Don’t try to tame wicked problems: Part 1

Wicked: Adjective (slang) meaning very good, excellent; “cool”; “awesome” from 13th Century Middle English wikked, wikke, an alteration of wicke, adjectival use of Old English wicca (“wizard, sorcerer”). “Going beyond reasonable or predictable limits.” Or, the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s (nicely understated) “very bad or unpleasant.”

“A problem with many layers of nested and intractable predicaments,… complex inter-linkages between elements… small perturbations can quickly transform into catastrophic events…” This was how Nepalese citizens viewed the impact of climate change on their country in a 2009 survey of local views.

In previous blogs in this series we have discussed innovation ecosystems as complex systems – with all of their inherent intriguing properties – as we attempt to develop the ‘science’ of Rainforest ecosystems (The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor H Hwang and Greg Horowitt). Innovation Onion1-trans-300x250ecosystems, as well as climate, have their share of nested and intractable predicaments where inter-linkages are hidden like the layers of an onion. New business creation is linked with leadership; leadership linked with culture; resources are linked with frameworks and policies.

In economic development, especially in developing countries, poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on as described the 2014 book Aid at the Edge of Chaos, by Ben Ramalingam. Partly as a result of Ramalingam’s book the global aid community is starting to understand that countries and regions are complex systems, and in turn are made up of sub-complexes, rather than linear modules. In linear systems cause and effect are determinable and typically modeled using Logical Framework Analysis, or ‘logframe’ methods (ubiquitous in the global aid community). The behaviors of complex systems don’t fit into logframes which deal with inputs and outputs and the tasks which produce the latter from the former. A Balanced Scorecard strategy map outlining an organization’s plans to accomplish defined objectives is another example of heavy reliance on cause-and-effect logic as best-practice. For more on causality see April 2014 blog in this series.

The above discussion above leads us to introduce a new wrinkle on complexity this month, namely ‘wicked problems.’ A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is the opposite of a ‘tame problem’ as set out below. Tame problems are susceptible to logical analysis. Wicked problems are not. A wicked problem is an extreme case of a complex problem.

Characteristic Tame problems Wicked problems
Problem formulation The problem can be clearly written down. The problem can be stated as a gap between what is and what ought to be. There is easy agreement about the problem definition. The problem is difficult to define. Many possible explanations may exist. Individuals perceive the issue differently. Depending on the explanation, the solution takes on a different form.
Testability Potential solutions can be tested as either correct or false. There is no single set of criteria for whether solutions are right or wrong; they can only be more or less acceptable relative to each other.
Finality Problems have a clear solution and end point. There is always room for more improvement and potential consequences may continue indefinitely.
Level of analysis It is possible to bound the problem and identify its root cause and subsequent effects; the problem’s parts can be easily separated from the whole. Every problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. There is no identifiable root cause and it is not possible to be sure of the appropriate level at which to intervene; parts cannot always be easily separated from the whole.
Replicability The problem may repeat itself many times because it is linear; applying formulaic responses will produce predictable results. Every problem is essentially unique; formulae are of limited value because the problem is non-linear.
Reproducibility Solutions can be tested and excluded until the correct solution is found. Each problem is a one-shot operation. Once a solution is attempted, you cannot undo what you have already done.

Adapted from: From best practice to best fit; Understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development, Ben Ramalingam, Miguel Laric and John Primrose, UK Department for International Development (DFID), September 2014.

In the March, April, and May 2013 blogs in this series we speculated about, not just complexity, but solving problems in complex systems. This is what we are called upon to do. It’s of little use understanding the complex nature of innovation ecosystems unless we can understand and resolve issues with which we are confronted, such as how to improve the flow of innovation, how to predict disruptions, how to optimize leadership, and many others.

Inspecting the right side column in the table above shows that many, possibly most, challenges in innovation ecosystems are indeed ‘wicked.’

So what should we do? Through up our hands and admit defeat, or try to make these wicked problems if not tame then at least a little less wicked? This we will shall turn to next month – and find that the slang definition of ‘wicked’ is a better fit than the traditional one.

Next time: Don’t try to tame wicked problems: Part 2

All previous blogs in this series are at:

2 Comments on “Don’t try to tame wicked problems: Part 1”

  1. […] Don’t try to tame wicked problems: Part 1 introduced ‘wicked problems’ though six typical characteristics of these problems. […]

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