transformation

How problem transformation differs from problem solving

Whereas problem solving seeks to eradicate a troublesome state of affairs and restore the status quo, problem transformation shuns the status quo and creates a new reality — one in which the problem no longer exists, and one in which the organisation increases its power to create the new. Creating this new reality requires a shift in perception, to seeing possibility where others see limitation.

Problem transformation is a generative approach. Generativity is a term coined by Erik Erikson, a psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on the psychosocial development of human beings. Generative individuals, teams and organizations shun the status quo and show disdain for mediocrity, seeking instead to create things that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place.

Read about Generativity vs. Stagnation, the seventh stage of psychosocial development

“If your company follows the status quo, you are not following a path that encourages either creativity or Innovation. If your actions are based on conforming to the status quo, rather than defying the status quo, you are not doing anything novel. You are not standing out as different. You are not sufficiently questioning your actions, decisions, products or services. This is the opposite of innovation.”

Jeffrey Baumgartner

Source: Don’t Trust the Status Quo, by Jeffrey Baumgartner
Problem transformation is particularly suited to situations where:

  • High levels of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty are present.
  • There are multiple beneficiaries, each with an idiosyncratic perspective and agenda.
  • There is no agreement about the fundamental nature of the problem, and there is no common language for discussing it.
  • The desired outcome is disputed, unclear or unknown.
  • There is no consensus about what type of intervention (change management, design thinking, internal communication, coaching, learning and development, organisation design, conflict transformation, business model innovation etc.) is likely to be effective.

Problem transformation and wicked problems

“In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” Source: Wikipedia.

“In his 1972 paper, [Horst Rittel, an influential early authority on wicked problems] hints at a collaborative approach; one which attempts ‘to make those people who are being affected into participants of the planning process. They are not merely asked but actively involved in the planning process’. A disadvantage of this approach is that achieving a shared understanding and commitment to solving a wicked problem is a time-consuming process.”

Source: Wikipedia.
Problem transformation is such a collaborative approach, and not an unacceptably time consuming one.

Problem transformation in action

At a conceptual level, problem transformation is method-independent.

At an operational level, each problem transformation practitioner brings his or her own unique collection of models and methods, selecting those that are best suited to the project and creating new ones when necessary.

Regardless of the nature of the project and the methods brought to bear by the practitioner, flawed assumptions will be exposed, limitations will be reframed as possibilities, and effective ways of transforming these possibilities into reality will be devised, with the threefold objectives of achieving ambitious outcomes, generating widespread value, and increasing the value creation capability of the individual or collective.

Selected quotes about problems

“A rather direct implication of Maturana’s view [structural determinism] is that all problems are in language. Until ‘languaged,’ a problem does not exist. Maturana states that ‘Everything said is said by an observer.’ Since problems are things said, they must always be said by someone, to someone (even if the second someone is oneself). It follows that only the person speaking of a problem can have that problem.”

Source: The world according to Humberto Maturana (pdf), by Jay Steven Efran, Temple University, and Michael D. Lukens.

“The first step in Design Thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions.” – MIT: Design Thinking Explained

“This is blunt linear thinking, which reveals the strange belief that a problem can (and has to) be completely understood before looking for solutions, based on the myth that problems are essential, rational and fully describable entities. Design thinking, as we have learned (Lawson, Cross), means the parallel development of problem and solution. You fully understand the problem when you have found a solution. Problems as well as solutions are designed artefacts.”

Wolfgang Jonas

Source: Wolfgang Jonas, in UNPACKING “MIT — Design Thinking Explained”, on NextD Journal

“The conventional model of collaboration in business is to go to a lot of meetings to try to get agreement on five things:

What is our common purpose?
What is the problem?
What is the solution to the problem?
What is the plan to execute the solution?
Who needs to do what to execute the plan?

Answering these questions typically involves a delicate dance of managerial authority and employee adaptation. A boss may have a solution in mind, but could face potential downsides by enforcing it unilaterally. Those who disagree may drag their feet in implementing the plan or otherwise sabotage the team’s efforts. So instead, teams collaborate: A boss leads everyone to see the problem the same way (probably the way the boss does), and then to agree on a way forward.

But what if the people in the room are working at cross-purposes? What if they can’t even agree on what the problem is, much less how to solve it? What if there is low trust among them, and no one who can control the situation? What if the only thing people can agree on is that the situation is unacceptable and must be changed?”

