Want a good solution? Frame the problem well

Nick IngramStrategy0 Comments

One of the most powerful concepts I’ve come across in recent years is the idea of “wicked problems”. Powerful, because the simple naming of the idea of “wickedness” allows you the permission to bring in a whole range of different approaches to thinking about strategy. Approaches that are both useful and liberating. One of the best of those is the idea that to find a good solution to a problem, you need to frame it well.

What are “wicked problems”?

Wicked problems were first described in a paper by Rittel and Webber in the journal Policy Sciences in 1973 (“Dilemmas in a general theory of planning“). In this paper they distinguish between “wicked” and “tame” problems.

A tame problem is one that everyone can agree on. For example, the photocopier is broken. This is a classic tame problem. Note a few characteristics:

  • Everyone can agree that there is a problem (yep – the bloody thing is busted again).
  • There is a pretty well defined path to fixing the problem (open the door and follow the helpful diagrams, after an hour of frustration call the technician).
  • And everyone can agree when the problem is fixed (yep – I now am making copies again).

A wicked problem on the other hand feels different. Some people may not even think there is a problem. Others may disagree on the way you’ve described it. People might disagree on how to fix it.

Rittel and Webber put the differences this way:

“The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly “tame” or “benign” ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.
Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues–whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime.”

Wicked problems arise in the world of planning and public policy – but they also arise in the world of strategy. In fact, a lot of thinkers now say that an organisation’s strategy is a wicked problem.

How do you know when you’re in “wickedness”?

Rittel and Webber suggest ten pointers to a problem being a wicked problem:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  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.
  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.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  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.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

“The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution”

Each of the above ten points bears thinking about. And the original paper goes into a lot more detail on each of these. But it’s point 9 I want to think about today.

Rittel and Webber point out that the “discrepancy” that underlies a problem can be explained in different ways. And the way you choose to explain that discrepancy will necessarily throw you down a particular solution path.

As Rittel and Webber say:

“”Crime in the streets” can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right? There is no rule or procedure to determine the “correct” explanation or combination of them.”

Note a few things here. There will always be more than one way to explain the existence or nature of a wicked problem. These problems are of such a nature and scale that they defy easy experiments to judge them. In the end, the explanation you give for the problem, and the solution you seek to bring, will call for wisdom and judgement. You will necessarily be forced back on to your own beliefs, values and experiences. As a result, if you are the “planner”, you need to take care as you frame the problem.

But note in particular, that the solution you eventually end up choosing will be determined by the way you describe the problem. There’s no way around that. If you think that crime in the streets is caused by too few police, you will want to increase police. If you are an adherent to the “broken windows theory of crime” you’ll then have those police cracking down on minor misdemeanors. On the other hand, if you think it’s caused by poverty, you’re likely to make welfare changes. If you think it’s caused by faulty phrenology, well, I don’t know what you’ll do (hopefully you’re not in charge!).

This approach is really important in strategy

This characteristic holds in strategy. The way you frame your strategic challenges and understand your strategic situation will determine the kind of strategy “solution” you end up crafting. This is why, whenever I work on strategy with a client I make sure we do two key things:

  • Firstly, we try to involve as many people as possible. If you are trying to name your “problem” well, that is to name your “strategic situation” well, you need to be open to as many views as possible. Talk to your team. But talk to your customers and suppliers as well. And if you can talk to non-customers, so much the better.
  • Secondly, we always spend a lot of time in the “current state”. It’s no use rushing to Mission and Vision and goals. If you don’t spend time understanding your current state, the current nature of the “problem”, you will never develop a good “solution”.

Wickedness everywhere

There’s a lot more to say about wickedness. Once you’ve been introduced to the idea, you do tend to see it everywhere. Current debates on climate change, the curriculum, and even fluoride in the water, can all be understood through this lens. Let me know where you see examples of wickedness in current debates or in your organisation.

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