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.

The Women’s Dilemma: Becoming Less Happy?

In our client workshops we focus on helping teams identify their biggest challenges, and redefine tough dilemmas in ways that reveal underlying opportunities. And, often we’ll ask the individuals in a group to discuss their personal dilemmas. While there are dangers in delving into personal issues in a business setting, sharing issues that may be common to members of a work team quickly builds sympathy that improves group communication. (Keep in mind when we talk about dilemmas, we are talking about deep major tradeoffs between competing options, under conditions which are often beyond your control. We differentiate between decisions, problems and dilemmas here.)

Not surprisingly, many of us share the same dilemmas. While it is dangerous (for a man, especially) to generalize in this way, there is a recurring pattern to the dilemmas described by women in our classes. This dilemma is fundamentally about wanting or needing to do too many things in too little time. Some say they feel torn between family and job, between commitments to husband, children and aging parents on the one hand, and career goals and job demands on the other. Other individuals may use different words to describe similar circumstances. And, these conflicts naturally result in feelings of inadequacy at not being able to give enough in or another area of their busy lives.

timeThese client experiences came to mind recently when we read that women literally are becoming less happy. Since 1972 the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Council has tracked demographics and attitudes of Americans. According to their data, and that of some other recent surveys, women have become less happy in recent decades. Men, on the other hand are becoming relatively more joyful, especially as they age. This was reported in newspapers and a recent Time cover story about women.

In her column, Blue Is The New Black New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd explores this phenomenon and looks at possible causes. As it turns out there are plenty of experts in the happiness business, and they’ve got opinions as to what underlies female gloominess. For example:

  • Children: One expert points out that children make people less happy, both men and women. However, few survey respondents say they would rather have not had kids.
  • Sex role differences: Women are often expected to shoulder the majority of home and child responsibilities. But recent research suggests that men continue to increase the amount of time they devote to household and child chores that were one women’s exclusive domain and in many marriages it approaches parity.
  • Emotions: Women also may take success and defeat harder than men. Biologically, they may be emotionally more intense relative to men.
  • Mixed cultural messages: Our culture sends women demoralizing messages about beauty and aging that are positively anxiety inducing.
  • Choice: Overall women face an unhealthy amount of choices with the expectation that they will excel as workers, wives and moms. As Dowd puts it, ” When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

That dilemma might be described as the needs of the self versus the needs of family, home and work. Or the conflict between our wants—to excel as career woman, mother and wife—and what we need to be spiritually and physically healthy. Our students and clients have diagrammed this challenge many times in our workshops . Often it looks like this. The demands of family are on one axis, the demands of work and career on the other.Family versus Career Dilemma

For all of us the archetypal individual dilemma is to balance the effort we put into meeting the needs of others with the requirement to fulfill our own needs. When we feel like we are giving at home and work, and not getting enough time for ourself, burnout and unhappiness are more likely to follow.

Archetypal Personal Dilemma

The levels of unhappiness showing up in these surveys are evidence that women in our society may face a special dilemma. Or that the choices they are making in response to the dilemma of overwhelming demands and responsibilities are inadequate.

But that is our interpretation. What matters is that you consider and wrestle with your own dilemmas. And, that you describe them in your own language. For some, the family versus career example above neatly synthesizes what they are feeling. For others, that is too simplistic, or simply wide of the mark.

Let us suggest some homework. Try to define a personal dilemma for yourself. You’ll find instructions in the next post here.

Sun Sets: Fumbling the Open Source Challenge

More than a decade after open source software began acquiring market traction, it still poses difficult questions and dilemmas for IT firms. Initially, it was scoffed at by the software industry, and companies like Sun tried to discredit Linux as unsafe and incomplete, hoping to deter further adoption and defection from their own proprietary offerings.

The recent acquisition of Sun by Oracle brings to a close a chapter of computing history. In the early ‘80s Silicon Valley was home to dozens of small Unix workstation makers. Sun was the only one to survive, growing to become the leading Unix company. Its servers were noted for reliability, and the big software makers, including Oracle, focused on writing software to run on Sun’s Solaris operating system. Ironically, Sun was an early supporter of the Internet and visionary in its approach to network computing. But the combination of the Internet and open source software, in particular, were the source of Sun’s decline.

