Scratching the surface

scratching the surface
Sometimes, it’s only at the end that we realize we’re just scratching the surface.

Two meetings

Oregon 2009

14 years ago, I facilitated a four-day event “Fixing Food” for the state of Oregon. The participants were farmers, agricultural workers, food wholesalers, grocers, academics, and restaurant owners. Everyone was excited, confident that the collective expertise and experience would be able to explore and tackle the important issues and problems they were experiencing.

It was only during the last hour of the event, that everyone became aware of the sheer quantity and complexity of the concerns. Instead of springing into action to implement solutions, the participants realized they had just scratched the surface of what they had uncovered.

Puerto Rico 2022

In 2022, I designed and facilitated a leadership summit on the future of the meeting industry. Two years of the COVID19 pandemic had devastated the industry. Now it looked as though meetings were starting to rebound. What would they look like? Would new partnerships between stakeholders and suppliers develop? How would the dizzying number of new digital technologies change events? What could and would engagement become?

We had seven hours, spread over two mornings, to explore these and other lofty topics. The participants included some of the most experienced leaders in the meeting industry. Though we didn’t know what we might conclude, we had high hopes of finding some agreements and paths forward.

But, as you might suspect by now, the summit ended with many questions and fewer answers. We realized, for example, that we didn’t even share a common understanding of “engagement” — different sectors of the industry regarded and measured it in significantly different ways. Once again, we were just scratching the surface.

Complex problems

Why do we often underestimate the difficulties involved in solving problems? One human evolutionary advantage is our drive for sense-making. Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. This has led to our incredible ability to reshape the world.

But there are two dangers that arise from our drive to make sense. (Check out the link for more details.) One of them, retrospective coherence, makes us overestimate our ability to explain why things happen. The other, premature convergence, leads us to prematurely abandon uncovering relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas before we start formulating solutions.

Fixing Oregon’s food problems or forecasting the future of the meeting industry are examples of what are called complex problems in the Cynefin framework. Complex problems are those where we struggle to figure out what questions to ask and cannot accurately predict what the consequences of an action would be.

The meetings I design are especially well suited to exploring complex problems. But a few days of work, even by a community with significant expertise and experience, is rarely enough time to even define, let alone solve problems of this type.

The journey is the destination

So should we stop trying to explore and solve complex problems when we meet together?


For one thing, we often don’t know whether our problems are simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic until we explore them. Many participants’ questions uncovered during the events I design turn out to have simple or complicated answers that can be provided by the collective knowledge of the group.

scratching the surface
Simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains in the Cynefin framework.

Secondly, regardless of big picture outcomes, well-designed participant-driven and participation-rich meetings create a rich variety of valuable experiences for participants. Important connections get made or strengthened, useful resources are uncovered and shared, and future collaboration and action are sparked.

And finally, there is tremendous value in the discovery of the magnitude of complex problems per se. Gaining a more realistic perspective, however daunting, is useful and important. As my mentor Jerry Weinberg used to say, “It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the end of an illusion.”

Scratching the surface

Hopefully, you’ll agree with me at this point that scratching the surface, though less satisfactory than going deep, is not a waste of time. But it may still be a frustrating experience. Can we make it less painful?

I think so. When we start to work on a new problem, we don’t know in advance whether we’ll be scratching the surface or going deep. What we can change are our habitual expectations. Practicing risky learning makes dealing with feelings of failure easier. And becoming accustomed and willing to “lower our standards” also helps.

To conclude, I encourage you to always, at least, scratch the surface. Because sometimes you’ll find the gold underneath. And even if you don’t go deeper right away, you’ll have invariably experienced and learned something useful.

Photograph of my green fluorite crystal from the William Wise Mine in Westmoreland, NH
Image attribution: Cynefin illustration by Edwin Stoop (User:Marillion!!62) – [1], CC BY-SA 4.0

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