March 2015 Archives

F***ing Up the World By Doing the "Right" Thing

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right thing

Over breakfast today with my son, Tom, we started to talk about how sustainability has been slowly fading from view. My alert systems show fewer entries every day. Sustainability has become just another routine activity for many companies. That’s both good and bad news. For me, mostly bad news. Here’s why. When some persistent problem like unsustainability settles into the normal activities of organizations of all sorts, it means that those who set priorities have decided that the current strategies and programs are sufficient to deal with it. Serious thinking stops dead, and that’s a big problem in and of itself.

In the first place, sustainability efforts never were sufficiently critical to discover the underlying causes for the problems that set out to solve. The systemic nature of the symptoms of unsustainability was ignored by individual organizations that could only see their own contributions to what they perceived were the problems. Not surprising. Our overall understanding of the economic world is that it is self-correcting, Individuals do what it best for them, while some invisible mechanism propels the collective outcome in the “right” direction. What is somewhat surprising is that, although nothing much has happened as a result of all the separate efforts, there is little interest in finding out why. Again, that’s because, deep down most of the players have some understanding that they cannot connect their own efforts to results.

There is some superficial agreement that using less of the Earth’s resources and and doing less to corrupt the environment is the right thing to do. So organizations go on with their programs to recycle, light-weight and detoxify their offerings and similar projects, all the while communicating their actions in search of more market share and improved reputation. Their individualistic mind set keeps them in what systems dynamicists call the shifting-of-the-burden archetypal behavior. They focus increasingly on the projects they have begun, reinforced by knowledge that everybody else is doing more or less the same thing. Whatever attention might have been focused on discovering and attacking the deeper rooted causes of unsustainability is lost in the efforts to keep on doing what they have been, even doing more.

Meanwhile at the level of institutions, say business as a whole, the patterns that have been going on for awhile become normalized and take on legitimacy as the right way to attack the problem. The ineffective behavioral patterns at the single firm level now have grown to become an institutional characteristic, and, as other institutions follow, a societal problem. The normal way to solve the problem has been dictated by the prevailing cultural norms, in this case, to apply some sort of technological or rationally-based solution. That is how we as a society tend to attack all common problems. This norm leads to another pathological behavioral pattern that systems dynamicists call “fixes that fail.” This results from attempting to use the normal way to solve some problem with deep roots. We have been falling back on technology for centuries ever since the founders of modern science and technology saw the fruits of their application as leading inexorably forward, overcoming every obstacle in the way.

Nobody is to be blamed for this kind of ineffectual behavior. People are only doing what is legitimately expected of them, that is, the right thing. We, as a society, are stuck in a box out of which we cannot get by continuing to behave as we have been acculturated to do. We are really stuck, hoist by our own petard as some might say. Our best weapon has turned upon us. If this were to happen in a small group, someone might notice that more of the same isn’t working and, perhaps, suggest they should start from a different mental model of the situation. This is exactly how organizational learning works. The well-known systems of deep, permanent change of, say, Argyris and Schön or Peter Senge rest on getting to the bottom of things, to discover the particular misfitted mental models or belief structures that are freezing the minds of those involved, and replace them with new ones that fit the problem at hand. Organizations that apply these systems of learning or problem-solving methods know how very difficult it is to get them going and staying around, even if they appear to have worked. The background norms and their associated beliefs have become so strongly embedded that they come back and run the show as soon as the immediate problems appear to be solved.

