Newspaper Column #13: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part V

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on Sunday Jan 20, 2013 edition.

Change Happens at the Speed of Thinking about the Whole Rather than of Our Individual Parts

How did “Uncle solve the problem”?  Ignoring is not solving.

Should we see a fire at the corner of our house, caused say, by dry leaves, we know what to do.

We would find ways to put it out by cutting off the supply of oxygen that feeds the fire.  We can do that because our effort to correct it, i.e. beating it down with sticks, or throwing sand or water on it can be greater than the effort by the fuel that feeds the fire.  It is easy said and done.

But imagine this, if the fire is caused by a gas pipe from afar that is growing steadily in size and supplies fuel at a rate faster than the effort we can make to put it out.  Dousing it even with foam by fire engines, will not make much difference.  And, to make matters worse, we can’t see the pipe.  This is now easier said than done.

The thinking that says, “Put out the fire” stops working here.  It even becomes life threatening.

The thinking that says, “What is causing the fire?”, and deal with the cause, now becomes relevant to change.  Even lifesaving.


Many persistent issues of the day are like the second type of fire.  There are things happening, beyond what we can see (the obvious fire) that keeps ‘feeding the  issue’.  These keep bringing the problem back, stronger each time.

I find one murderer or rapist or fraudster or thief and put him behind bars.  That does not mean that another is not ‘being created’ somewhere else.

Any police (as well as military and judiciary) organizations in the world have not only existed but grown as much as they have today, because we have not asked the question, “What is causing the fire?”  At least not yet.

We had been with the question, “How do we put out the fire that we can see?”  It is a necessary correction but not a solution.  We would need to expect the problem to return despite our efforts.

There are tons more in every nation:  water shortages, health concerns, industrial growth, unemployment, destitution, labour conflicts, economic diversification (or its lack of), wildlife diseases, poaching, land use conflicts, food security, pollution, divorces, work productivity, HIV/AIDs epidemics, floods, droughts, debts, household income levels, crop production, just to name a few are examples of persistent issues.  These are issues political parties everywhere find ways to pick bones with each other and feed off its fire.

The story of the mother-in-law (MIL) and daughter-in-law (DIL) (The full ‘Healing Poison’ story first appeared in the column on Jan 13, 2013), is a classic example of the second kind of fire.

We find the story of MIL-DIL resonate the world over.  They do not share the same MIL or DIL, but they share the same story.   They do not enjoy a relationship the way they do with their own mothers or daughters which typically grows better over time.  In some societies, they may even go so far as to kill off each other.  Literally.  In others, we avoid this phenomenon altogether by choosing not to marry at all.

But choosing to ignore it (e.g. staying apart), does not mean the problem is solved.  It may  postpone it by “sweeping it under the carpet”.  But that does not mean the problem is gone.  Should we “lift the carpet”, the problem is still there.  Just out of sight.  For now.

In the story, we know the uncle solved the problem.  Quietly but surely.  What would you say he did to keep it solved?  Last week we explored the metaphor of the boiled frog and we said,

“For frogs to be boiled, the frogs must not know they are being boiled.

For change to happen (completely), change must not know it is happening.”

So, the uncle, boiled “the frogs” between MIL and DIL.  What would you say he was boiling?  Did you say their attitudes?  Yes, you are right!

How did he do that?  Remember, he was not even ‘at the scene of the crime’?  How did he manage to change their attitudes, without managing (think performance management, coaching, mentoring, etc.) their performance?

And I mentioned there were ten things that happened in the story between MIL and DIL  In this edition we will explore a few of them.  What were they?

No judgment

Most uncles, should the DIL complain to him about MIL, would either take things in his hand and set up a terse meeting with the MIL or take the DIL to task and say, that’s not how a DIL should behave and then set the rules.

How about this uncle?  He says, “You want to kill MIL?  Wait here, we will do it together!”

Should he have judged the DIL, it would have been quite easy for the DIL to say, “Wrong uncle!  Go need to find the right one.”

What allowed him not to judge either side?  Notice he paid less attention to what they said or did but rather to look for the vicious cycle that has now taken over and is ruling their lives viciously.  He needed to find a way to ‘heal the circle of causality’ and turn it around.  When the cycle turns around (cycles are both good and bad news), the events go away themselves.   That’s the healing in the “Healing Poison” story.

Start small

Notice he created steps not to ‘jerk’ the system for a quick correction.  Cycles do not respond to such corrections.  Events may.  But not cycles.  Should he have called for an urgent meeting, ‘the frogs would have jumped out’.  They would have either absconded the meeting or appears and agrees but does not carry out the actions (it is the same as absconding) to full.

He needed to boil their attitudes to change.  To do so, he had to start small.  How small was it?  As small as a smile.  The longer the cycle had been running, the smaller the action needs to be, to reverse the effects of the cycle.  That’s the nature of causality.

Work smart with delays

The uncle devised a way for the DIL to continue with the act of smiling.  To do so, he tricked her into believing that if she did not do carry out the act for six months, or tried to change things too quickly, somebody might suspect it is her.

Why?  This is to allow, the timed needed for changes in the story to lead on in ways that give the people the choice to make their own change, as a result of changes that are happening to them by their realities.

Of course, the change between MIL and DIL will happen even faster when the two can see the circular causality that is causing them to run in circles.  Just as the uncle could “see it”.  Change will then happen in a snap!  That’s how fast change can really be.  But till we see the cycle, the change has not changed yet.

What do you think are the remaining seven things that happened in the story?

Next week, we open a brand new subject and deepen these lessons in turn.  We will explore HIV/AIDs and what causes its viral nature regardless of anywhere in the world, be it India, China, Europe, America or here in Africa.

Meanwhile, google its behaviour of growth over time.  Go back to the 1980s.  What do you notice?  Has it been stubborn?  “What is causing the fire?”  What does the gas pipe look like?  And we know, it is not the truck drivers.  Yet they do make an interesting metaphor for the cause.  Smile.

Wishing you a great week ahead of discovery and learning.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, from Singapore works as a national Strategy Development Consultant working with national planning commissions.  She welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to

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