Personal Dilemma Exercise

Personal Dilemma Assignment

What are the current issues and challenges in your life? Can they be fairly described as dilemmas? Or are they more like what we call a problem—which means there is a a solution? The answer helps reveal options and paths you can follow to navigate your way through challenges.

archetypal-personal-dilemma1The archetypal personal dilemma is about tradeoffs between contributions and rewards. In our work environment we experience this as a dilemma between personal effectiveness and personal satisfaction. We all need to receive as well as give, and we have a drive to increase our personal effectiveness at work and achieve satisfaction in our personal lives.

One of our students described this personal dilemma. He was a Chinese-American and had completed graduate school in the US. His plan had been to stay here and start a career. But after graduation his father’s manufacturing business in China suffered setbacks. The son suddenly felt unspoken family pressure to return to Asia and work in the family business. He was torn between the desire to help his father in the short term and his long-term personal goal of a successful business career in the US, which included more graduate school. He used the Personal Dilemmas method to clarify those parts of his conflict which were resolvable and those that were not. He ultimately decided that he could not give up his US life, but that he would take a two-year hiatus and work in North America in his father’s business, building up good experience on his resume while discharging personal and cultural obligations to family.

Creative tension pageDilemmas present tradeoffs between powerful conflicting forces in our lives. Urgency versus importance; cost versus benefit; what I want today versus what I need tomorrow. The goal of the personal dilemma assignment is to fairly describe those aspects of your current challenges that are dilemmas.

Here’s a quick method for defining personal dilemmas

Step 1 Write down one, or possibly two major challenges you face in your personal life.
Step 2 Symptoms: Make a list of up to ten symptoms of the challenge. Answer these questions. What are you feeling? What is it like to experience this conflict? How does this challenge impact your life or the lives of significant others?

Trial Dilemmas WorksheetStep 3 Try to write a trial dilemma using the form, “In my life I experience tension between _________ and __________. You can create as many trial dilemmas as you like. Let yourself be creative and colorful in your choices. (“I experience tension between trusting my kids and imposing the right amount of discipline.” “I experience tension between my ambitions and reality.)
Step 4 Take a look at the trial dilemma statements. Are many of them similar? See if you can combine similar items, Strive to choose two labels for the axes of your matrix that synthesize the most relevant forces at play in your trial dilemma statements.
Personal 2 x 2 Matrix WorksheetStep 5 Draw a 2 x 2 matrix and name your quadrants. Giving a name to each quadrant helps us better understand what we’re facing, and take personal responsibility for the situation.

See the articles What Makes Great Problem Solvers Different? and Dilemma Archetypes, for useful information.

Foundations: What Is 2 x 2 Thinking?

We use the term “2 x 2 Thinking” to describe a powerful approach to problem-solving that we have observed, documented and taught in our work as consultants and business advisors. It’s a method that recognizes that dilemmas are inherent in business and uses creative tension as fuel to drive innovative solutions and break the logjams that impede strategic decision-making.

The classic BCG (Boston Consulting Group) matrix offered a way of evaluating products and divisions along two axes: Market Share (which represents financial performance) and Market Growth (which represents the capital needs of the business unit)

In the book, Power of the 2 x 2 Matrix, we present fifty-five remarkable 2 x 2 frameworks. These were carefully chosen, (from more than 300) to help managers and institutions organize and focus problem-solving efforts. We find that nearly all 2 x 2 models share a common structure, one which is responsible for their strength. 2 x 2 models can range from the highly intuitive to the ingeniously complex. Classics such as the BCG Product Portfolio (familiar to any business school grad) or Stephen Covey’s Urgency vs. Importance (well-known to the millions of people who have read his books) help frame the common tradeoffs that organizations and individuals face. Others such as the perceptual maps frequently used in competitive marketing analysis, are more taxonomic, defining possible areas of focus and action, and creating a sound basis for decision-making.

It is the underlying dynamic structure of 2 x 2 modeling that brings richness, depth and a uniquely transformational power to this simple form. There is a right and wrong way to construct a 2 x 2 matrix, and the key lies in how the prime factors are selected and applied. Successful application is dependent on a particular cognitive and emotional bias in approach, which we call 2 x 2 Thinking. 2 x 2 Thinking is open as opposed to closed, proactive, and drawn towards inherent conflicts in search of resolution. The very best instances of problem-solving share a number of characteristics which comprise the core of 2 x 2 Thinking. The following seven points illustrate this more fully:

* 2 x 2 Thinking leads to an open exploration of issues to unearth inherent tensions; these tensions exist within an evolving context, where focus shifts as old points are resolved and new tensions emerge.

* 2 x 2 thinkers recognize the importance of learning as both a condition for change and a key enabler; learning involves embracing the new and letting go of unhelpful and invalid views.

* 2 x 2 Thinking is often but not necessarily interpersonal; where others are involved, dialogue is rich, informative and honest.

* 2 x 2 thinkers move towards not away from complexity; the act of focusing on a core set of variables does not reduce or simplify analysis – it enriches it.

* 2 x 2 Thinking requires openness leading to rapid modeling and reframing; problems are re-considered, and underlying assumptions are vigorously challenged.