More than a decade after open source software began acquiring market traction, it still poses difficult questions and dilemmas for IT firms. Initially, it was scoffed at by the software industry, and companies like Sun tried to discredit Linux as unsafe and incomplete, hoping to deter further adoption and defection from their own proprietary offerings. Microsoft was equally disdainful. Bill Gates was quoted in a 1998 PC Week article as saying, “Like a lot of products that are free, you get a loyal following even though it’s small. I’ve never had a customer mention Linux to me.” Within a few years, though, Microsoft heard from loads of customers about the open source threat, and was forced to open some of Windows source code to outside partners.

The early, sometimes fearful responses to Linux took an understandable but narrow and one-dimensional view of the situation, regarding it as a worrisome problem which needed to be removed. “Linux is a threat to our pricing. How can we compete with free?” or, “Linux is giving away knowledge of high economic value that industry has invested heavily in creating. This is not right or fair.”

Time proved that open source was here to stay, and arguably for the right reasons: it made superior use of networked intelligence for creating and realizing value. Companies throughout the computer industry and even some beyond it would have been better off to regard the emergence of Open Source software as a dilemma to understand and exploit rather than a problem in need of a solution. Some did. Start-ups like Red Hat prospered by creating new offerings or supplying services needed by Linux users. Resourceful software firms capitalized by building new products directly on the Linux OS. But the transition proved much more difficult for the large, established incumbents who tried desperately to hold on to or grow existing revenues, while adapting to a new model which gives away much of the product, in order to increase innovation and widen the market.

In that class of corporate titans, there were a few who adjusted their approach fast and prospered. Notable among the beneficiaries was IBM, which understood early on that the dramatically lower cost of Linux and open source applications increased demand for commodity server hardware, installation and services. The company saw Linux as an opportunity to establish new leadership and perhaps weaken competitors dependent on proprietary solutions. Sun, of course, later embraced open source, opening its OS and leading the Java community of developers, but never adequately addressed Linux’s impact on its proprietary hardware and OS business.

(For a quick economic analysis of open source as a complementary good that increased demand for IBM’s services read Joel On Software.)

IBM’s ability to adjust quickly and well to open source lies in how they framed the situation. Open source was not an annoying problem to solve or eliminate; as a legitimate challenge to the way the industry operated, it represented a dilemma that redefined roles, relationships, value creation processes and business models. By understanding the opposing forces at play and their implications, they could see the competitive landscape more clearly, and make better choices. The 2 x 2 matrix below is one plausible and constructive way to render the open source dilemma:


Mapping Profitability versus Customer Autonomy – Building a better mousetrap usually costs money and involves risk. While some innovators are motivated to share their ideas freely, businesses have a legitimate interest in protecting their ownership rights and making a profit. The tension between achieving profit and enabling the autonomy that customers want is on the surface only increased by a movement whose goal is to create openly and provide access to all. (Consider the tremendous loss of value by copyright holders in the music industry. Even today 90 percent of all downloads are illegal.)

By becoming leaders in the Open Source movement, companies like IBM and Red Hat found ways to collaborate with autonomous customers and strategic partners while still making a profit (upper right in our diagram). Their strategies and business models differ, but each has grown its business by giving customers greater direct access to the information and software they need to improve their businesses or lower costs.

On the other hand, customers are increasingly skeptical of proprietary products that lock them into technology directions that are determined by a single vendor (upper left). Proprietary software vendors have been forced by customers to make their products interoperate with open source offerings. Even Apple, a stellar example of a proprietary shop, has found its greatest success since adopting industry-standard Intel processors for its computers, and making hardware/software products such as iPods, iPhones and iTunes, which interoperate across computer platforms.

acernetbookA new challenge for proprietary operating systems may be brewing in Acer’s announcement that it will install Google’s Android, a software platform originally designed for phones, on its small netbook computers. If netbooks, which sell for around $300, become increasingly popular, it will be difficult for software firms to charge customers hundreds of dollars more for operating systems and applications. By going with an open, free OS, Acer hopes to build market share quickly, at the expense of software profits.

The tension between ownership of value and customer control is not limited to the software industry. The combination of free information, transparent source code, and a global network of voluntary contributors is upending fields from media to biotech, and lessons need to be found and shared for the interests of all parties. We’ll look for those answers in future columns.

The Unreal Nature of Real-time

The term “real-time” burst onto the techno-business stage in the early 90’s, full of promise; one of those irresistible ways to improve performance made possible by the networking of computing machines.

