Problem transformation: A definition


How problem transformation differs from problem solving

Problem transformation in action

Selected quotes about problems

Problem transformation services

Problem transformation: A definition

Problem transformation is a way of perceiving and responding to tough problems such that ambitious outcomes are achieved 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
Conflict transformation practitioner, executive coach and theatre director


Problem transformation as described here was first articulated by Jack Martin Leith with input from Alan Arnett, Mo Cohen and Angus Jenkinson. It is inspired by the conflict transformation concept originated by John Paul Lederach and Johan Galtung.

Wikipedia: 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 organization 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 psychological development of human beings. Generative individuals, workgroups and organizations are not content with mediocrity, and seek to create things that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place.

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

Problem transformation is particularly suited to situations where:

  • High levels of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty are present.
  • There are multiple stakeholders, 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, internal comms, coaching, L&D, org design, conflict resolution, business model innovation etc.) is likely to be effective.

Problem transformation in action

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

This is the sequence of events in a typical problem transformation project:

Gain a common understanding of the current state of affairs — the problem-in-context.

Reach agreement among stakeholders about the desired state of affairs. Ask each of them: How will you know the problem has been resolved?

Reframe the problem as a value creation possibility. Ask: How can we design the intervention or programme of work so that it generates maximum value for its customers, other stakeholders and wider society?

Design the intervention or programme of work.

Launch the intervention or programme of work.

Monitor progress throughout and provide whatever support, guidance and corrective action may be needed.

Conduct an after action review and harvest the learnings once the desired state of affairs has been achieved. Ask: To what extent are we now better equipped to bring the new into being? How can we best use this additional creative power?

The enterprise is now on its way to becoming a genuine learning organization, which means being better equipped to survive and prosper in a turbulent and unpredictable operating environment.

A successful intervention or programme of work is likely to spawn further problem transformation projects. Little by little, problem transformation practice will spread throughout the organization, and its power to create the new will gradually expand towards its full extent.

Selected quotes about problems

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

If the answer was logical, we would have solved it already.

Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director, OgilvyOne
View source
Rory Sutherland

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.

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
Harvard Business Review logo

Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways.

They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience.

They are generatively complex, which means that they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways.

And they are socially complex, which means that the people involved see things very differently, and so the problems become polarized and stuck.

Source: Solving Tough Problems, An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, by Adam Kahane
Adam Kahane

Truly innovative organizations—not just the one-hit wonders, but those who can reproduce success over many years—don’t look for ideas but for problems to solve. A good problem leads to a sense of purpose and that’s where good ideas really come from.

Greg Satell | View source
Greg Satell

Marketers prefer precise answers that are wrong to imprecise answers that are right.

Bob Hoffman, The Ad Contrarian
Bob Hoffman

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

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 | view source
Matt Damon wearing NASA insignia on left lapel

Problem transformation services

Currently, assistance with problem transformation as described on this page is only available from Canaveral, a problem transformation business founded by Jack Martin Leith.

If you are looking a tough business problem in the eye and wondering if a problem transformation project might be the most effective response, please contact Jack.