* 2 x 2 thinkers are drawn to seeing both sides of an issue; this often leads to paradoxical situations which are explored rather than denied or ignored.

* 2 x 2 thinkers simplify to intensify focus; confusion is replaced by a core dilemma that holds the key to deeper meaning and more informed choices.

The simplest 2 x 2 problem-solving behavior involves looking at the other side of an issue before reaching a conclusion. A simple “what if” exercise will accomplish this. Dilemmas are a more interesting case. Dilemmas pull us simultaneously in competing directions, each one compelling in its own right. While dilemmas rarely feel good, they often contain the seeds of deeper understanding and a superior solution than we are otherwise capable of finding. The trouble with our experience of dilemmas is that they generally happen to us, and we feel out of control. 2 x 2 Thinking recognizes the power in exploring competing forces. By intentionally constructing dilemmas, we challenge ourselves to think at a higher logical level

Most small businesses ultimately face tough dilemmas about growth and exit strategies.

Often it is not really about choosing one or another option. Something is missing in the decision process. It could be perspective, excitement, confidence, agreement among parties, or additional alternatives. Here’s an example: Should we invest in growing our business or should we take profit now? This simple dilemma has caused thousands of business owners sleepless nights over the years. Viewed as a simple and straightforward choice, it is not very interesting or enlightening. However, a poorly thought through decision based in fear, greed or misplaced confidence can prove hazardous to the business over time. In contrast to this, we can construct a 2 x 2 decision-matrix to intensify and deepen the way we think through the issue. Looked at in this way, there are really two sets of choices to make rather than one. And, it may not have to be a forced choice between this and that. In the best of cases, it is possible to realize both ideals by reframing the question, seeking a solution that is both/and rather than either/or. This is what we call a transcendent solution.

Transcendent both/and solutions are all around us in the business world. Southwest Airlines is both a discount carrier and highly profitable, a combination that conventional wisdom said was impossible when Southwest was crafting their strategy two decades ago. When IBM had been battered by years of losses, Lou Gerstner turned a deaf ear to Wall Street’s demand that he sell off parts of the company in order to get back to basics. Instead, by focusing on services as the main offering to customers, he was able to leverage and recombine the company’s expertise in semiconductors, computers and software and return to record profitability. Toyota was long a low-cost leader in automobiles, but also became a quality leader when it introduced its Lexus brand, bringing the values of maintenance-free reliability into the luxury car market. Today, it is a leader in low-cost production and high-quality luxury cars, positions that were previously considered an either/or option for manufacturers. In all these cases, and many more, strategists were willing to challenge previous assumptions, and reframe competitive dilemmas in a way that enabled them to create innovative positioning and solutions that others could not match.

All materials copyright Transcend Strategy Group 2009

Foundations: The Problem Hierarchy

by Alex Lowy
Perhaps the single most important lesson in the book, No Problem, is that not all problems are problems. Sounds confusing at first, but stay with me.

Challenging issues differ depending on two factors – complexity and uncertainty. Complexity is about the level of interdependency between forces in a situation. Uncertainty describes the extent to which you can predict influences and outcomes.

Make Decisions
When complexity and uncertainty are relatively low, you have decisions. The essence of making decisions well is being clear about what is being decided, and knowing both the options and the criteria that will be applied.

Think about situations like choosing a restaurant for dinner or a supplier for your business.
Whether the issue is mundane or very important the basic method for making decisions is to list your options and apply your criteria. Your goal is to apply the right (relevant & accurate) information in an organized way, and to prevent irrational factors like fears, assumptions and biases from interfering with the process. The steps are straightforward, but applying them is often tough. And don’t confuse this with simply being “rational”. Decision making often requires checking in with your feelings and your heart to know how you feel about something. The key is doing it within the decision making process, so for example, one of your criteria for picking a supplier could very well be ‘feeling comfortable and trusting” them.

Solve Problems
When complexity and uncertainty are somewhere around middle intensity, you are dealing with a problem. Problems need to be solved. And the great thing about problems is that they can be solved. Problems are situations where there is a discernable gap between what is happening and what is expected or ideal. In problem solving, we find a way to fix that. There are two paths to solving problems, rational and creative. With the former, we work hard to identify root causes and then address them, while in creative efforts, we need to tap our unconscious and associative powers to “invent” a solution. For many problem solving situations, both rational and creative methods are needed, and not surprisingly, the best problem solvers tend to be good at both.

Want an example? You’re in the bottling business and the packaging materials are falling apart enroute to customers. This didn’t used to happen, but now it does. A root cause approach would search for what’s changed that might lead to the problem. And if this didn’t surface anything, a creative approach might look for ways to deliver the product without the need for packaging at all. Creative approaches are often the right way to go when you’ve reached a stuck point, but still believe there is a solution to the problem.

Manage And Exploit Dilemmas
When complexity and uncertainty are high, you are facing a dilemma. Dilemmas are situations where a great deal is at stake and you feel torn between opposing forces. Much as you might wish you could simply choose one or the other direction, with dilemmas it’s just not that simple. Each option has advantages but also consequences which need to be considered. Should I do what my head is telling me to do, or should I follow my heart? Is it better to play it safe in a particular situation or to be risky?

