Tame Problems and wicked problems

The clear definition of the problem also unveils the solution.
The solution is determined according to criteria revealing the degree of effect— goal is achieved fully or partially, outcome is true or false.

Systems are difficult to work with, and seeing things for what they are is an essential first step.  Horst Rittel in the late 1960s distinguished between “tame” and “wicked” problems.  This is not the distinction between easy and hard problems—many tame problems are very hard.  But wicked problems, while not evil, are tricky and malicious in ways that tame problems are not.  The unexpected consequences we’ve seen have been because systems problems are wicked.  We will understand systems better—and why they spawn unexpected consequences—if we understand a little more of the properties of wicked problems and approach them with appropriate respect.

wicked

Tame problems can be clearly stated, have a well-defined goal, and stay solved.  They work in a Newtonian, clockwork way.  The games of chess and go are tame.  Wicked problems have complex cause-and-effect relationships, human interaction, and inherently incomplete information.  They require compromises.

For example, mass transit is a wicked problem.  Everyone likes mass transit—unless it comes through their neighborhood, it consumes road lanes, or they have to pay for it.  The difference between something that works in the lab, on paper, or in one’s head versus something that works in the real world and is practical to real people is a characteristic only of wicked problems.

Tame and wicked problems differ in many ways.*  See if the traits of wicked problems as described below sound familiar, either with the examples mentioned here or with situations you have experienced yourself.

  • Problem Definition.  A tame problem can be clearly, unambiguously, and completely stated.  Math problems are tame.  By contrast, there is no absolute statement of a wicked problem.  To state a wicked problem means to also state its solution.  That is, the problem can’t be stated without a proposed solution in mind, and coming up with a new solution means seeing the problem in a new way.  Avoid locking in a problem definition too soon.
  • Goal.  A tame problem has a well-defined goal, such as the QED in a proof or the checkmate in chess.  With a wicked problem, you could keep iterating and refining your solution forever—or go back and consider other solutions.  After all, if a wicked problem is something you can’t define, how can you tell when it’s resolved?  You don’t stop because you’re done (you’ve reached the goal) but rather because of external constraints (you’ve run out of money, time, or patience, for example).  You must strive for an adequate solution, not a perfect one.
  • Solutions.  Solutions are unambiguously correct or incorrect with tame problems.  The solution to a wicked problem is not judged as correct or incorrect but somewhere in the range between good and bad.
  • Time.  The solution to a tame problem can be judged immediately (that is, there is no maturation time), and the problem stays solved.  Euclid’s geometry proofs are still valid today.  Evaluating the solution to a wicked problem takes time (because the results of implementing the solution take time to be appreciated) and is subjective.  Is that a good design?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Like the response to art, different people will have different answers, and the solution causes many side effects (unintended consequences), like medicine in the body.  Additionally, a “solved” wicked problem may not stay solved—wicked problems aren’t solved but are only addressed; they’re treated, not cured.  Your perception of how good the solution is may change over time.
  • Consequences.  Trial and error may be an inefficient approach with a tame problem, but it won’t cause any damage.  Implementing or publicizing a proposed solution doesn’t change the problem.  With a wicked problem, however, every implementation changes reality—it’s no longer the same problem after an attempted solution.  After a failed attempt, the solution you realize you should have tried may now not work.
  • Reapplying Past Solutions.  A class of tame problems can be solved with a single principle.  A general rule for finding a square root or applying the quadratic formula will work in all applicable cases.  By contrast, the solution to a wicked problem is unique.  We can learn from past successes, but an old solution applied unchanged to a new problem won’t produce the old result.  Many unexpected consequences arise when we rush to reapply (without customization) a particular solution we’ve seen before—there will likely be unseen differences between the old and new problems.
  • Problem Hierarchy.  A tame problem stands alone.  It is never a symptom of a larger problem, but a wicked problem always is.  For example, if the cost of something is too high, this can be a symptom of the higher-level problem that the company doesn’t have enough money.  Often, we can’t see the higher-level problem (“This new software is terrific!  I can’t imagine what could be better.”).

Critical problems require a different approach. Because these problems threaten the very survival of the organisation in the short term, decisive action is called for, and people are required to follow the call for action in a highly disciplined way. In the absence of time to do a detailed, objective analysis for cause, solutions may be adopted that are based on causes that are assumed to be valid. But a partially successful response is better than standing by idly as the organisation expires. A not-uncommon critical problem is a company running out of funds to support its continuing existence. With this type of problem a ‘leader’ takes charge, often using an authoritarian command and control style.

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.