2nd, 3rd, 4th… Order Problems

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains the problems (we call them second-, third-, and even fourth-order problems) that prevent people from successfully undertaking the actions needed to transform intractable conflicts. In addition to explaining what these problems are, we suggest some ideas for overcoming them.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1.  This is Guy Burgess. In the last post I introduced you to a pretty formidable list of actions (things that we would like to see done) in the broad context of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP). 

Slide 2.  In this post, I want to focus on the "second-order" problems that might arise and prevent us from actually doing those things. We also need to think about "third-order" problems that might arise to prevent us from fixing the second-order problems. There might even be fourth- order problems that we have to deal with. Or, put another way, this post is focused on the keys to making Massively Parallel Peacebuilding actually work. 

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Slide 3.  For example, we need to "Break the Cynicism Cap." We can't do any of this stuff as long as people persist in the notion that it's all hopeless and there is no alternative to destructive-conflict-as-usual and they might as well fight it out. Breaking through the cynicism cap requires giving people a sense that there really are better ways of doing things. This is a precondition for even the most rudimentary MPP-related efforts.

Slide 4.  Another big thing that we need to overcome is the "Free Rider Problem." The  conflict problem is a "we have met the enemy, and he is us" kind of problem. We all contribute to it, so we all need to do our part to help solve it.  It is very tempting, given the busy nature of our lives, to wait for Jane or Fred or whoever is down the street to do my job (as well as his or her job). So, we need to somehow cultivate a sense that we can't be free riders. If we're not part of the solution, we really are part of the problem. 

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Slide 5.  Another key to the success of all of this is that we need to quit "reinventing the wheel." Far too often, people get involved in a difficult conflict problem and they try to make things better with some sort of immediate, seat-of-the-pants, instinct-driven response. They don't take the time needed to find out what other people have learned (what sort of common mistakes people make and how to avoid those mistakes). We need to build on what's already been learned about effective conflict resolutiohn and peacebuilding, just as we built upon what's already been learned about building wheels and start working on the next step (the maglev train in the PowerPoint slide, for example). 

Slide 6.  Another key to the success of MPP is the ability to"take advantage of low-hanging fruit." There are some conflict problems that should be pretty easy to solve because they're easy things that could be done and the problems undermine the interests of all the parties. At the very least, we ought to be able to get agreement to fix that sort of thing.

Slide 7.  At the same time, we also need to tackle the tough problems. In this context, I've always liked to invoke the story of the guy who was looking for his lost keys under a streetlight. 
When a passerby came along to offer assistance,  he asked the guy, "What are you looking for?"  The response: "My keys." "Where did you drop them?" the passerby asked. "In that dark alley," the seeker responded. The passerby then asked, "Then why are you looking under the streetlight?" The answer: "Because the light is  better here." We look for solutions to conflict problems where it's easy, and we avoid the dark,hard places where the real solutions lie. So while we should focus on the low hanging fruit, we also need substantial numbers of people that focus on the tough and as yet unsolved problems.

Slide 8.  It is also important to focus on realistic and doable ideas." This is an important concept which comes out of the world of engineering and product development. It's long been recognized that it is important to have the design and production engineers in the same room. When you design a new product (like the spiffy motorcycle on the slide), you want to make sure that the design is something that you can actually build at a competitive price.  So when we think about how to design actions that might address MPP challenges, we need to focus on things that are doable and affordable. This will greatly increase our chances of being successful. 

Slide 9.  We also need to focus on the long-term as well as the short-term. Given the immediate stakes, people tend to become crisis-oriented in conflict situations. While it is very important to deal, as well as possible, with the immediate problem, it's also important to recognize that many conflict problems are so tough that they require a long-term effort to address.  I like to tell my students the story of first polio vaccine and how, as a child, I was terrified of polio. Then one magical day, I remember going to school and getting a sugar cube with the polio vaccine and that was the end of polio. Then I talk about Richard Nixon who declared "war on cancer" in the early 1970s, thinking that we could do to cancer what we did to polio. We are now more than four decades into the war on cancer and we are still a long way from a "cure." Still, we have made significant advances in basic science, applied science, and patient treatments. Victims of cancer now have much better prognosis than they did 35 years ago. We need to look at conflict as the same sort of long-term problem. Realistically, we have to be prepared for a decades-long effort. Still, if we keep working persistently on basic and applied research and the development of newer and better conflict-handling strategies we can expect, over time, for conflicts to get less destructive just as cancer is more survivable.

