wicked problems

Wicked Problems
A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.
Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.
Most projects in organizations — and virtually all technology-related projects these days — are about wicked problems. Indeed, it is the social complexity of these problems, not their technical complexity, that overwhelms most current problem solving and project management approaches.
Some specific aspects of problem wickedness include:
  • Individuals don’t understand the problem until they have developed a solution. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of “The Problem.” The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Since there is no definitive “The Problem”, there is also no definitive “The Solution.” The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, simply “better,” “worse,” “good enough,” or “not good enough.”
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel. There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation,” every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, “One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.” This is the “Catch 22” about wicked problems: Individuals can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution they try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions. There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of.

 For a more detailed discussion of wicked problems, see Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, CogNexus Institute’s most downloaded white paper. Also, read the original and definitive paper on Wicked Problems by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

Problem wickedness demands tools and methods which create shared understanding and shared commitment. Following Horst Rittel’s analysis, we have developed “Dialogue Mapping”, based on Rittel’s Issue Based Information System (IBIS), which provides an elegant way of dealing with the fragmentation around a wicked problem.
Because the group or team’s understanding of the wicked problem is evolving, productive movement toward a solution requires powerful mechanisms for getting everyone on the same page. There will be volumes facts, data, studies and reports about a wicked problem, but the shared commitment needed to create durable solution will not live in information or knowledge. Understanding a wicked problem is about collectively making sense of the situation and coming to shared understanding about who wants what.
Dialogue Mapping™ is such a method, because it is an approach which is rooted in maximizing communication and coherence among diverse stakeholders. Dialogue Mapping™– the process of crafting IBIS maps interactively with a group — is not a process in the traditional sense: it is a structural augmentation of group communication. It provides a group with an enriched Dialogue environment which both DE-emphasizes personal dynamics (e.g. right/wrong or win/loose dynamics) and creates a coherent shared space for crafting and negotiating shared understanding.

Wicked problems thru open critical enquiry

Traditional inquiries seek to eliminate a paradox by narrowing the definition of an issue, re-stating the problem, or hoping it will go away,

Major social change spurred by technological change has led to unprecedented flows of people, information and resources impacting on global ecological systems. Unfortunately for all of us, these flows have produced a new class of sociology-environmental problem that challenges the very existence of the society that produced it.

Wicked problems that have arisen from the impacts of social-environmental change include community responses to environmental disaster and the clash between the social and biophysical sciences. In each of these examples, the source of the problem is also the basis for its resolution — an underlying paradox. Unfortunately, traditional inquiries seek to eliminate a paradox by narrowing the definition of an issue, re-stating the problem, or hoping it will go away.

Conversely, in an open critical inquiry, paradoxes provide a valued diagnostic for points at which current thinking is frozen. Whereas in traditional research, a paradox is treated as a pair of opposites, in an open inquiry, the pairs of opposites are treated as complementary, and provide a useful indicator of the heart of the issue.

The three foundational elements of an open critical enquiry are:

• multiple ethical positions;

• multiple world views; and

• multiple ways of constructing knowledge.

In the traditional mode of inquiry, the problem would be approached by selecting one world view and one construction of knowledge, and expecting the two to be logically consistent. For example, a socio-environmental issue would be divided into issues of society and environment; the ethical perspective would not usually be examined. In an open inquiry, a way must be found for all to be included — even if in practice, the three foundational elements are contradictory. For example, agreeing on the existence of climate change as a reality does not necessarily lead to a shared concern for the next generation, or to equal acceptance of the sources of information that led to the projection.

Shifting to an open critical inquiry entails a different construction of the task: • No longer is the inquiry regarded as the sole responsibility of one specialist discipline or profession; rather, it seeks evidence from all affected parties;

• The findings of the inquiry are not expected to be final, certain or complete;

• Rather than being treated as an error to be eliminated, any paradox that arises is welcomed as offering a potential solution; and

• Participants in such an inquiry include both researchers and the researched, since both groups are part of the problem and of its potential resolution.

Following are four steps for conducting an open critical inquiry.

STEP 1: Identify the range of world views that make up the context of the problem. When dealing with wicked problems, the world view of the interested parties might be of the planet as an inexhaustible source of resources, or as divided between Western wealth and Southern poverty, or as a set of technical or a set of social issues. They may have assumed that the state of the world will always be in a state of flux, and that our understanding of either the social or the physical environment will always be provisional and partial. On the other hand, the participants may consider that the research outcome should be certain and generalizable to other wicked problems. It is up to the transdisciplinary practitioner to make these positions transparent to each participant.

