Puzzles, Problems and Predicaments

Not all issues that require creative solutions have the same nature so the same approach or way of thinking will not necessarily work. The classes of issue are Puzzles, Problems or Predicaments. These classes are distinctly different.

A Puzzle is essentially mechanical in nature. It is solved using logic, existing knowledge and skill with new information uncovered during the solving process. There is often a small range of possible solutions and sometimes only one. The objectives are clear and often shared. The values and feelings engaged in the people involved are about succeeding, contributing, co-operating and competing. Those involved usually accept the desirability of a solution.

Puzzles could be: – repairing a washing machine, solving a crossword puzzle, building a model boat, buying a pair of shoes, growing a garden, playing tennis, building a car, getting a person on the moon. Although these puzzles are mechanical there is scope for much skill, flair, and knowledge.

A Problem may have some or many mechanical components but these do not decide its difficulty. Problems are more than mechanical, conflicting feelings, beliefs, prejudices, interests and values are involved. History is important. The complicating factor in problems is the presence of strong emotions. The objectives are often not clear and may not be shared. Most political problems fall in this category. Solving a problem requires objectivity and self-knowledge and the ability to accept and release the feelings of others. Above all, it requires the ability to listen, suspend judgement and understand.

Problems include: – getting organisations to change their habits, building prosperous and healthy inner cities, encouraging healthy eating, deciding where to go on holiday together as a family, deciding how to educate children, getting staff to work together.

A Predicament is a Problem at a deeper level. It may involve mechanical and emotional elements but its essence is spiritual. A solution appears to involve damage or destruction of the self, group or community. Solving a predicament requires a willingness to accept the contradiction that the present situation is intolerable and the new situation is intolerable. Out of this acceptance, new resources can come welling up and create transformation. This is almost never quick.

Predicaments require a personal change to resolve or transform them. For example, a family could have the predicament of loving a teenage child but finding him/her very difficult to live with. Observing that child’s courage when facing a severe disappointment might change the family attitude. They could then convey their appreciation so positively that attention-seeking behaviour is no longer functional for the child. The trigger for such a change in perception is often the caring interest and attention of someone else.

Personal predicaments include coping with serious illness, looking after aged parents and maintaining a family, staying married when divorce is ‘easy’ or concentrating on a child or a career. A work predicament could be deciding to work with an affluent or an impoverished client. Your Company is profitable but behaves unethically. Should you stay and keep quiet, go and keep quiet, blow the whistle or change it from the inside?

Implications for Organisations and their Managers

It would be easier if issues in organisations were mostly Puzzles, mechanical in nature, unfortunately, they are not. In practice, all but the simplest issue contains problems and predicaments and puzzles. It is very important to recognise that these dimensions exist and that mechanical ‘techniques’ either will not work or will produce unanticipated side effects, in the more complex types of situation. Two examples follow.

Family issues

A new factory is opened at the other end of the country. The best-qualified person is X. The Company sends for X and asks X to do the job. The Company has solved the Puzzle. Unfortunately, there is a Problem, X has a close relative who is ill and lives locally, X is unwilling to leave while X can be of some help.

You, the Company representative, have a Predicament. You know X and the situation regarding the relative and believe it is right for X not to move. You are being leaned on by your boss for a quick solution, your boss believes X is the right person. You insist X go. X leaves the Company for your local rival.

Training is not the answer to everything

The quality of customer service in an area is consistently poor. You decide to set up some training in customer care to deal with the problem. You have solved the Puzzle. Unfortunately, there are Problems. The managers in this area have consistently been poor ‘people managers’ over the year. The organisation has neglected the facilities. They are dirty and the employees are underpaid. As a result, everyone feels angry, frustrated and not cared for. Peoples’ grumbles emerge during the course but the participants do not get very positive. You follow the training up and there has been no improvement in customer service. Several employees have left having finally realised how fed up they are.

You now have a Predicament, what to do next. Do you blame the circumstances and the group for a poor outcome or blame yourself for an error of judgement in expecting the quick fix to work? You struggle with this and finally decide to use this experience to understand the issue.

You work with the group to develop a systematic strategy to develop customer care. This would consider all the influences on this process. It works.


Puzzles, Problems and Predicaments usually occur together. Each type requires different handling.

Puzzles, being logical, require accurate objective information. Most of the parameters of a mechanical puzzle are measurable. People work together in an atmosphere that encourages the sharing of information and technical ideas. Techniques that can help include, brainstorming, drawing pictures, think and listen, building models. The atmosphere is practically intellectual, ideas are useful if they contribute to the achievement of a practical goal.

Problems carry an emotional element as well. People need to share objective information but it is important to include how they are feeling too. People need to feel safe when sharing emotional information, as they feel very vulnerable while doing so. It helps if they talk in pairs or very small groups. The participants will value listening and paying attention to each other.

Groups are more able to listen to each other when the members feel good about themselves. This is necessary when two or more subgroups have a history of disliking, hating or mistrust. Giving people permission to express their feelings of anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment also helps progress. This is best done when everyone in the subgroup has equal time to talk and be listened to without judgement.

There are a few additional ‘techniques’ other than those outlined above. An attitude of trying to understand rather than judge is essential. Counselling skills, which handle strong emotion, are very useful. Some structured problem-solving workshops have worked well when adapted to a particular situation and organisation.

Predicaments are personal and deep, affecting a person’s sense of her/his own identity and worth. People need time and acceptance to work things through to a resolution. They need to call on their inner resources, resources they may not even know exist. Some see these resources as God or faith and as coming as a gift from beyond the person. When a resolution does happen it leads to a changed person who is more whole, integrated and generous-hearted (less self-centred).

The attitude of others around the person in a predicament is the best one of loving acceptance. There is nothing we can do except ‘be there’ and show we care. If I know you love me, then I will love myself and this will release the resources I need.

People find it easier to help with others’ predicaments if they have resolved a few of their own.


In most real situations there are Puzzle (mechanical), Problem (emotional) and Predicament (spiritual) elements. Techniques are more useful in the mechanical area. Being there, listening, sharing, accepting, work well at all levels. Any approach requires flexibility based on understanding.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick