What is a Dilemma?

Communication is the tool we humans use to navigate our way through the world and particularly so when we choose to collaborate with each other. Collaboration is all about using our words and language to make sense of things. Indeed I think the essence of collaborating is taking the time to share our words with each other, check that we have understood what is being said and then jointly create language that expresses the newly achieved common ground.

One of the things I love about the Twyfords’ Power of Co framework is its relative simplicity of language and form. People easily grasp the five iterating steps and are comfortable with the terms used in the framework. There is one term we use however that I have noticed can make people pause, lead to wrinkling of brows, and on occasion prompt questions as to what it means. This term isdilemma.

We refer to this term in step two of the Power of Co framework that is all about co-defining the dilemma. This is the time you devote to really understanding the situation that has brought people together. There are three quotes of Albert Einstein that highlight the importance of this co-definition step:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solutions.”


“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


Einstein’s quotes describe a mindset that is conducive to collaboration. This mindset understands that the bulk of a collaborative process rests in understanding the diversity and fullness of a situation. It understands that we need to go slow to go fast. It understands that outcomes will only be found if we do things differently to the way we behaved at the outset.

When we participate in a collaborative process, we could use the term ‘problem’ instead of ‘dilemma’ and if you are applying the kind of mindset referred to in Einstein’s quotes, then this will work well. If however you find some slippage to a less collaborative mindset, one that is solution-hungry, then using the term ‘dilemma’ may be useful.

The Collins English dictionary defines ‘dilemma’ as –

1) a situation necessitating a choice between two equal alternatives

2) a problem that seems incapable of a solution

Collins goes on to define the horns of a dilemma as being faced with a choice between two alternatives that are equally undesirable.

Our use of the term ‘dilemma’ is more loosely applied to mean the situation of complexity being considered. We like the way the term ‘dilemma’ acknowledges that the situations are awkward, seem incapable of solutions and choices will need to be made.

We think it is useful that the term ‘dilemma’ is not commonly used. That pause you experience when you first hear the term might enable some thinking time. Perhaps it will help us experience the problems differently; as opportunities for a new approach, rather than things to be overcome. We might value them more as opportunities for challenge, encouraging us to learn, to grow and to innovate together.

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