STEP 2: Select the knowledge traditions most likely to contribute to the review of a particular wicked problem, without being limited by any particular disciplinary perspective or the current conventional wisdom on the issue. In accepting the equivalence of the knowledge from all contributing parties, an open trans-disciplinary inquiry recognizes the validity of each construction of knowledge and its particular tests for truth. For example, if the context of a wicked problem is ‘the pursuit of an industrially-developed world’, the constituent epistemologies would be those of the differentially-developed North and South. If the context is ‘the current distribution of planetary resources’, the key knowledge’s would be social, economic and ecological management.

 STEP 3: Establish that there is a group of knowledge cultures that make up the suite of interests in social-environmental decision-making. Within each of the five ‘knowledge cultures’ described below, there are criteria for testing the validity of the evidence that that knowledge culture is prepared to accept. The trans disciplinary inquirer must therefore be familiar with those criteria or they run the risk of testing one knowledge culture’s contribution against another’s set of criteria; for instance, judging a holistic contribution by statistics, or a community contribution by the objectives of the lead industry of the area.

i.Individual knowledge Each individual mind is, by any definition, the primary site of the construction of knowledge, albeit mediated by the society in which it is developed .

 Michael Polanyi identifies the difference between individuals’ explicit and tacit knowledge’s. That is, what you know you know, and what you continually draw on without knowing that you know. Added to this is the important difference between ‘knowing that you don’t know’, and ‘not knowing that you don’t know’. In classical Science, these finer points are excluded from an inquiry. Only the individuals’ rational and externally-validated observations are considered to contribute to knowledge. Yet an individual’s reflection on their experiences is crucial to any understanding of the dynamics of change.

 ii.Community Knowledge A community’s knowledge is constructed through shared events, significant symbols, and above all, a shared local language.

 Anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes the knowledge of a local community as gained through “citizens not just using their eyes and ears, but using them collectively, judiciously and reflectively to understand their own locality”. Each community is different from all others, but linked to others in a network in their local region, across the nation and around the planet.

 iii.Specialized Knowledge

Each specialization – Medicine, Law, Ecology, Engineering, etc. — forms a distinct community of practice, with its own research models and paradigms.  The rigor and validity of a specialized inquiry rests on well-defined questions, critical doubt, empirical observations, and capacity to generalize the findings. The result will often be delivered in a specialized language that increases accuracy but reduces access to the findings by other forms of knowledge. With no built-in connection between the disciplinary paradigms, specialized knowledge can be represented as a disconnected ring of boxes.

This poses challenges for open trans-disciplinary inquiry, which aims to be both synoptic and synergistic.  A synoptic inquiry seeks to understand a whole through the insights of each of the component parts.  Examples are the synoptic weather chart and multidisciplinary inquiries. A synergistic inquiry seeks to establish a relationship between the parts capable of producing a fresh whole, one that none of the parts could have achieved alone.  Examples are the four chambers of the human heart that beat as one; and an open trans-disciplinary inquiry that resolves a wicked problem.

 iv.Organizational Knowledge

Generally speaking, government, industry and the major non-government agencies have  adopted a ‘managerial approach’, and as a result, all forms of organization tend to function under a similar framework of strategic decision-making that includes planning, designing, applying and reviewing. The language used refers to results, cost/benefits, objectives, timelines, inputs and outcomes, depending on the knowledge culture.

v.Holistic Knowledge 

Holistic knowledge is universally described as ‘an understanding of the whole’. One school of thought seeks to document the parts of the whole as units in a hard (technical) or a soft (social) system.  The findings of such an inquiry are represented as a grid, a hierarchy of detailed lists, or a flow chart.  The second interpretation of holistic, which is to seek to understand the whole through grasping its essence or core.  For example, holistic thinking has contributed to our understanding of Ecology through the creative coining of concepts such as biodiversity and ecological niche. The validity of the findings of a holistically-oriented inquiry rests on the extent to which it evokes a shared meaning among the participants and consumers of the research.

STEP 4: Establish a Collective Learning Cycle

The aim is to bring the participants in the wicked problem together so as to create a greater understanding of the whole while respecting the perspectives of the contributing knowledges.  A methodology is needed that can respect the contributions of each individual knowledge culture, while at the same time provide a body of expertise that brings them together synergistic.    such a methodology can be found in Weatherhead School of Management Professor David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model, which entails four steps: reflecting on principles; making concrete observations; generating new ideas; and testing the ideas in practice.  Over several decades, Kolb and his colleagues have confirmed the reliability of this cycle for adult learning in general.  Building on Kolb’s model,   ‘Social Learning Spiral can be developed that consists of four questions, to be asked in sequence:

1.What should be?  Reflecting on principles, generating ideals.

2.What is? Conducting concrete observations, generating facts.

3.What could be?  Thinking creatively, generating new ideas.

