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The dilemma framework enables the group to shift their orientation from either/or thinking (which won’t work in the given situation) to both/and (which can work) and use Dilemma Resolution Thinking and Generative Thinking to produce new options for action which integrate the two apparently conflicting values in innovative ways.

When to Use?

This method is especially useful for projects requiring a need for transformative innovation. In trying to make progress, especially on an innovation or change project, we often encounter pairs of conflicting values and demands. These can appear as tensions, polarities and even conflicts. Sometimes these are options and we can make a choice but sometimes they are both essential for success even though they are mutually exclusive or incompatible. This can become stuck in conflict. The dilemma method is a way to re-frame the conflict and tension into a process of learning and discovery that can take you beyond the impasse.

NOTE: As well as application in general situations, this has a specific use in Three Horizons (see Three Horizon Mapping Guide ) to frame H2 as a dilemma between H1 and H3 in order to construct possibilities for H2+ innovations, and in conjunction with Navigational Scenarios to support a continuous action-learning cycle in the face of uncertainty as the project moves into H3.

Set Up

  • One flip chart stand, and wall space for two flip charts fixed side by side
  • Three colours of sticky hexagons
  • Participants seated in U facing work area – not table or other obstruction to everyone standing in front of the visual work area


The simplest way to work with dilemma resolution is to use the representation of the dilemma as a space created by putting the two conflicting or contrasting values on the orthoganal lines instead of thinking of them as polar opposites. The diagram then provides a way of framing the results of the process.

In the diagram, the vertical axis respresents the more fixed values of the dilemma (hence the rock symbol). The horizontal axis represents the more fluid values of the dilemma (hence the whirlpool symbol). A good outcome needs both values to be fully expressed in the resolution. The pathway to resolution is represented by the diagonal wavy line. The line is wavy because the process is dynamic and needs to be constantly adjusted from feedback. This feedback needs to tell us whether we are heading too strongly towards rigidity or too strongly towards vagueness. The pathway needs to avoid taking the ‘easy way out’ of compromise; it needs to navigate through the tensions of the conflct zone; it needs to generate self-organising guidance into the resolution zone; and it needs to arrive a shared vision of a transformed situation.


The main steps in facilitating a dilemma resolution exercise are shown below. Although they are presented in a sequence through time they also should be viewed as a whole in that the steps are hihgly interdependent. In a complex task it may be necessry to reiterate steps. For example, it can happen that half way through an exercise a clearer dilemma is recognised that is better to work with than the initial one. Facilitating a powerful dilemma resolution requires you to “ride the bull without falling off”.

Step 0. Scope the challenge

  • Scope the dilemma discussion according to the context of the task. Use a trigger question appropriate to the scope and process context: “In moving towards our transformative goal, what are we experiencing as the main tensions between opposing forces, needs and values?” List the answers in two columns on a flip chart without processing them.
  • Take each answer and through discussion restate it as a pair of seemingly incompatible factors, a polarity, as currently experienced. Do not get into problem solving at this stage. Write each side of the polarity on a hexagon and place on either side of a double head arrow on a flip chart. Note: as far as possible the two factors should NOT be opposite ends of a scale but opposing factors
  • NOTE: In the context of three horizons there is a special scoping method for setting up and developing H2+ innovation opportunities. (coming soon)

Step 1. Construct the dilemma

  • On two flip charts side by side label one Rock and other Whirlpool. Through discussion invite choice of the most dominant ‘hard’ issue. Develop an understanding of it as a dilemma ‘rock’ quality, write it on a hexagon, and place it on rock flip chart. Take the dominant ‘soft’ issue(can be from a different polarity, but make sure it is in opposition to the chosen hard issue), develop it as a ‘whirlpool’ quality and place on the flipchart. Build up a Rock and Whirlpool cluster by taking hexagons one at time from the polarities, restating as qualities as needed, and placing them next to the appropriate ones by discussion.
  • Create short summary description for the Rock and Whirlpool completed clusters as a quality that needs to be respected in navigating to the future. Ensure these are as contrasting as possible.
  • Draw up the dilemma space axes.
  • Write up the rock and whirlpool issues on their respective axes.