Examples of dilemmas are all around us. When you’re purchasing a new car, do you pick the one you find most exciting or the one that will meet the practical needs of your family? When expanding your business, do you need to borrow money or take on equity partners? With dilemmas, it’s important to address the core tension directly with courage and integrity. It always feels a little scary working with real, important dilemmas, but it is also exciting and it frees up energy. Not surprisingly, the best leaders and critical thinkers do it with courage and grace.

Know Your Approach
So, why do we care about making distinctions between these three levels of challenge? Because for each there is a different approach and attitude that works best, and if you use the wrong one, your chances of success are seriously diminished. In the next post, I’ll get into some of that.

Foundations: Dilemma Archetypes

Take apart any strategic dilemma and you will find a basic struggle occurring between opposing forces; Quality vs. Speed; Time vs. Money, Risk vs. Reward. These eight Archetypal Dilemmas offer thematic groupings of common struggles. Each archetype is a response to a particular question or challenge.

Download the Archetypal Dilemmas Self-Assessment, a short exercise that will help you identify the most important dilemmas currently facing your firm, and suggests first steps in approaching these issues.

Head & Heart

Key Question: How can I choose between these?

Description: The toughest choices are between doing what makes sense and what feels right. Achieving alignment between the 2 is a source of great power.

Scenario: Selecting the low-bid supplier will end a meaningful 10-year relationship with the existing one.

Inside & Outside

Key Question: How do we meet the demands being placed on us?

Description: Systems do best when they are well matched to the demands of their external contexts. Matches of greatest interest are structure, competencies, and culture.

Scenario: Acme co is losing customers. A satisfaction survey indicates the likely cause is poor after-sales service.

Cost / Benefit

Key Question: What is the price of getting what we want?

Description: Efforts to predict the future involve risk, and choosing the course of least pain and greatest gain.

Scenario: The ad campaign is necessary, but is it worth the investment in these tough economic times?

Product / Market

Key Question: Given this starting point, what are our options?

Description: You can change the essential offering or you can modify how, where or when it is presented.

Scenario: MacDonald’s started as a local burger joint in San Bernardino, California. The same product formula is now served in over 30,000 locations around the world.

Change vs. Stability

Key Question: What do we need to do to adapt? How much change is healthy? How do we get unstuck without falling apart?

Description: Systems of all size and nature are in perpetual dynamic tension between the forces for growth & adaptation on the one hand and integration and stability on the other. Too much of either is deadly, leading to chaos or rigidity.

Scenario: Recognizing that a new manufacturing process was essential, a company wisely invests in training staff ahead of the change.

Know / Don’t Know

Key Question: What is known, what is not, and what is known about what is or isn’t known?


Self-knowledge is mapped against Others’ knowledge.

Different forms or levels of knowledge represent problems and opportunities

Scenario: Since no one would tell the emperor he wore no clothes, he became an object of ridicule.

Competing Priorities

Key Question: What should I do first? What’s really more important?

Description: We are driven to shortsighted trade-offs, relieving immediate pressure and pain, but postponing tackling truly important tasks.

Scenario: Clear-cutting the world’s forests is making forestry companies rich and the planet poor.

Content vs. Process

Key Question: Are Content & Process healthy and aligned?

Description: Content is the What, process the How. Success in most things requires a sufficient mastery of both of these qualities.

Scenario: Your words are saying yes, but your eyes say no. When a company like Dofasco says, “Our product is steel, our strength is our people”, they are recognizing the interdependency between the what and the how.

All materials copyright Transcend Strategy

What Makes Great Problem-Solvers Different?

Ever wonder what it would take to be a better problem solver than you are? It’s not a bad question, and if you can raise your level bit by bit over time, what a payoff!

In the book No Problem, I come at this from a number of angles. In this first post, I’ll describe the four crucial ways great problem solvers differ. In the next one I’ll introduce the three-level Problem Solving Hierarchy that distinguishes between the major kinds of issues we typically face. After that, I’ll start applying the ideas to situations we all face in the real world.

Sure, it’s a pretty wide open topic, but the best problem solvers (and this could mean you) exhibit these tendencies and skills:

* Flexibility They take situations as they come, not all in the same way. They don’t prejudge and they don’t have an answer ready before a challenge is known. Beware the person who claims to have a method that works for everything. Flexibility needs to be earned through practice and experience, not acquired or even learned in the conventional way.

* Resourcefulness
They have lots of methods, examples, friends, and experiences to draw on. The richer you’re kit bag, the more proficiencies you have, the better the results are likely to be.

* Confidence They carry a positive, resilient, optimistic attitude. Shimon Perez, Israel’s elder statesman has described his outlook as choosing to be an optimist, saying “We all die the same way, but we have the choice to live as otimists or pessimists”. So do we all.

* Proactivity They are ready to act on what needs doing, and have the courage and initiative to make a difference when it matters.

Check it out: we are all somewhere between high and low on the four core attributes, and we are all capable of improving if we want to do so. This is not magic; you earn it through your actions and the choices you make.