Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Wicked


The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable people. General McChrystal probably learned that fact yesterday morning. In his place, General Petraeus faces a daunting task for a monumentally complex problem in Afghanistan. In this case, complex is the wrong word. Wicked is more appropriate. Wicked problems aren't merely harder or more complex than hard problems. They don't just involve more factors or stakeholders. They don't just take us longer to solve. Analytical thinking alone, no matter how skillfully applied, is not going to generate an answer to a wicked problem.

The term "Wicked Problem" comes from Horst Rittel in a 1968 article in Management Science. Wicked problems are " . . . problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing." They show up in our social systems, economics, politics, science and engineering - - problems that are ill-defined and unique in their causes, character, and solution.

Think of the following characteristics when examining the wicked world of unique problems:
  • The causes of the problems are not just complex but deeply ambiguous: you can't tell why things are happening the way they are and what causes them to do so (finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease).

  • The problem doesn't fit neatly into any category you're encountered before; it looks and feels entirely unique, so the problem-solving approaches you've used in the past don't seem to apply (BP's efforts to come up with solutions to plug the leaking oil well).

  • Each attempt at devising a solution changes the understanding of the problem; merely attempting to come to a solution changes the problems and how you think about it (developing policies and economic alternatives for combating global climate change).

  • There is no clear stopping rule; it is difficult to tell when the problem is "solved" and what that solution might look like when you reach it (what the "end game" looks like with respect to the Afghanistan war).

Engineers are trained for the complex - - look at the situation, identify a set of definite conditions, and calculate a solution. The world of the wicked is entirely different - - the solution can no longer be the only or even the primary focus. The fundamental issue when dealing with wicked problems is a complete understanding of the nature of the problem itself. It is a world in which engineers and policy formulators must thrive on problem setting, at least as much a problem solving.

Petraeus falls into the rare category of indispensable and tackler of wicked problems - - those two attributes go hand in hand.

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