addressing wicked problems

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, and author of the popular book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, has recently published a new book — Noise: A flaw in human judgment.

Noise in general is unwanted variability. That is, when there is a judgment or a measurement or a decision, and there is variability, and the variability can be across occasions. When the same person judges the same object many times and reaches different conclusions, that’s one kind of noise. And the other kind of noise is what we call system noise. So we have the judicial system, and it passes sentences on defendants and criminals. And you want it to function so that the same crime should be punished the same way by different judges and not be affected. And it’s not, it’s affected by the judge’s tastes, by the judge’s ideological position, by the weather. —NYT 2021-05-17

I came across an interesting counter perspective from Ed Morrison, author of Strategic Doing.

[Kahneman’s] thesis applies to a relatively narrow range of human challenges …”those situations where you want people to think alike.” That’s where noise is a problem.

These are technical (or ‘tame’) problems with a clear or preferred answer. When humans in a system approach a technical problem and generate different results, they generate ‘noise’.

But many challenges humans face are adaptive problems. They require us to address complex, intersecting social, economic and technical (and often hidden) systems. These problems are ‘wicked’. They have multiple potential, indeterminate solutions.

Examples: reducing teenage homicides, opioid addiction, or climate change.

Alford and Head, two Australian scholars, provide a useful way to think about wicked problems. Two dimensions of complexity are important. First, the underlying problem is complex with many causes. Second, developing solutions requires complex collaborations. (Our work in Strategic Doing is situated in the grey area in the upper right.)

Wicked problems invite us to assemble cognitively diverse teams. Why? Integrating differing viewpoints improves the richness of our insights. We don’t want people thinking alike.

That’s group think, a potential disaster. —Ed Morrison (LinkedIn Comment)

Here is the 2017 research paper by Alford & Head — Wicked and less wicked problems: a typology and a contingency framework.

This paper addresses shortcomings in the scholarship about ‘wicked problems’, and suggests ways of tackling them. Firstly, accounts of these problems tend to ‘totalise’, regarding them as intractable masses of complexity, so conflict-prone and/or intractable that they defy definition and solution. By contrast, we put forward a more nuanced analysis, arguing that complex problems vary in the extent of their wickedness, via such dimensions as their cognitive complexity or the diversity and irreconcilability of the actors or institutions involved. We propose a typology of different forms of wicked problems. A second shortcoming, linked to intractability, is that the favoured means of tackling wicked problems has tended towards ‘one best way’ approaches, most commonly collaboration with key stakeholders. Moreover, particular forms of collaboration tend to be routinely applied in ‘one-size-fits-all’ fashion to a variety of situations – notably with a plethora of actors, and a focus on governance rather than implementation management. We put forward a contingency framework, based on our typology, proposing which types of collaboration are suitable for which types of problem. Finally, we argue for a more realistic standard of success in dealing with wicked problems, especially the most difficult ones. To call for the ‘solving’ of these problems is to set up a standard which is not only impossible but also perhaps unnecessary. We argue that we do not so much ‘solve’ wicked problems as make progress towards improvement or towards better managing them. We spell out a more realistic version of ‘progress’.

The authors produced a framework according to the degree of complexity and the willingness of participants to cooperate.

wicked problem 9 box framewor

Alternative types of complex problems

Ed Morrison works in the top right four squares, where progress is rather difficult as collaboration is complex and the solutions are also complex — complex problems, politically turbulent problems, conceptually contentious problems, and very wicked problems.

For complex and conceptually contentious problems I would suggest basing any approach on Strategic Doing as well as the Cynefin framework, using a Probe>Sense>Respond approach. Cynefin gives us a template to understand ‘desirable patterns’, recognize ‘undesirable patterns,’ and provide a variety of ‘seeds’ for the complexity of the problem environment. Finding a solution that involves conflicting values and interests needs to allow for emergence. One aspect of complex environments, according to the Cynefin framework, is that, “Cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect and do not repeat.”

cynefin martin berg

Image: Martin Berg

For politically turbulent and wicked problems, one approach I know of that starts from the basis that people do not trust each other is collaborating with the enemy. Adam Kahane’s framework is relatively simple to understand.

When two or more parties get together to address a problematic situation, they ask themselves a series of questions to understand their options. First they determine if they can change the situation. If so, can they effect change unilaterally, in which case they can force their solution.

If they cannot change the situation, then they have two unilateral decisions possible — adapt to what has been forced on them, or exit the situation if possible.

If they can change the situation but cannot effect change unilaterally, then it is possible that conventional collaboration can work, but only if the change can be controlled.

In the case where the situation is complex and cannot be controlled (which is pretty well most human problem situations) Kahane recommends ‘stretch collaboration’.

I am putting these thoughts down as a first step in seeing what other tools and approaches can be used for wicked problems. It’s a work-in-progress for my life in perpetual beta. Another area I want to explore and perhaps add to these approaches is Asset-based community development (ABCD).

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