Wicked problems

Developing great organisations ...
 ... in a sea of change

Wicked problems

In recent years, a new type of business challenge has been identified, arising from research into the nature of social problems, and the implications of the characteristics of this type of problem for how they should be tackled.  They became known as wicked problems’.  Here is a brief overview:

There are three types of problems that managements face - tame, critical, and wicked.  The ‘real world’ frequency with which these different types occur is suggested by the size of the circles in the diagram.

  • Tame problems are where the causes of the problem are known.  Experience is a good guide here, and the problems can be tackled by applying known processes through conventional plans and projects.  A typical tame problem would be a quality standard drifting outside control limits.
  • 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 assumptions about causes.  But a partially successful response is better than standing by idly as the organisation expires - ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ springs to mind.
  • Wicked problems are different again.  They involve complex, messy and often intractable challenges, which can probably only rarely be totally eliminated.  There are no known solutions, partly because there are no simple, linear causes – the actual causes are themselves complex, ambiguous and often interconnected – multiple causes and causal chains abound.  Similarly, multiple, partial solutions are the order of the day – the aim is always to take bite-sized chunks out of the wicked problem, so that its magnitude or severity is reduced.

Here are some examples of typical wicked problems that managements face:

    Achieving sales while complying with regulations

    Developing sustainable competitive advantage when money is in short supply

    The ‘sick organisation’ syndrome - low performance, disengaged people and dysfunctional silos

    Reducing crime

    Losing too many good people

    Managing complex supply chains

    Mergers and acquisitions - ours and others

    Major changes, including in regulations

    Disruptive changes in markets such a new technology

    Here are some of the characteristics of wicked problems.  They:

  • Need clumsy solutions – call for the bricoleurs!
  • Need high levels of connectivity - within and between organisations.  It is the sharing of knowledge and skills across functional boundaries that enables the development of novel solutions and new knowledge-creation.
  • Need positive deviance & constructive dissent - this is where people move away from the conventional wisdom, and challenge existing policies and practices, with suggestions for new practices.
  • Are essentially unique and novel, which means that the problem is not fully understood until a solution has been developed and applied.  Analysis of the results achieved drives more learning.
  • Are ‘one-shot-operations’.  The solution applied is rarely, if ever, repeatable.  Applying the solution changes the original problem, and this requires new analysis and the development of a new solution.
  • Can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.  Often this arises because an earlier wicked problem was treated as if it was tame and, therefore, only temporarily suppressed.  Sadly, either the original wicked problem rears its ugly head again, or appears in a new, often worse form.
  • Have no stopping rule.  Since they cannot be totally eliminated, there is no point in time where the problem can be written-off as finally resolved.
  • Have solutions that are neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’, but are just ‘better’ or ‘worse’.  Partial success is the best that can be hoped for, in the case of each intervention, and over time.
  • Have no ‘given’ solutions – there is no best practice.  It is not possible to transfer a successful solution from one place to another.  It is, however, possible to transfer the method that was used to develop a successful, partial solution.

In passing, note the emphasis, explicit or implicit, on learning that is both iterative and ongoing.

Wicked problems, change and control

When the concept of wicked problems is combined with insights about change and control, the very real challenge for leaders becomes clear.

Changes occur over three time frames – short, medium and long term.  These are sometimes known as closed change (about knowing;analysis), contained change (about probability;prediction) and open change (about intuition:experiment).  Each requires a different type of control approach.  Control by variance works for closed change; control by grand design is OK for contained change; but the only approach that makes sense for open change is control by trial-and-error.  These different types of change are applied to past, present and future change, producing a nine-cell table or matrix.

If we then add in the three different types of problem (if there was such a thing as three-dimensional paper to draw on!), it would be possible to turn the three-by-three change and control matrix (with nine cells) into a three-by-three-by-three box (with 27 cells). The same sort of structures with respect to control mechanisms apply, but with a difference.  Mostly (but not always) tame problems are short-term challenges, which means that control by variance can safely be applied.  But there are exceptions.  Mostly (again but not always) critical problems are ‘here and now’ challenges, otherwise they could not reasonably be classified as critical - so again, control by variance is probably just fine.

But when dealing with wicked problems, there is no short-term; there are no certainties.  Prediction may work, up to a degree, but the very nature of the sort of multiple, partial solutions that are needed dictates a move away from control by variance to control by grand design, and (predictably!) into control by trial-and-error.  Unfortunately, it is common for management to rely excessively on short-term, control by variance models.  In the real world of wicked problems, the need for working with probability and prediction, and ultimately trial-and-error, leads to what has been tagged ‘the illusion of control’.  On the surface - the illusion - it appears that it is the numbers that drive everything, and that things are as the numbers suggest.  Under the surface - the reality - there are chaotic systems operating, with people trying to create order by solving real-world, wicked problems.

So, this produces a recipe for extreme tension in managers trying to live with the 27 cell box.  They are already living with complexity now coupled with ambiguity, and here comes a short-term numbers-driven manager who only uses control by variance.  Time for a different style of leadership and a new approach to resolving wicked problems!

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