Now expand this small story to a whole society facing a persistent, apparently intractable problem like unsustainability. Like all societies, normal behavior is controlled by deeply embedded beliefs and institutional structures built upon them. If people are to stop for a moment and try a new way to solve big problems, someone must hold up the stop sign and get a lot of people to think differently and, ultimately, to act differently. This doesn’t and, maybe, can’t happen because there is no one with enough power to be heard. Small organizations, however, have enough power concentrated in the hands of senior managers for it to occur. A scientist, in similar situations where the old theories no longer can explain observations or unravel an intractable puzzle, can undertake such a shift in thinking all by herself. When such steps are taken and are successful, the change in belief structure and subsequent new, normal behaviors has been called a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. This description explains why so many believe it takes a crisis visible to some critical mass to stop the normality, and embark on a paradigmatically different path. On the face of clear crisis, there is room for powerful voices to arise from many quarters and call attention to the failures of the present normal ways of thinking and acting. The same crisis makes it much more likely that others will heed the call. With some obvious omissions, this is what happened in the US during the Depression years.

Unsustainability suffers from a serious difference from the collapse evident during the Depression. There is little or no consensus that there is a problem at all. The historically uneven patterns of climate behavior permit some to ignore or deny that there is anything to worry about. Social problems, like inequality, are visible only to the neighbors of the poor or sociologists studying the problem. Lone voices crying in the dark, like mine, are just that, lone voices that might find a few followers. Robert Putnam has just published a powerful indictment of the way inequality has rooted itself so deeply in the US that it may take generations to make a dent. But like so many, his voice will reach only a limited set of ears. Nothing is going to change until either the problems become so obviously critical or the most powerful voices in the nation speak up and cry, “Whoa, we need to make changes.”

In the case of unsustainability, with climate change as its current focus, we are deeply in a pattern of fixes-that-fail or shifting-the-burden. Ironically, social scientists have offered models of collective behavior that would reveal this and offer paths to avoid the pitfalls of normality. All lead to the presence of deep-seated beliefs on which the dominant societal institutions have evolved. As we know in the smaller organizations I mentioned above that the beliefs tend to be at the bottom of what has become normal, we should be looking critically at the same kinds of beliefs in our society, but cannot. Part of the reason is that the primary political parties have become so ideologically polarized that they cannot step back even an inch from their beliefs, firmly anchored in the concrete of some partial reality.

It is no easy task to critically examine the beliefs that have brought so much so-called progress to human affairs. But if the focus were to shift from only the humans on the Planet, I would expect the consensus of progress to dramatically splinter. Also ironically, unlike the situation in science, where each new step forward comes on the back of an entirely distinct novel belief, there are already alternative beliefs hanging around to be picked up and used. The ideas are there, but the will to think about them isn’t. There is no CEO to demand that we stop what we are doing and start doing it distinctly differently. Those that do care about the state of the world are mostly offering solutions coming from their normal ways of going about business. But what is normal to someone is always focused on a different part of the system as seen by another. Think about the way our Congress is behaving right now. I am running out of steam at this point. I have no solution to offer except to argue as strongly as I can that to continue to act normally is a trap. Starting to build from a different foundation is essential, but I haven’t got any bright ideas about how to make that happen. Help!

Climate Change Is Not a "Tame" Problem

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Renewable energy is much in the news these days. Energy prices from wind machines and solar panels have dropped and now match or are lower than conventional sources of energy. New prospecting for oil and gas, at least in the US, has slowed as a result. Headlines are shouting that we are close to halting global warming. The connection is completely ungrounded. The atmosphere will continue to warm up due to the greenhouse gases that have already been released. Few if any of these stories ever mention the effects of continued economic growth, which creates larger emissions in the aggregate, even with the additions of non-carbon sources, but this is not even the real issue at play here.

