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Clocks and Clouds

January 31, 2012

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost the shape of a camel?

Polonius. By the mass, and t’is like a camel indeed.

Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet. Or like a whale?

Polonius. Very like a whale.

~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Page 17

The great science philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) once said that all the problems of our times could be subdivided into two categories: they were either like ‘clocks’ or like ‘clouds.’

What do you think your personal and professional problems look like?
In which category would you put the challenges faced by our society today?

Consider a clock: it is a mechanical system that is relatively static in configuration. If it stops working, you may take it to a clock repair shop where an ‘expert’ will open it, take it apart, analyze the problem and develop a diagnostic of what’s wrong with it. With a system such as a clock, there exist only a finite number of problems that can occur—that is, the problem set is well defined and clearly understood. Often, the problem can even be anticipated.

Now, consider a cloud: in contrast to a clock, a cloud is a dynamic system with no defined boundary. Ask different people to describe the shape of a cloud and they will likely come up with different interpretations: one may see a bear; another a duck; yet another a rabbit. The shape of a cloud is, in fact, the emergent result of the interactions of water droplets and other chemicals suspended in the atmosphere; it is always changing and sensitive to any small changes in its environment. The behavior of a cloud is unpredictable.

Problems of a clock type, even the highly complicated ones, are technical.  The nature of a technical problem is usually well defined: ‘experts’ from multiple disciplines may collaborate with one another to analyze the problem by decomposing it into sub-problems until the issue under consideration is fully understood.  Once the origin of the problem is known experts can find a solution to fix it.  In contrast, issues that resemble clouds are ill-defined or ill-structured.  In a 1973 paper, social policy planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed problems of a cloud type ‘wicked’ (see: 10 characteristics of wicked problems by Rittel and Melvin).  In the domain of complex social and organizational problems, systems thinker Russell Ackoff used the terms ‘social messes’ and ‘unstructured reality.’  I personally prefer to use the term ‘adaptive challenges’ that was coined by Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz (1994) in his seminal book Leadership Without Easy Answers.

Of course, there might be some overlap: adaptive challenges may require some technical problems to be solved while technical problems may call for adaptive challenges to be addressed.  Yet, the main nature of today’s challenges resembles more clouds than clocks.  Here are some examples of adaptive challenges in our society (I am sure you can add more to this list):

  • Global and local sustainability issues such as climate change and other environmental problems related to energy, water, transportation, and food scarcity;
  • Social predicaments such as hunger, poverty, and violence;
  • National conflicts;
  • Community resilience issues;
  • Challenges with our healthcare system;
  • Challenges in our educational system;
  • Strategic business challenges such as the need for dealing with uncertainties and dynamic business environments; designing and launching new products or services; developing a corporate social responsibility strategy; negotiating with employees and trade unions; identifying the culture and identity (brand) of a firm; etc.

Adaptive challenges arise from the complex interactions between different sets of values, beliefs and assumptions and the divergent understandings of the situation.  Adaptive challenges are symptoms of deeper structural dynamics and root causes that are often hidden from our level of awareness because of their complexity.  Unfortunately, our society has the tendency to attempt to resolve its problems by solely resorting to technical expertise while avoiding the difficult adaptive work required to effectively confront issues that call for a fundamental change in our values and beliefs.  Adaptive challenges call for different approaches than the ones used for solving technical problems.   Adaptive work requires people to undertake a deep transformational journey by which they let go of their traditional values and mental models and embrace a completely new world view—one in which short-term and long-term goals are not in conflict with one another, nor are self-interest and group-interest.  However, most people are neither motivated nor have developed the skills to deal with adaptive challenges.

My work at Soma Integral Consulting is to midwife the process of change while facilitating the resolution of adaptive challenges.  I have developed diverse processes and tools, all grounded in a deep understanding of the adaptive process of complex systems, to facilitate deep learning, creativity and emergence of new possibilities.  My purpose is to guide individuals and groups through the steps of the adaptive process so that they can successfully achieve its requirements:

Embrace the whole complexity of the system

Most of us get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our challenges.  The situations we must deal with are politically charged and involve a large number of stakeholders belonging to different organizations and systems; the issues are full of ambiguity; and the path forward is unclear.  Within this context, we are tempted to reduce complexity by fragmenting—leaving some elements out of the process and/or considering them independently of one another.  This, unfortunately, only takes us away from the source of insights and breakthroughs that specifically resides in the understanding of the interactions between the tangible and intangible elements of a system and in an awareness of the patterns that emerge out of these interactions.   Embracing the whole complexity of a system is necessary to uncover the root causes of adaptive challenges.