4.What can be?  Testing the ideas, generating effective practice.

The extent to which this process differs from the usual decision-making process cannot be over-estimated:  at each stage, the process of collective knowledge construction differs radically from the usual pursuit of one ‘right’ answer. Following are my suggestions for proceeding through the four questions.

1. WHAT SHOULD BE? Develop Principles. The first step involves bringing together the multiple world views of the different knowledge cultures of the participants, ideally drawn from all the cultures involved.   Their world views will be reflected in each of the participants’ ideals for the outcome of resolving the wicked problem.  Each participant’s ideals stand alone and are respected for their own sake.

2. WHAT IS? Describe Parameters.  The second step asks for the same group to identify the parameters that support and inhibit the attainment of their ideals.  All parameters are treated as legitimate, as in Step 1.  This supplies the ‘facts’ that define the inquiry and reflects each of the contributing knowledge cultures.

3: WHAT COULD BE? Design for Potential. The third step calls for the use of the imagination, as the process moves from the synoptic to the synergistic.   Optimum conditions for creativity such as trust, security and challenge are required to develop shared creativity.  Innovative, business not-as-usual ideas are sought, remembering that this issue is a wicked problem whose resolution will fall outside of the mainstream society that generated it.

4. WHAT CAN BE? Doing the Design. The fourth step is again a synergistic process. The energy generated in the design process is maintained in forming practical collaborations to put the ideas into action. Appreciative and illuminative evaluation methods monitor the plans, steps and outcomes of the collaborative action plans.

In closing

The collective learning process described in Step 4 applies each of the foundational principles of an open critical inquiry: the shared ethic is made clear in the focus question; different worldviews are respected and shared in stage one; multiple knowledges are reflected in the parameters of the wicked problem that the decision-making interests declare in stage two; the creative use of the imagination in stage three generates the creativity required for innovative solutions; and finally, the innovative solutions are put to the test by taking and reviewing action.

A note of caution: having completed an open enquiry, we are not finished. Remember, wicked problems have no ‘stopping rule’. The last stage of the cycle only serves to secure the collective learning to date and provides a launching pad for the next learning cycle.




Critical thinking – cognitive skills for next generation management

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills

Over two decades ago, the Secretary of Labor appointed a commission to determine the skills our young people would need to succeed in the working world. The commission’s fundamental purpose was to encourage a high-performance economy characterized by high-skill, high-wage employment. Although the commission completed its work in 1992, its findings and recommendations ring true in the new millennium.

The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report identified critical thinking skills as being essential for a high-performance workplace. The post identifies a three-part skills foundation: basic literacy and computational skills, the thinking skills necessary to put knowledge to work, and the personal qualities that make workers dedicated and trustworthy. This foundation in thinking skills includes creativity, decision making, problem solving, seeing things in the mind’s eye, knowing how-to-learn, and reasoning. Today’s work place puts a premium on reasoning skills and an ability and willingness to learn.”

The findings in the SCANS report have been reinforced in subsequent studies.  In 2009 the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report, The Intelligent Enterprise:  Creating a culture of speedy and efficient decision-making. The report states that “despite the wide recognition that accurate and timely decision-making is crucial, most firms’ ability to make good decisions needs improvement.”

The Conference Board identified two key skills needed by successful leaders in their report, Developing Business Leaders for 2010—analytical ability—especially the ability to sort through information sources and focus on the most relevant aspects—and the ability to make sound decisions in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty.

In September 2011, the Corporate Executive Board surveyed 5,000 workers, globally, and found a lack of analytical skills was “pervasive among both the general employees and among management.” Only 38% of the average workforce uses a balance of judgment and data in their decision making.

Critical Thinking Skills are Essential

Critical thinking skills can be defined as the ability to exercise sound reasoning and analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to resolve workplace issues.  They are essential for:

  1. Solving problems and making decisions. Rapid changes in the workplace require delegating decision making and problem solving farther and farther down the organization. Among today’s workers the critical thinking skills for analysis, problem solving, and teamwork are in high demand and short supply.
  2. Problem prevention. Preventing problems does not happen automatically. Identifying potential problems and planning preventive and contingent actions require good, solid analytical thinking.
  3. Effective teamwork. The benefits of teamwork are oft reported; but teamwork is not automatic. Teams experience growing pains and they take time to mature into productive units. Team members need critical thinking skills for communication, conflict resolution, decision making, problem solving, and self-management.
  4. Empowerment. Effective empowerment means providing the responsibilities and the skills for people to manage their own work and to do it effectively. To keep teams cohesive, a common language for solving problems and making decisions is needed.  These skills empower people to work together to solve problems, make better-balanced decisions, and manage business-critical projects.

