Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 8)

insoluble

The next property of wicked problems is related to the context issue I wrote about in the last post. 8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. Rittel and Webber describe this one:

Problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a "symptom." In turn, it can be considered the symptom of still another, "higher level" problem. Thus "crime in the streets" can be considered as a symptom of general moral decay, or permissiveness, or deficient opportunity, or wealth, or poverty, or whatever causal explanation you happen to like best. The level at which a problem is settled depends upon the self-confidence of the analyst and cannot be decided on logical grounds. There is nothing like a natural level of a wicked problem. Of course, the higher the level of a problem's formulation, the broader and more general it becomes: and the more difficult it becomes to do something about it. On the other hand, one should not try to cure symptoms: and therefore one should try to settle the problem on as high a level as possible.

One of the books I included in the list from which my students had to pick one to read this trimester was Russell Ackoff’s, Systems Thinking for Curious Managers. His messages are much the same as R & W’s, but are couched in terms more familiar to managers than to planners. Rather than a fairly concise set of 10 properties, Ackoff lists 123 so-called “f-rules.” Each one is a short aphorism or rules that systems thinking managers should follow. Don’t worry, I am not going through the whole list, one at a time. Both come from a deep understanding of complexity and the open nature of all non-trivial problems. Even this kind of problem can turn into a wicked one as the context shifts as it always will at some point. One of the best on the list, IMHO, is this: “It is difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it.”

Many of his bon mots have the notion of context in the shadows. All problems rest inside a contextual world where everything is connected. The problem in front of a group or an individual always becomes a different problem when the boundaries are expanded, as R & W describe. There is no analytic way to determine where to set the bounds; only the wisdom and understanding of the actors can inform the choice. Our current systems for managing the private and public sectors have evolved to a state where these virtues have little chance to surface. Ackoff says (f-rule 13): "The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things."

|