To embrace complexity in a productive way, a structured process is required that provides a collaborative platform and a safe container for a constructive dialogue to take place.  The process is designed to encourage the sharing of divergent views; make distinctions explicit; create new meaning; play with “what if” scenarios; and facilitate the emergence of insights.  In addition, the process supports the management of unproductive anxiety and has the added value that it fosters the development of empathy and trust among participants over the long-term.

Learn to perceive reality with ‘new eyes’

Faced with an adaptive challenge, we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant: based on our different background and expertise, some of us sees the elephant as a tree while other people identify it as a snake or as a rope.  Who is right?  No one and all of us to some extent!  Our blind spots corner us into supporting positions that are ungrounded.  Left unchallenged, our divergent ways of perceiving reality generate misunderstandings and conflicts.

The good news is that it is possible to learn how to perceive reality with new eyes and it’s urgent we develop this critical skill.   Using diverse approaches that make the best use of both sides of the brain (i.e., analytical thinking as well as pattern recognition/creativity) participants are invited to engage collaboratively and help one another inquire into the nature of the “big elephant”— using generative conversations and dialogues as well as creative techniques and activities that help people move back and forth between sensing (primal knowing) and analytical thinking.  In breaking out the existing pattern of thought we leave the space for “flashes of understanding” to arise, which can then be interpreted and tested to generate new agreed meaning.

Sense the future that wants to emerge

As we let go of the old beliefs and assumptions and open ourselves to learning we create a field for emergent possibilities, within which deep insights arise.  Our inner eyes start to perceive previously hidden patterns, which tell a richer and more accurate story of the nature of reality.  Our understanding of the adaptive challenge shifts, as we now perceive the deeper structural dynamics that have been at the origins of our challenge.  As we uncover the root causes of the issue, what we initially believed was the problem now dissolves: we have outgrown the problem.  From a clear understanding of the dynamics of the system (i.e., what happened in the past), we can better explain the behavior of the system (i.e., the challenge in the present), while simultaneously getting a sense of future emergent possibilities.  This is a very creative phase, when one can engage in designing solutions and strategies that will support our vision and desired outcomes.

Engage mind, body and heart

As we commonly say, “necessity is the mother of invention.”   When dealing with adaptive challenges, necessity might also be the mother of change and transformation.  Yet, we should not believe that reason could be the only driver of change.   Embarking on a transformative journey without engaging the heart will hinder, if not bring to a halt, the process.  Personal and group transformation requires deep listening and empathy toward others and a willingness to open our mind to the messages sent by our deeper selves.

Moreover, as we begin the journey, the unavoidable feelings of fear and anxiety, which are deeply rooted in our bodies, arise.  Left unacknowledged fear and anxiety can lead to paralysis.  In contrast, when we bravely face our fears and explore their origins with curiosity, we are able to overcome what Robert Kegan and Lisa laskow Lahey (2009) calls our “immunity to change,” thereby unlocking our potential for authentic transformation.

A transformative process is not for weak hearted!

Be unreasonable: believe that change is possible

The Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”   Is it unreasonable to believe that we can change?  I believe it is!  And so, unreasonable we must be.

A successful journey of change always begins with a belief, a determined will, and a choice.  One must BELIEVE that change is possible, which is to say, one must believe we are the source of our challenges and, therefore, the only people capable of addressing them.   One must have the WILL to investigate the challenge and go deeper into its root causes and, thus, accept responsibility for our past actions and/or inactions.  Finally, one must CHOOSE to commit to the process—a process, which is often difficult and emotionally draining but that can also be extremely rewarding.   How could not it be?  Transformation is the process of life!

My overall purpose when facilitating adaptive challenge is to develop the adaptive and creative capacity of the individuals and groups involved to empower them to facilitate new emerging challenges independently in the future.  This is an urgent necessity if one wants to overcome the societal crises we now face.


Heifetz, Ronald, 1994.  Leadership Without Easy Answers.  Harvard College.

Kegan, Robert and Lahey, Laskow Lisa, 2009.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Harvard Business Press.

Rittel, Horst, and Webber, Melvin, 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]

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