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Nothing impacts how we approach a situation more than how we think about it in the first place. Consider the difference between a problem and a dilemma. A problem is something that has a solution. Apply it and the problem is solved. Out of gas? Stop and refill the tank. Missing an automated business system? Install one. A dilemma, on the other hand, is the existence of inherently conflicting forces that create tension in a system. Do you focus on long term results or short term results? Do you do what’s best for your client or what’s best for you? Performance or learning? When the answer to a multiple choice question is “all of the above,” it’s a dilemma.
As one moves up the hierarchy in an organization, s/he deals less with problems and more with dilemmas. CEOs deal almost exclusively with dilemmas – reconciling competing demands across the range of stakeholders. It is not “either/or,” it is “both/and.” One current issue most CEOs have to manage is the dilemma of openness (social networks, transparency) and control (ensuring security, integrity.) As a dilemma, there is no way to eliminate the inherent tension. Trusted advisors can add value by facilitating exploration of the multiple sides of the dilemma.
Problems can be solved. Dilemmas must be managed. Attempting to solve a dilemma will guarantee you frustration. There is no silver bullet solution. You can’t find a simple answer to the work – life dilemma. By the same token, managing a problem will frustrate those around you. If it is a problem, fix it. Take an underperforming staff member. Framing the performance issue as a problem suggests coaching, remedial training and if no success, dismissal. Framing it as a dilemma can result in passing the poor performer around to other groups, ‘special assignments’ and internal banishment. In one organization, this practice has been institutionalized through the creation of an area of the building for housing poor performers who couldn’t cut it. It is known in the building as “punishment land.” It is critical to frame the issues accurately as problems or dilemmas.
Helping clients manage dilemmas means resisting the temptation to offer solutions. They will be rejected anyway because they don’t address all sides of the issue. Solution proposals are often met with ‘yes, but’ responses. Adding value often takes the form of:

  • offering the frame of a dilemma
  • inviting an examination of each side of the dilemma (‘tell me more about x’)
  • observing and challenging underlying assumptions and beliefs about the
    dilemma
  • While there are no simple solutions that can be provided for dilemmas (clients don’t expect them,) the interesting thing is if the client achieves clarity as a result of engaging with a trusted advisor, the advisor gets the credit anyway just for being associated with the client’s self insight.