Complex Problem Solving

Larry Susskind

Co-Director of the Public Disputes Program, Inter-University Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: It must be a lot more complicated on the ground. I mean, I don't know if we can talk about this, I can erase this later if you like but in terms of the Mexico City contamination thing, I mean that is just such a huge, I am sure you have dealt with a lot of huge things but you know the idea in my mind in dealing with Mexican bureaucracy companies etcetera in a structure whose regulation is pretty loose. This must be incredibly different from the neatness of the conversation were having. How do you deal with the sloppiness the reality of it?

A: There's nothing so practical as a good theory. The way we intervene in Mexico can be explained in simple declarative sentences. Anybody can check to see that we always do the same thing and the way we cope with the complexity, and the messiness, and the confusion, and the difficulty is by adhering rigidly to these absolutely crucial key elements of the process. When the convenor says, "Well, we don't have time for you to really do that many interviews and really want to get started with the mediation," we say, "Then get somebody else." We can only proceed if there's a credible, legitimate, written assessment that anybody will be able to pick up and say, "Well that made sense for the why they went forward and why they chose those parties and scope the issue that way" and we say, "Go slow to go fast." If some convener says, "I want to skip over this and in real life we go right to this and we can't get two contracts, one for assessment and one for mediation, we just give you the contract for mediation and if you say 'this is the organizational part,' that's fine." We respond, "No, we mean it. Get somebody else, we don't do that. We don't short change assessment." They might say, "Don't you want this work?" and we say, "Only if these conditions can be met."

Once people think they know about this, and they understand it and want it, then they just want to get going, and we have to hold them back. First, we can't get them to go forward; then, we have to hold them back to make sure that the assessment is done right, so that we can increase the odds that the thing is going to be successful.

So I mean either you believe in the procedure that you use or not. If you do however, I agree with you there is messiness out there in the world, there's gaps, there's pressure, there's misconceptions, there's people pulling their strings for their own ulterior motives, all that's going on. The only way to survive is to hold tight to what you believe is the right way to do it meaning that you have a theory of what you're about. So as messy as things get and I can tell you boy they do get messy, the messier they are, the harder I push on the key principles that guide what I do.