Global warming is not the “problem.” Yes, it certainly is causing alarm, given the many threats it poses, but its more critical aspect is as a sign of much deeper problems. The immediacy of climate change blinds us to these problems and their sources. Having lived through a record-breaking winter in Boston, I am very aware of its palpable impacts. In very simple terms, the world population is using the equivalent of now, perhaps, two Earth’s worth of life-supporting resources. Global warming is the paradigm example of a “wicked problem,” a term invented by two planning professors, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a classic 1973 paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” The abstract tells much, but not all, the story,

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Russ Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. I discuss them in the general context of complexity. Rittel and Webber’s paper should be required reading for everyone taking on climate change and other “wicked problems, but, unfortunately, neither it nor other similar framings shows themselves in the “professional” or “public” media. I have yet to find an awareness of this context in any discussion. People keep talking about solving the problem, but what is the problem. Here’s R & W’s response. They discuss wicked problems in a list of ten points. I will keep their numbering system, but list them in a different order. There points are italicized, the roman text is mine except for the block quotes.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This important observation is clearly critical, as soon as anyone recognizes that systems in which wicked problems arise are characterized by manifold interconnections, producing all sorts of feedback links. Feedback always occurs in loops in which each active node affects another, but the other also affects the first, so which is the cause of observed behavior? Now multiply this by many, many such interacting loops in the system we are concerned about. Applying technology to “solve” climate change problems ignores this relationship and leaves the unaddressed “causes” or actors in place to continue causing mischief in the system.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Unlike the “tame” problems they write about for which standard methodologies will generally lead to consensus about the “problem” to be solved, wicked problems allow different parties to stymie consensus and, subsequently, action. Climate change is a perfect example.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Global climate change is clearly not a single problem. It depends, among other factors, on the nature of the polity contributing to it. Seeking global solutions simply won’t work. Some sort of global consensus that the problems need to be addressed is essential, but one-size-fits-all global solutions should be avoided. This conclusion springs from the first item in their list.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. More bad news for scientific or “rational” solution seekers. Imagine a scientist in front of a computer, thinking which algorithm to code, but the computer telling her that none will work. Maybe fuzzy logic would help, but even this is algorithmic at heart.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. This feature dooms scientifically-based solutions, or, at least, relegates them to the closet. The acontextual, objective nature of scientifically based (technological and technocratic) methodology inevitably leaves out important aspects of the problematic system. The best outcome is something that may seem to work right now, but may not in the next instant, thus requiring constant attention and adaptive measures. This leads to the next point.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Any “solution” can be good, only for the time being. Like a balloon filled with water, pushing a solution into the balloon will cause a new problem to pop out somewhere else. There’s no possibility of splitting up the problem among various disciplines during the planning phase or separating planning from implementation. The next characteristic is even more vexing.

4.There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. The results from the inevitable unintended consequences of intervening with any “solutions. To examine the efficacy of the solution, these will have to factored in for some indefinite time afterward. R & W say it this way:

The full consequences cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and we have no way of tracing all the waves through all the affected lives ahead of time or within a limited time span.

The next point is pretty obvious.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. The world is always changing so that the context is different from one moment to the next. Further, given the long time it typically takes to design and implement solutions to wicked problems, this aspect can be daunting to those seeking to solve it. Everything so far has followed from the technically complex nature of wicked problems. The last two items illustrate the ethical dimension of these problems.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. R & W are pointing to the difference between the framing for wicked problems and for tame problems amenable to rational attack. Scientific methods are always contingent and subject to be falsified. If a solution is attempted on the basis of a model that is subsequently proven false, those involved can be excused from moral blame. They did what was expected of them by a set of accepted standards. Not true of solvers who are flying by the seat of their pants, even if a lot of wisdom lives in that spot. They cannot turn to any socially-legitimate standard to explain the failure. They have much more than a penny in the pot.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. This follows from the last point. There is always an ethical context to wicked problems. Values are involved. The reduction to some economically-based cost/risk/benefit analysis fails to consider the very facets that distinguish wicked from tame problems. Again, R & W are clear about this.

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as “good” or “bad” or, more likely, as “better or worse” or “satisfying” or “good enough.”