Step 2. Clarify the compromise and conflict zones

The Compromise Zone

  • Put the questions: How do we try to avoid the tension by avoiding the issues? What do we pretend that we have reached as a resolution when it is evident that it cannot endure? (Sweeping under the carpet; avoiding discomfort)
  • Collect post-its on some of the typical compromises that sweep the tension between rock and whirlpool values under the carpet and place them in the compromise zone.
  • Create a brief summary statement: The tempting compromise we must avoid is ……………

The Conflict Zone

  • Put the questions: What are the obvious points of conflict or tension in the situation? Where is most pain in the dilemma being felt? (facing the realities; riding the bull)
  • Collect post-its on how the tensions between the rock and whirlpool values can break out into conflict, and place these in the conflict zone.
  • Create a brief summary statement: The difficulty we must endure in order to emerge into positive resolution is …………….

Step 3. Express the desirables

  • Place a blank flip chart between the rock and whirlpool charts, and divide between top and bottom to capture rock and whirlpool desirables.
  • Put the question: From the rock value perspective what is most desirable in an ideal resolution of this dilemma?
  • Put the question: From the whirlpool value perspective what is most desirable in an ideal resolution of this dilemma?
  • Capture these two contrasting desires in the central areas.


Step 4. Make offers and requests

  • Set up a 2×2 frame on two flip charts as shown on the diagram above.
  • Put these questions to the group:
    • From the rock position what is ideally required from the whirlpool?
    • From the whirlpool position what is ideally required from the rock?

    In the spirit of creative resolution:

    • What is rock willing to offer whirlpool?
    • What is whirlpool willing to offer rock?

    Capture in the appropriate boxes.

Step 5. Review the resolution idea

Share reflections on how you think this idea will transcend the conflict zone and suggest a way of navigating the dilemma into the future. You can consider its strengths, its weaknesses and what feels creative or unusual about it.

  • Is it weighted too heavily towards the rock value and therefore top‐heavy? → Dinosaur Trap
  • Is it weighted too heavily towards the whirlpool value and therefore lop‐sided? → Unicorn Trap
  • Are you still going to end up heavily in the conflict zone? → Push-me‐pull-you Trap
  • Have you avoided really confronting the issue and come with a wishy-washy compromise? → Ostrich Trap
  • If you feel you have the basis for a transformative resolution you are flying free → Flight of the Eagle

You can repeat this with other ideas from Step 3 to find the best one.

Why this is an improvement

The process allows the people in the room to move from polarised opposition into a generative dialogue. The process respects the importance of opposing values and allows them both to contribute into a collective enquiry into creative opportunities.

The process exposes that there are four failure modes in the situation and only one success mode, making visible that if one party sticks to their own position nobody will get a solution.


  • A well-stated dilemma is the easiest to work with, take time to get it really clear and simple in the initial steps. It is important to make clear the distinction between a tension arisng from there being different options and tension between clashing but equally necessary values.
  • Putting the dilemma on axes causes a mild cognitive shock if done without preparation. The important step is the switch from either/or to both/and thinking. It is worth spending few minutes explaining what is happening to give people time to respond to it and start thinking in this new space. The easiest way is to introduce the idea of dilemma before starting on this method, illustrating it with something from everyday experience that will be familiar to them (e.g. in democratic societies we often find there is a dilemma between civil liberties and security).
  • Many dilemmas arise between people and so a ‘rock’ camp emerges with a ‘whirlpool’ camp. The group dynamics tend to develop in a conflict resolution mode. However, in a dilemma we are not seeking compromise (one of the ways to fail) but a transformative innovation
  • A significant group of people will find great difficulty in looking at the peaks of the horns of the dilemma rather than the wildest implications especially where they are personally involved in one or other of the situations. They have to be helped to break down the situation and look at bits. Making a list of the parts and then ranking them in terms of their strength o effect in that area helps the individual to let go of the least important parts without having to let go of the whole.
  • Generative Thinking (1+1=3) is a challenge but it can also be exciting and fun. Try and keep the mood upbeat and ready to have a go without falling into hasty judgement. In creative thinking we often need to create ‘stepping stones’ on the way to our destination.

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