The Challenge of Wicked Problems

Saturday, August 4, 2012
“Wicked problem” is a phrase used to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often not recognised.
The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil, but rather in the sense that it is resistant to resolution.
The complex inter-dependencies imply that an effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

System-level improvement is a very common example of a wicked problem, so an Improvement Scientist needs to be able to sort the wicked problems from the tame ones.

Tame problems can be solved using well known and understood methods and the solution is either right or wrong. For example – working out how much resource capacity is needed to deliver a defined demand is a tame problem.  Designing a booking schedule to avoid excessive waiting is a tame problem.  The fact that many people do not know how to solve these tame problems does not make them wicked ones.  Ignorance in not that same as intransigence.

Wicked problems do not have right or wrong solutions – they have better or worse outcomes.  Wicked problems cannot be precisely defined, dissected, analysed and solved. They are messy. They are more than complicated – they are complex.  A mechanical clock is a complicated mechanism but designing, building, operating and even repairing a clock is a tame problem not a wicked one.

So how can we tell a wicked problem from a tame one?

If a problem has been solved and there is a known and repeatable solution then it is, by definition, a tame problem.  If a problem has never been solved then it might be tame – and the only way to find out is to try solving it.
The barrier we then discover is that each of us gets stuck in the mud of our habitual, unconscious assumptions. Experience teaches us that just taking a different perspective can be enough to create the breakthrough insight – the “Ah ha!” moment. Seeking other perspectives and opinions is an effective strategy when stuck.

So, if two-heads-are-better-than-one then many heads must be even better! Do we need a committee to solve wicked problems?
Experience teaches us that when we try it we find that it often does not work!
The different perspectives also come with different needs, different assumptions, and different agendas and we end up with a different wicked problem. The committee is rendered ineffective and inefficient by rhetorical discussion and argument.

This is where a very useful Improvement Science technique comes in handy. It is called Argument Free Problem Solving (AFPS) and it was intentionally designed to facilitate groups working on complex problems.

The trick to AFPS is to understand what generates the arguments and to design these causes out of the problem solving process. There are several contributors.

First there is just good old fashioned disrespectful skepticism – otherwise known as cynicism.  The antidote to this poison is to respectfully challenge the disrespectful component of the cynical behaviour – the personal discounting bit.  And it is surprisingly effective!

Second there is the well known principle that different people approach life and problems in different ways.  Some call this temperament and others call it personality. Whatever the label, knowing our preferred style and how different styles can conflict is useful because it leads to mutual respect for our different gifts.  One tried and tested method is Jungian Typology which comes in various brands such as the MBTI® (Myers Briggs Type Indicator).

Third there is the deepening understanding of how the 1.3 kg of caveman wetware between our ears actually works.  The ongoing advances in neuroscience are revealing fascinating insights into how “irrational” we really are and how easy it is to fool the intuition. Stage magicians and hypnotists make a living out of this inherent “weakness”. One of the lessons from neuroscience is that we find it easier to communicate when we are all in the same mental state – even if we have different temperaments.  It is called cognitive  resonance.  Being on the same wavelength.  Arguments arise when different people are in conflicting mental states – cognitive dissonance.

So an effective problem solving team is more akin to a flock of birds or a shoal of fish – that can change direction quickly and as one – without a committee, without an argument, and without creating chaos.  For birds and fish it is an effective survival strategy because it confounds the predators. The ones that do not join in … get eaten!

When a group are able to change perspective together and still stay focused on the problem then the tame ones get resolved and the wicked ones start to be dissolved.
And that is all we can expect for wicked problems.

The AFPS method can be learned quickly – and experience shows that just one demonstration is usually enough to convince the participants when a team is hopelessly entangled in a wicked-looking problem!