Slide 10.  Another key to making this all work is the cultivation of a Conflict Learning-Curve Accelerator." The usual way we learn about conflict doesn't get us, by the end of our natural working lifetime, to the point where we've learned enough to get much past most of the usual destructive conflict practices. What we need is new learning paradigm that will move people a lot more quickly up the learning curve. Right now, a lot of conflict topics are taboo to talk about in schools these days. We need to change that.  

Slide 11.  People also need to be learn a lot of the ideas that we are trying to highlight in the context of the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding project. In order to help people learn these skills, we (and other conflict trainers) need to focus on explaining key ideas using understandable (jargon-free) language and not in academic gibberish that only a very few people can understand. Explaining ideas in ways that are engaging and that everybody can understand is something that we are trying to do with the Beyond Intractability website, but we need many more efforts like this. Our effort is still nowhere near as good as we would like it to be and it won't reach enough people.  Over the longer term, there is a continuing need to translate the big ideas into ever-more compelling sets of learning materials--and we need to make them more interesting and engaging than the destructive propaganda that is being distributed on social media these days!

Slide 12.  Another key to making Massively Parallel Peacebuilding work is "practical theory." Kurt Lewin has, for years, been widely quoted as saying that "there is nothing so practical as a good theory" because theories can be widely and easily adapted to different situations.  A cookbook approach that specifies tightly defined, step-by-step directions just won't work for rapidly changing, complex problems. What will work, however, is to help people understand the broad, general principles implicit in 100+ actions that are at the core of MPP. Then they can pick and choose among those actions to find one that is most appropriate for their particularly situation.  Bottom line: we think this is a much more realistic way of learning about the complex array of dynamics that underlie conflict problems than are cook-book approaches. 

Slide 13.  It's also important to work within cultures and circles of trust.  As we work to help people move up the learning curve more rapidly, it's important this be done using materials in which different groups can have confidence. In other words, it's important that conflict learning materials come out of "communities of trust."  People cannot be expected to trust ideas that originate with their adversaries.  In this context, the image that I carry around in my head is based on a bridge-building metaphor. People who are trying to bridge a body of water may come from different sides. And, because of their differing skills, resources, cultural and historical background, they are likely to approach the task of bridge building in different ways. The PowerPoint slide illustrates this point with pictures of a number of different bridge building strategies (as well as boats to use as an alternative to bridges). Regardless of how you build the bridge, everything works if you can manage to meet in the middle in ways that link things together. 

Slide 14.  Another big problem has two facets: you have to simultaneously fight information friction, but at the same time, fight information overload." Information friction makes it hard to find out how people have previously "invented the wheel."  Without relatively easy access to the big ideas that have already been established and proven, people will be forced to try to reinvent the wheel. Obviously, this can slow progress pretty dramatically. So we need more efficient ways of sharing the field's insights. 

Again, the Beyond Intractability website is a far-from-perfect effort to match people who need ideas with the ideas that users are likely to find most useful. One of the continuing criticisms of the website is that we haven't managed to do this effectively. (We are trying though, and donations could help us continue to work on all of this.)  

The flip side of information friction is information overload – this is the "drinking from a fire hose" problem where you flood people with so much information that they cannot make sense of it. That's something that, I'm afraid, we are still a bit guilty of (though we continue to try to find ways to limit this problem).  This also illustrates how these second and third-order problems are, in many ways, just as difficult as the first-order problems and it's just as important that we solve them. 

Slide 15.  If we are going to move people up the learning curve, it is important that we find ways to harness all learning institutions.  There are lots of different ways in which society can disseminate information. There are obviously universities, training organizations, informal idea-sharing networks, and popular self-help media.  

We (the Burgesses) are, obviously, most focused on the Internet. The reason that we have devoted our career to trying to put as much information as possible on the web is it has a number of key features that other learning institutions have trouble matching. First, it's possible to provide an astonishing amount of material for free or virtually free.  If you're clever in the design of your systems (and we are not yet as clever as we would like to be), Internet-based information systems can be customized  to the needs of individual users. You can provide people with mini-lessons focused on exactly what they care about that are accessible almost anytime and anywhere. With today's powerful multimedia web, you can do things with web-based learning materials which can't really do any other way. That's what we are trying to do. Still, there is a need to integrate what we are doing into more traditional learning institutions.