The basic idea was hard to argue with—systems of all kinds work better with current, accurate information—i.e. feedback. As you improve on the two ideals of faster speed and error-elimination, organizations become leaner, more adaptive and ultimately fitter.

Any process or service could be magically improved by simply placing these two hyphenated words in front of the thing you were selling or defending: real-time computing, decision-making, supply-chain operations, energy management, you name it. We checked Amazon for books searchable using the term “real-time”, and they list more than 174,000. Discount half of these as misfits and you’re still facing an overwhelming number of applications of the concept to everything (literally) from strategy to parenting to rendering animation.

After a decade and a half of tuning, tightening and retrofitting our world to be more real-time, we’re learning that as with all highly leveraged interventions, there are often nasty unintended consequences to deal with. The very methods and tools we use to achieve our ends turn around and start shaping us in surprising and often limiting ways (think of Orwell, mood-altering drugs, Shelley’s Frankenstein and greedy King Midas). Three looming impacts of the real-time revolution we’re most concerned about are the loss of redundancies, erosion of personal time and space, and diminished learning capacity.

1. Loss Of Redundancies
Redundancy gets a bad rap. It’s considered extra, unnecessary and duplicative. It’s what you get rid of. But in systems terms, redundancies are a necessary source of flexibility, ensuring there is back-up capacity should vital parts become compromised or fail. Nature is full of redundancies, starting with the outpouring of sperm that never make it to their procreative destination. Imagine if we could streamline that operation and only release the one sperm cell that is needed—efficient, but at what cost to diversification and evolution? How many friends is enough—two, six, one? On the traditional, low-tech farm, workers have always developed overlapping competencies, building in back-up support along the way. Should someone become injured or ill, others could carry on. The related concept of multi-skilling became popular in the mid-1900s as part of high-performance and socio-technical-systems work designs for the same reason. Gains were considerable, not radical, but they were sustainable. We saw this first-hand in our work at Shell Canada in the early 1990s, realizing performance improvements up to 50 percent in plants that deployed self-managing teams.

The drift to real-time performance systems challenges the need for redundancy by removing uncertainty and replacing it with information. If we knew exactly what we needed at each moment, we wouldn’t have to maintain any slack. Redundancy costs money. Eliminate extra inventory, space, advertising and people, and you’re a winner. Enter the lean, hyper-efficient 21st Century outsourcing business organization model. A great short-term competitor, but a lousy long-term bet. A lot of the hollowing out of US industry over the past quarter century can be attributed to this kind of thinking. Reduce inventory and risk being caught out when faced with unanticipated surges, as has happened literally in the case of power outages. Businesses are similarly bottlenecked when they under-stock needed items, and their customers are inconvenienced when their dependence on a single supplier leaves them with no alternatives. A recent google-search collapse is a case in point; with the majority of web searches moving on their networks, this leaves no viable options when there is a breakdown. Cut space through hoteling, telework and other virtualization methods and you risk killing corporate culture and identity – who is left to care about the organization? Narrowcast your advertising and risk capping important new growth, not to mention eliminating serendipitous learning and new partnering opportunities; and let all non-essential staff go and you’re now dependent on less committed temps and often faceless suppliers to respond to emergencies and opportunities. A fully-tapped out workforce has no time for anything beyond their core assignment, eroding essential processes like socialization, error detection and prevention outside of the scope of primary responsibilities, opportunity-seeking and learning.

The net effect of all of this over-pruning and specialization is the loss of agility and resourcefulness. As market needs shift and the competitive field gets bumpy, narrowly focused supply chains can’t easily switch over to new tasks.

2. Erosion Of Personal Time And Space
We start our classes and lectures these days with the request that people turn off their phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants). We know this is a futile effort, but at least it slows down the amount and length of interruptions to come.

PDA’s are real-time devices, provisioning information to the user immediately. If it stopped there, we’d be grateful and celebrate, but of course it doesn’t. For the device trains us faster than we teach ourselves to use it, and we quickly become addicted to every beck, call and vibration of the damnable machine. We become endlessly curious—who or what is trying to contact me? We have to know. Maybe it’s important; maybe it’s urgent! No accident that people often call the RIM Blackberry the “crackberry” referring to it’s addictive properties.