The Challenge of the 21st Century

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that during the 2010-20 decade, over 54.8 million job openings are expected and more than half—61.6%—will come from the need to replace workers from the baby boom generation as they retire or otherwise permanently leave an occupation. A lack of critical thinking skills among new employees compounds the loss of institutional knowledge held by employees leaving the workplace.
  • As organizations become more global, the diversity of the workforce requires a common approach to resolving organizational issues that can surmount cultural and language barriers.
  • The information explosion continues to move at a rapid pace with no end in sight. This accelerates the rate that technical knowledge becomes obsolete while exponentially flooding our lives with data. As a result, the ability to organize and evaluate information with an analytic eye is increasingly important.

Putting the puzzle together

Rapid fire changes in the workplace mean increased responsibilities for many employees. These new responsibilities mean that analytical skills, driven by a process that is underpinned by logic and good questioning, are key to maintaining competitive advantage. Sharpening the thinking skills of workers and providing a context in which they want to and can succeed is a key to solving the 21st century challenge of staying competitive in environment of rapid change.

Research conducted in recent years by Pearson, as well as by a variety of independent academics, has shown that people who score well on critical
thinking assessment are also rated by their supervisors as having:
Because it is often difficult to discern such critical thinking skills through a resume or job interview, many organizations are turning to assessments
to help them evaluate candidates. One of the most widely used assessments in this area is the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, from Pearson TalentLens. The Watson-Glaser offers a hard-skills appraisal, and is suited for people in professional and managerial positions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, independent research has also found that the higher up the ladder a position is, the more essential critical thinking becomes. People who are successful in these positions tend to be able to learn quickly, process information accurately, and are able to apply it to decision-making. One of the most well-established research findings in
industrial psychology is that cognitive ability is directly related to performance in all jobs5.
Critical thinking, one type of cognitive ability, is of particular importance where sophisticated decision-making and judgment are required.
It is not uncommon for organizations to ignore such research findings when they are engaged in succession planning or top-level executive searches. Organizations often assume that everyone at the highest corporate levels is bright and a “good thinker,” so they don’t assess their candidates’ critical thinking capabilities. However, a 2009 study by Ones and Dilchert6 found that there is variability in critical thinking ability within groups of executives (as well as among supervisors and managers). Although executives generally did perform better on critical thinking tests when compared with other groups, there was a wide range of higher and lower scores.
Simply put, the research found that some top executives are better at critical thinking than others – and so are likely to be more successful. It is important to note that research has also found a positive correlation between certain personality characteristics and job success.
Consequently, organizations that include both critical thinking and personality in their battery of assessments tend to get a more comprehensive view of a candidate than do organizations that use either personality or critical thinking assessments alone.

fortunately, critical thinking can be taught. Pearson has developed the following RED Model – Recognize Assumptions, Evaluate Arguments,
Draw Conclusions – as a way to view and apply critical thinking principles when faced with a decision. This model is particularly helpful in critical-thinking training programs.
Recognize Assumptions.

This is the ability to separate fact from opinion. It is deceptively easy to listen to a comment or presentation and assume the information presented is true even though no evidence was given to back it up.
Perhaps the speaker is particularly credible or trustworthy, or the information makes sense or matches our own view. We just don’t question
it. Noticing and questioning assumptions helps to reveal information gaps or unfounded logic.
Taking it a step further, when we examine assumptions through the eyes of different people (e.g., the viewpoint of different stakeholders), the end result is a richer perspective on a topic.
Evaluate Arguments.

It is difficult to suspend judgment and systematically walk through various arguments and information with the impartiality of a Sherlock Holmes. The art of evaluating arguments entails analyzing information objectively and accurately, questioning the quality of supporting evidence, and understanding how emotion influences the situation. Common barriers include confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and agree with information that is consistent with you own point of view, or allowing emotions – yours or others – to get in the way of objective evaluation. People may quickly come to a conclusion simply to avoid conflict. Being able to remain objective and sort through the validity of different positions helps people draw more accurate conclusions.
Draw Conclusions.

People who possess this skill are able to bring diverse information together
to arrive at conclusions that logically follow from the available evidence, and they do not inappropriately generalize beyond the evidence.
Furthermore, they will change their position when the evidence warrants doing so. They are often characterized as having “good judgment” because they typically arrive at a quality decision.
Each of these critical thinking skills fits together in a process that is both fluid and sequential.
When presented with information, people typically alternate between recognizing assumptions and evaluating arguments. Critical thinking is sequential in that recognizing faulty assumptions or weak arguments improves the likelihood of reaching an appropriate conclusion. Although this process is fluid, it is helpful to focus on each of the RED skills individually when practicing skill development. With concentrated practice over time, typically several months, critical thinking skills can be significantly increased.