The Very Strange World of ‘Adult’ Problem-Solving

I used to think adults are disadvantaged because we don’t deeply understand digital spaces that youth inhabit. Now I have a larger concern.  We’re challenged by collaboration.  And when the generation that is equipped with skills for creating flourishing systems and understands their place as a node within a complex network rather than a hierarchy arrives in the workplace, we are going to drive them nuts.  Those kids aren’t going to stick around places that haven’t built capacity for Deep Collaboration, particularly as they’ll have creative capacity.  They’ll create the workplace in which they function best and it probably won’t be within your company or institution.  They’ll leave and you won’t even know why.

It was my sister who pointed this out to me a few years ago.  The coming conflict.  I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but over the past 2 years as I spend more time in spaces inhabited by adults, observing group interactions, considering how they’ve chosen to structure themselves and thinking about my place within those spaces it becomes clear.   We stumble our way into decisions.  In fact, the most common frustration expressed by every adult I’ve spoken with about new models of learning is the lack of problem solving skills in the people they hire or work with or work for.  Deep Collaboration and problem-solving are certainly not things I learned in school where the focus was on content and not on the most effective ways to engage with one another when trying to develop a solution to a really difficult problem on an interdisciplinary team. Think of any staff meeting you’ve ever been to.  For the most part they involve circular conversations, venting and random idea suggestions. Rarely does a clear path forward emerge. If a decision is taken, it often is not the best decision – it’s a ‘we don’t know what else to do so we’ll do this, besides, we’re out of time and there are 20 more things we need to get done’ decision.


Part of the problem is that adults have not been explicitly taught to recognize the stage they are at in problem solving, nor the kinds of conversations that work well at particular stages, nor the kind of THINKING they might want to engage in based on the stage they are at. There is a lack of awareness about the tools available that lead to interesting places when seeking truly innovative solutions.  Nor are there strategies for deliberately and constructively surfacing all ideas, not just those of the people who talk a lot. Problem-solving is more often rushed and stumbled through to as Roger Martin says in The Opposable Mind, acceptance of compromise and trade-offs.

The biggest difference I see between what my students understand when working in groups and how adults often engage centers on what to do with tensions.  For my students, tensions are interesting things to be leveraged. It’s what allows them to reach innovation.  For many, tensions are things to avoid.  They are things talked about quietly between colleagues after everyone has left the room.   And that is a shame. Because it’s by intentionally exploring tensions that innovations are found.  My students who are adept in Integrative Thinking, Design Thinking and Knowledge Building know that.  They also know that assumptions must be surfaced and examined and they are equipped with tools to do so.  They know how to lance the boils.

What’s to be done? How do we build capacity for tension exploration?

For my students like the ones featured in these clips, I suspect they’ll go where people understand Deep Collaboration.

I think what’s needed in the work place are collaboration specialists.  Deep Collaboration is not something that can be learned by sending everyone to one-off professional development with the expectation that upon return all suddenly know how to collaborate.  It will never work that way.  The learning has to be embedded in the every day work that people do and somebody needs to be there to facilitate the group through moments of tension.

As I ponder my future and where to go next in my career, I wonder if Collaboration Specialist might be a role for me.

















  1. Marc Poirier


    I want to be a collaboration specialist with you! Been doing my own research over the past year or so, especially trying to use a contrast and comparison with ‘cooperation’ to see what subtle nuances I could find.

    I go back to an experience I had in university while working on my double major in physics and fine arts. By my final year I had a reputation as someone who was artistic, creative and open to conversations and community. As such I ‘ended up’ working with a cross- disciplinary team that germinated out of the drama department. The goal was to author and stage a play as part of their fourth year project.

    Coming from the arts studio, where all ideas were kept private as though someone might ‘steal’ an idea, into the theatre was a revelation in collaborative wonder. Everyone’s ideas were shared and honoured while working our way to an expression we were all contributing our strengths to.

    I genuinely yearn to live the rest of my life in that way! And I yearn to facilitate that experience for the students I have the honour to reach!

    Thanks Hiedi, for expressing what has gone unformed in a back recess of my mind!

  2. Cathy Beach

    Wow. You’ve just verbalized something for me – I suspect some of the amazing groups of people with whom I’ve worked had individuals with glimmers of these skills – as well as people who were open and respectful enough to allow them to guide the rest of the group. I so wish I ‘d been a student in your class over the past 5 years… Because I want to have these skills! So how do we as adults learn these skills ourselves? The internet coming upon us mid-stream was challenging enough for many. Can adults really learn new tricks, or will it take a complete generation for things to really change? And what other tide of changes will wash over us in the meantime? When you step back and look at the changes happening in every aspect of society today, nothing is linear; so few well laid-out paths remain. And like that, the simplistic chasm between youths and adults has become a complex landscape of hills and valleys of multi-dimensional differences. I can see that Collaboration Specialists and other new roles like this will be critical in shifting existing workplaces and practices into highly-functioning problem-solving and creative places of the future. Like the internet, it all comes back down to relationships, learning, and creating. I wish I could be a fly on the wall for the next 300 years!

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