I have been following the Great Transition Initiative dialogs for some time. The players in this project want to create a world with a different set of primary values from those of the “average” western, modern nation. The key values are: human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility. These are coincident with the single value, flourishing, I also seek to make present in the World. I speak about this example because it resembles virtually everything I can find focused on “sustainability,” climate change, inequality, or similar wicked problems. The conversation participants are primarily academics or professionals, each defined by a disciplinary methodology and an associated set of beliefs about how the world works. While interesting and thoughtful, I find that their interactions slowly but surely devolve to discussions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin. They recognize the need for new values, but overlook that values are just beliefs that have been ordered by some criteria, often just another belief.

That’s not because they are so narrowly constrained by their beliefs, although they mostly are, but that they are stuck in their framing of the problem. They have been trained to deal with tame problems, and the more disciplined they are the better at taming such problems, and the worse they are at tackling wicked problems.

Many of the Great Transition Initiative dialogs, in particular, decry the lack of a model for social change. But that is oxymoronic because the whole topic of social change is wicked. There are just too many loops to hope that some discreet framework will guide us to the desired future. But this does not preclude some path toward a flourishing or similar future. Pragmatism, while not explicitly designed to work on complex systems or the derivative wicked problems, fits the description laid out in the ten points above and offers the hope of a useful context for anxious problem solvers.

The founders of pragmatism, back at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on beliefs as the primary “cause” leading to habits or norms in both individuals and societies or organizations. Over time the constitutive beliefs, the ones on which institutions sprang up over time, tend to be implicated as major factors in observed dominant behaviors or norms Change these constitutive beliefs and everything else changes eventually, but in ways unpredictable when the changes were made. Well, we live in the modern world where one very critical dominant belief is that we come to know the way the world works through scientific pursuits and can apply the consequent knowledge to solve all our problems. Most of the time this works very well, but only because so many of our problems are tame. In any case, normally scientists work on tame problems. It’s the belief in a mechanistic, knowable world that is at or near the bottom. Not alone because it is embedded in our most powerful institutions, like academia, markets and economics, management theories, indeed, all theories.

That’s why all the conversations I alluded to earlier are focused on the wrong problems, or. better perhaps, on the wrong way to solve them. They are using methods designed for tame problems to address wicked problems. If we are to make progress though the inherent powers of these conversations, the participants must drop their illusions about the nature of the problem and adopt a framework consistent with complexity, perhaps, drawing on the way pragmatists go about their business. To do this is very scary and challenging because virtually everything that was familiar and comfortable in their professional homes becomes flimsy; the bedrock of certainty evaporates and with it a sense of solid ground. Tough to face, but it must be done if we are to find ourselves nudging our way to the world we seek.

I have written more than I usually do, but I have been away from my blog for awhile with only a few scattered post this year. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I will try. Somehow the rhythm of my days is slowly changing. I am still “working” on a new book, still about flourishing. I am working hard to anchor my key personal belief that our constitutive societal beliefs are no longer working for us after many centuries of what is generally considered forward motion. This post is about one of these beliefs, complexity and the nature of important problems. Many other posts have been about the other, erroneous belief about human nature. That’s what this book will be all about. So were my first two, but they were not so clear because I was not so clear. The haze is slowly lifting.

ps. I just posted a short blog written with my son, Tom, to the Lean Enterprise Institute’s website,. It draws on an example of a well-established wicked-problem-solving system, based on the Toyota Production System. The Toyota system, which was generalized as “Lean Manufacturing” by a group of my former MIT colleagues, is, to me, the epitome of pragmatism and complexity in action. The problems that Toyota and other car makers faced was not climate change, but quality, a desired, but elusive characteristic for most car makers. By treating it as a wicked, not tame, problem, and using pragmatic tools, Toyota managed to “solve” its problems. They never used this vocabulary, however. I encourage all those working on climate change to take in the lessons of Toyota and those that have translated it into broader language and tools, but be prepared to learn about gemba, muda, andon, jikoda, and kaizen, and more. The particulars of Lean are not designed to be applied directly to climate change, but the thinking behind it is.

(Cartoon, courtesy of the New Yorkor Magazine)