Slide 16.  Yet another key thing to the success of MPP efforts is the ability to continually update conflict actors with the information they need to know in order to engage constructively. In the PowerPoint slide, you can think of conflict as loosely defined space. People get fired up and angry about an issue and become involved, even though they may not yet know much about it. At the same time, others get burned out and move on to other things. In order to prevent "newcomers" from repeating the same old mistakes, and in order to enable them to take advantage of past progress, systems are needed that take the knowledge from people who are leaving a conflict arena and cycle it back around to people who are just starting to enter it. Hopefully, they won't repeat the same mistakes and and they will be able to take advantage of hard-learned lessons.

Slide 17.  Another key to MPP's success is the ability to preach to more than the choir." I think the field spends far too much of its energy conducting workshops and programs that are directed at people who are already in agreement on 99% of what a program like Massively Parallel Peacebuilding might offer. We need to find ways to talk to (and, especially, address the often- legitimate concerns of those who are skeptical of MPP's potential). This, we believe, would help assure the continuing improvement of the ideas underlying MPP.

Slide 18.  Finally, we need to persistently pursue opportunities to promote more constructive conflict. One of the more dispiriting thoughts that one gets from working with all of this is the realization that, right now, the "market share" for constructive conflict interactions is way, way too small. In fact, I'm probably being too generous in illustrating this on the slide. It might seem like there is no hope of getting enough people to change the way in which they behave in conflict situations enough to transform things from its current destructive state. But, as Bill Ury observed years ago in one of our seminars, it is important to develop contingency plans and keep them "on the shelf" until the opportunity arises to implement them. 

To a significant degree, what we are trying to do with Massively Parallel Peacebuilding is to lay out a set of ideas and disseminate those ideas as widely as possible to what will, inevitably, be a group of people who are largely in agreement with us. While the ideas may not make much of an impact for a while, sooner or later the terrible costs associated with the destructive way in which we now handle conflict will become widely apparent. Hopefully, this will not require too tragic a series of events. Still, great tragedies do produce opportunities for change. It's no accident, for example, that the United Nations came out of the tragedy of World War II. When there is such a event, people are likely to become very interested in alternatives. If the set of materials presented here are widely and readily available at such a time, it's quite possible that we will see a very quick change in the way people think about and act with respect to intractable conflict. Certainly, the destructive conflict interactions that we are now seeing are getting sufficiently extreme that the legitimacy of that way of thinking about conflict is teetering on collapse. We need to be ready for that, when and if it happens. So, that's my most hopeful thought of where this might go in what is, admittedly, a pretty depressing environment. 

Referenced Resources:

Slide 12: Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Lewin.

Picture Credits:

Slide 4: Cable Car – Source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/886545; Permission:  CC0 Public Domain

Slide 5: Wheel – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/conskeptical/191048988; By: Crispin Semmens; Permission: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Maglev Train – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_maglev_train_coming_out,_Pudon... By:  Alex Needham; Permission:  Alex Needham

Slide 6: Fruit Tree – Source: https://www.maxpixel.net/Citrus-Fruits-Orange-Tree-Oranges-Tree-Fruits-1... By: CC0 Public Domain

Slide 7:  Street Light – Source: http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/494345/save-the-sea-turtl... By: Melissa B. White; Permission: US Government Photo/Public Domain. Car Keys – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/car-key-keys-car-automobile-lock-842107/; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 8: Electric Vehicle – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_C1_Electric_Vehicle_by_Lit_M...(2).jpg; By: Intel Free Press; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Assembly line – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BMW_Leipzig_MEDIA_050719_Downloa... By: BMW Werk Leipzig; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany

Slide 9: Source: .  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Cancer.   Polio Vaccine – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wellcome_polio_vaccine_Wellcome_... By: Wellcome Images; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Slide 11: Fake Journal Article – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SCIgen_sample_page_1.png#/media/File:... By: Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 

Slide 12:  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Lewin. Cookbook – Source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/771499; Permission:  CC0 Public Domain

Slide 13: 

Slide 14: Firehose – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imag... By: Kevin Hastings/U.S. Navy; Permission: Public Domain.  Laptop – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/apple-macintosh-book-power-mac-30310/; By: Clker-Free-Vector-Images; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 15: Teacher Icon – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/teacher-students-schoolboys-pupils-158711/; By: OpenClipart Vectors; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Slide 16: Silhouette Icons – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toilets_unisex.svg; By: AIGA; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 17: Choir – Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Choir_CC-1.jpg; By: MoTabChoir01; Permission: Public domain