Not so long ago, when you left the office or your place of work, you were on your own time. PDA’s are changing this. The new expectation is that email and text messages are accessed 24/7 and will be responded to within hours or even minutes. The reasoning goes something like, “if he knows about something important (or just current) now, and could address it immediately, then he should do it”. There is no place anymore to hide. You’re never off the grid, out of reach.

The crazy thing about this, is that we participate in this hijacking willingly, even enthusiastically. Real-time communications, gaming and a slew of information-based services accessed through PDA-like devices (entertainment, search, location-based, and so forth) are compelling and unfathomably distracting, turning us into A-D-D-like multi-taskers increasingly incapable of simply being in the moment.

3. Diminished Learning Capacity
Before paper, we had a limited capacity to store and access knowledge. The printing press invented in 1440 went a long way to preserving and sharing information beyond what was in the heads of local wise folks. Powerful as these innovations undoubtedly were, they were static, linear and asynchronous. To benefit from them the user still had to do a lot of basic thinking and problem solving.

Enter real-time information access and smart systems and watch out. Can’t remember a fact, find a street or who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird? Don’t fret. In fact, don’t even try to remember; just google it and presto, problem solved. How this may affect learning and memory is as yet an unanswered question. Our brains work efficiently using the most direct routes, where there is the least amount of resistance and effort required. The new skill we are learning is how to use search engines and smart devices, quite possibly in place of critical thinking and the establishment of important neural connections that lock in memories.

A second learning implication of real-time is the elimination or automatic correction of errors by smart devices. They are popping up everywhere: driving a car, spelling and grammar, vocal pitch adjustment and more. The trouble is, so much of how we learn comes as a result of making mistakes, feeling the pain, frustration or even disapproval that results, and making necessary corrections—i.e. learning. Lose that direct contact with the results of our effort, and nothing is learned until the artificial support is absent and we fail big time.

And one more learning casualty of real-time may be moral development in young children. Research at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity institute suggests that constant exposure to fast paced, constantly adjusting images involving pain and violence conditions children to accept others’ pain without feeling concern or compassion. There is simply not enough time for the brain to process complex emotional responses. This is particularly true regarding forms of social or psychological pain and suffering, where it takes between six and eight seconds for our brain to respond. When these kids later witness similar acts in the real world, they may be desensitized and slow to respond with compassion. According to Manuel Castells, perhaps the most prominent sociologist writing about networked society, “Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention.”

Progress is always a double-edged sword, and the closer we fly to this particular sun, the more over-heated and vulnerable our wings become (excuse the crass mixing of metaphors). Real-time face-recognition security systems and integrated health records management are two related examples of constructive change and improvement. Perpetual personal availability through PDAs is just plain destructive and spiraling out of control. We humans are no better suited to real-time-all-the-time than we are to flying around with make-shift wings. Make a list of the three things you value most, cherished life moments or memories, and we’ll wager they seriously lack in real-time qualities. Real-time is a convenient means to an end, not a way of being. Real life takes time, often lots of it, to sense, share experiences, learn through trial and error, to cry and to laugh. This is true for organizations and societies as well as for individuals, especially children. Now that we’ve figured out how to deploy real-time, it’s time to learn how to set healthy limits and when it is important not to use it.

Two-Facedbook’s Holocaust Denial Dilemma

Silicon‘s sharp-witted columnist, John Murrell deserves the credit for seizing on the “two-faced” word play in his characterization this week of Facebook’s dilemma concerning whether to allow (or not) groups that deny the Holocaust to post and set up communities on their social networking site. As he and others like Lisa Respers writing in suggest, there’s no win here for Facebook. Remove the Holocaust Deniers from the site, and you’re imposing your morals on open, free expression (what do you suppress next?); allow them to post, and you appear to be condoning or endorsing despicable hate initiatives, contributing to new recruits being drawn to the movement, possibly inciting hate-related crimes, and certainly offending people. The harder you look at the issue, the murkier it gets, with layers of repercussions emerging for taking either of the positions: remove them, and you’re on a slippery slope, opening yourself to demands to treat other ‘questionable’ postings; don’t remove them, and risk uncomplimentary comparisons to cases where you did censor, as in recently deleted photos posted by breast-feeding mothers, or ‘lactivists’. Continue reading “Two-Facedbook’s Holocaust Denial Dilemma”