Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wicked Problems, Complexity and Learning

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them. ~ Laurence J. Peter
Recently, while doing a keyword search for complexity, I stumbled across an article called Wicked ProblemsThe term was coined by Horst Rittel, the inventor of the Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) structure upon which Dialogue Mapping is based.

The first paragraph of the said article caught my attention. It defines wicked problems thus:

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.
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.

This description seemed cannily similar to the description of Complex problems in the Cynefin framework.

The article further elucidates the characteristics of wicked problems. I have listed down the characteristics verbatim but the interpretations are mine.

  1. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution: According to the Cynefin framework, a problem that falls in the realm of the complex or chaotic cannot be analyzed or categorized without first being acted upon. Only when one acts on the problem does a solution emerge.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.**: By definition, a wicked problem arises out of a condition that cannot be clearly defined. Hence, it solution or end-point can’t be foreseen either.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong: These problems are unique, complex, and non-linear. There is no direct cause and effect relationship that exist when problems are simple. Without a one-on-one relationship between the cause and effect, it is not possible to have a single solution. There can only be better ways of solving it but never the best or the only way.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel: This is self-explanatory. That is precisely why they are called wicked.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation,"
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions: At any given point of time, an approach to solving a wicked problem will lead to the problem morphing into something else—not necessarily a worse state but just a different one. This precludes the possibility of there being multiple ways of solving this problem at the outset. One needs to keep adapting and evolving solutions to address wicked problems. 
**By this definition, putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth was a tame problem albeit with a lot of complexity. It required complex heuristics and problem-solving approaches to come up with ways and means of achieving success; however, the problem per se had a definite end point and it was possible to know when the mission was accomplished.
Wicked problem is compounded or created out of fragmentation. The paper on Wicked Problems and Social Complexity defines fragmentation thus:

Fragmentation can be hidden, as when stakeholders don’t even realize that there are incompatible tacit assumptions about the problem, and each believes that his or her understandings are complete and shared by all.

Since wicked problems defy codification and clear articulation and yet they are the ones that plague the work environments today, a team working on a wicked problem often faces a major issue of collective understanding.

The following image depicts what typically happens:

 Image taken from: The Agile Warrior

This pain is one of fragmentation because the tools, methods, and approaches used are more suited for “tame” problems—what Cynefin framework slots as simple or, maybe, complicated at the most. What further compounds the problem is that people directly involved in the transactions fail to realize that their tools are inadequate for the issue at hand. 

The aforementioned article describes a “tame” problem thus:

A ‘tame problem’ is one for which the traditional linear process is sufficient to produce a workable solution in an acceptable time frame. A tame problem:
  1. Has a well-defined and stable problem statement
  2. Has a definite stopping point, i.e., when the solution is reached
  3. Has a solution which can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong
  4. Belongs to a class of similar problems which are all solved in the same similar way
  5. Has solutions which can be easily tried and abandoned
  6. Comes with a limited set of alternative solutions

The Traditional wisdom for solving problems follows a typical classic Waterfall model. It is linear, logical, and analytical.

But trying to solve a wicked problem using such tools is like trying to tame a tiger using a dog leash. Wicked problems require creativity, expertise, and sometimes that leap of faith to solve. It also requires adaptive thinking abilities

The Agile method of problem-solving with its iterative steps, continuous feedback, test driven development and retros come close to an ideal way of, if not solving, at least approaching wicked problem for the following reasons:
  1. It allows for self and course correction
  2. Mistakes are caught before they become too expensive
  3. Early detection of mistakes leads to prompt feedback and associated learning
  4. Iterative development process allows for application of that new learning
  5. The opportunity to apply the learning prevents the forgetting curve from becoming dominant
The approach, if plotted on a graph would look like this:

Image taken from:

The article describes this jagged line of opportunity-driven problem solving as a picture of learning. And as delineated above, it comes very close to the Agile approach.

To the non-initiated or the inexperienced, this looks chaotic and there appears to be little progress, but the experienced knows that this reflects the deeper order of a cognitive process and learning. The Waterfall method depicted above is a picture of already knowing where one applies pre-defined steps to solve simple or known problems following sequential steps.  

1 comment:

  1. I had the same experience while looking for key words in complexity. The way I see now, wicked problems are problems originated in complex systems.What I am saying is that all problems originated in complex systems are wicked


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