Adam Kahane. Photo credit: Móric van der Meer, Simon Meeuwspad 17, 7424 AR Deventer, Netherlands. Phone: +31 570 628 920
Photo credit: Móric van der Meer

Source: How to Collaborate When You Don’t Have Consensus, by Adam Kahane, Reos Partners, on strategy+business

“A problem is only an avenue of approach we happen to have pursued, where we cannot see our way clear. Whilst a problem with a ready solution is not a problem at all but just a clear way forward, a problem without a solution is just a blind alley, a failed attempt to proceed a certain way. A problem is only a solution that we cannot get to work. Indeed, I have come to view all efforts at so-called “problem-solving” in practical affairs to be quite worthless endeavours. An unsolved problem, like an unanswered question, should be an invitation to go back and choose another problem instead, like asking a different question to get at what you are after when your first enquiry draws a blank. A problem that does not call for its own solution may best be regarded as but a first feeler; instead of trying to solve it, we could put out another feeler.”

© 2000, 2018 Dr James Wilk. All Rights Reserved
James Wilk

Dr. James Wilk MA Oxf, MSc Oxf, PhD, FCybS, University of Oxford.

“Mental models often do not enable us to see what’s really possible in the world. Often times we build businesses, technologies or products and services based on assumptions borne from preexisting beliefs. Beliefs can very easily produce false assumptions, particularly about the markets in which we operate.

The meta model of the Hegelian Dialectic guides much of our thinking – (manufactured) problem, (staged) reaction, (perceived) solution. Typically we are taught or trained to think linearly, in a straight line. From there, we think we have to choose sides, ideas, beliefs, ideologies, what have you. False choices, or false dichotomies, perpetuate many of the problems we face in the world.

While problems can be very complex, our approaches to them and the ensuing solutions do not have to be¹.”

Gunther Sonnenfeld

Source: Gunther Sonnenfeld, a partner at Novena Capital
¹ Read more here: Breaking Free of the Mental Model that Stifles Real Progress, by Gunther Sonnenfeld, on Medium

“The best thing that can be done to a problem is to solve it.” False. The best thing that can be done to a problem is to dissolve it, to redesign the entity that has it or its environment so as to eliminate the problem. Such a design incorporates common sense and research, and increases our learning more than trial-and-error or scientific research alone can.”

Russell Ackoff

Source: A lifetime of systems thinking, by Russell Ackoff, on Systems Thinker

“A Fortune 250 B2B company spent a quarter of a million dollars trying to solve the wrong problem. A new product line had failed, and the company believed the problem was either poor product delivery times or lack of effort by the sales force. After throwing millions at both problems, they finally realized what the real issue was: misaligned goals between marketing and sales.”

Harvard Business Review logo

Source: When Sales and Marketing Aren’t Aligned, Both Suffer, by Wendy Ritz, Michelle D. Steward, Felicia N. Morgan, and Joseph F. Hair Jr., on Harvard Business Review

“Problem-solving is taking actions to have something go away: the problem. While problem-solving has its place, as a persistent approach, it limits accomplishment. The elimination of a problem does not mean that the desired result can be created. As distinguished, solving a problem does not by design lead to a creation. Creating is taking action to bring into being that which does not yet exist: the desired outcome.”

Robert Fritz

Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance, in Structure: The Power and the Beauty

“I want to pass along a piece of advice that Bill Clinton offered me a little over a decade ago.

Well, actually, when he said it, it felt less like advice and more like a direct order.

What he said was: ‘Turn toward the problems you see.’

It seemed kind of simple at the time, but the older I get, the more wisdom I see in this.

And that’s what I want to urge you to do today: turn toward the problems you see.

And don’t just turn toward them. Engage with them. Walk right up to them, look them in the eye … then look yourself in the eye and decide what you’re going to do about them.”

Matt Damon wearing NASA insignia on left lapel

Matt Damon | view source

Related articles

Now-to-new signifies a shift from the present situation to what is needed instead, such that value is generated, or anti-value generation is halted, or value generation capability is expanded, or it is restored. The six main types of now-to-new work are problem solving, surmounting, changing, creating, developing, and utilising potential. They are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive.

Read about the now-to-new concept, principles and practices »
Readiness work
Readiness work enables members of a now-to-new project team to prime themselves for the showing up of a high potential concept by becoming immersed in the demands and dynamics of the project and having a felt sense of the new reality in which the desired results will arise.

Problem transformation services

Currently, assistance with problem transformation as described on this page is only available from me and my colleagues. If you’re looking a tough business problem in the eye and wondering if problem transformation might be the most effective response, please contact me.