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Taming wickedness

“NOW that’s a bugger of a problem”. This comment is usually a good indicator that you are wrestling with a seriously wicked problem.

Problem-solving takes up a fair proportion of any manager’s time but there are problems and then there are problems.

The word gets used pretty often, and to cover a huge number of situations. According to Horst Rittel, a Californian systems engineer, we add to the difficulties we have in solving these problems by only using this one word to describe what are entirely different situations, needing completely different responses.

As an engineer Mr Rittel started wondering why his country could put men on the moon - an extremely difficult systems engineering problem - but communities tore themselves apart debating where to put a freeway or working out acceptable environmental standards.

He said that while working your way through both categories of jobs they are very different types of problems: one is tame, the other is extremely wicked. Rittel said that as long as we use the same word, and so the same techniques to find a solution, it is going to be a lot more difficult to crack the problem and it probably won’t be as good as it could be.

Rittel says to understand a wicked problem, you have to try to understand a solution. As you work out a solution you understand the problem more clearly. The problem and solution become more clear with each step.

And there is no way to know when you have finished solving a wicked problem because there is no single right or wrong answer: a solution is considered good enough – or time or the budget runs out – and so work stops.

Designing a house is a good example. The architect and client could keep going around in circles redesigning parts of the house for ever, but eventually they stop because some limit has been reached – it’s good enough, more design work doesn’t justify the cost, etc.

Solutions to wicked problems are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ rather than being right or wrong. This is in stark contrast to tame problems.

A tame problem can be explained without understanding what the solution looks like. In engineering for example, what is needed is specified precisely: what needs to be designed - a circular widget made from material X that can support Y kilograms of weight - independent of any particular design solution. It is clear when you have solved a tame problem. You can reason logically that you are finished. Solutions are - arguably - ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

There are dangers in mixing the different types of problem-solvers. People who are good at solving tame problems can make a real mess using tame techniques on a wicked problem. Similarly, putting a star with wicked problems to work on a tame problem could deliver a result which is less than optimal.

The power in understanding the difference between wicked and tame problems is that it is the first step to getting the best solution. Few of us even recognise that wicked problems exist. One reason is that the education system is strongly biased towards training us to deal with tame problems and so we automatically assume that all problems can, in principle, be tamed.

As the world gets increasingly complex – and more wicked – this is a dangerous starting point for problem solving.

n Peter Morris is Principal of Telesis Communications, a technology strategy consultancy firm – www.telesis.com.au or contact: morris@telesis.com.au.

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