Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems
A book by Bob Williams and Sjon van ’t Hof
Inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries … are the three basic systems concepts that are used in this newly released book (June 12, 2014) to help you:
- assess wicked situations
- unpick the tangle of issues that need addressing
- design suitable ways of tackling those issues
- deal with some tricky aspects of working in wicked situations
- find more information about systems methods and managing interventions systemically.
Wicked problems… are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. Limited references to systems theory and history acquaint you with the key principles to work wicked problems on your own.
Wicked Solutions… is a learning tool, but above all it is a workbook, because we believe you learn best by doing. To get you started from the very beginning the book provides you with three levels. Level one gets you going before you have turned page ten. Level two helps you make the transition to level three, where you will be doing some very serious systems thinking. We have provided a fully worked case to serve as an example. The case in combination with the stepwise approach allows for a smooth learning curve.
Where do I start? The focus of Wicked Solutions on systems thinking is on a critically important question that often goes unanswered: “Where do I start?” It also provides numerous tips and tricks to keep you on the right track. You will find that the systems approaches in this book will not only help you to address wicked problems yourselves, but also that it will give you a basic grasp of what is involved in other systems methods. Few other investments in your intellectual toolbox could claim the same.
Is this book for you? Wicked problems are much more ubiquitous than you might think. And the model used in Wicked Solutions is probably applicable to a much wider array of design domains than we can imagine. In case you are wrestling with a wicked problem, and provided you are indeed aware that your problem is wicked, then the book could be useful to you. Some examples:
- entrepreneurs and managers who want to secure their business in a sustainable manner by reconciling, e.g., clients’ needs, employees’ interests and environmental concerns;
- researchers, especially action researchers, seeking out new tools for inquiry and analysis;
- teachers and lecturers trying to teach their students how to think and learn about addressing and resolving ‘wicked problems’ in society and beyond;
- people in networks or platform organisations especially those who work between public sector, private sector and civil society and need to conceive effective ways for communication and collaboration;
- policy workers who are trying to explore the consequences of adopting various strategies and tactics;
- evaluators called upon to help people assess the value of interventions that are clearly very messy with lots of possible ways of judging worth;
- consultants and coaches who want to demonstrate that systems thinking leads to more sustainable results
- community workers trying to steer projects along complicated paths in difficult environments.
Apart from these professionals, this book may also prove useful to students in secondary and tertiary education, politicians, reporters, and interested members of the general public.
Wicked Solutions in a nutshell
The core of Wicked Solutions deals with the systemic design of interventions to address wicked problems. Wicked problems are systemic problems that are characterised by multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions. Stakeholders are people or organisations with an interest in the (wicked) problem and its (re-)solution. Systemically designed interventions are needed because conventional understanding and management cannot address wicked problems.
Systemic design is able to take into account the complex inter-relationships and divergent perspectives of the key stakeholders and use this information in a clever way to design an effective intervention by deliberating critical issues. These issues are related to the purpose, resources, knowledge, and legitimacy of the intervention. They are also known as boundary issues and the deliberation of these critical issues is also known as boundary critique. A key goal of the critique is to warrant whether the purpose is attained, the right resources are under control, the knowledge is appropriate, and the intervention as a whole is legitimate.
Boundary critique The boundary critique does not stop there. The technique of stakeholding entrenchment and development is used to explore the practical design limits from both a positive and a more conservative point of view. This is followed by dialectical method known as Option one-and-a-half to combine the best of both the actual and the ideal world into a realistic intervention outline. From there on you can use regular planning methods or other systems methods to improve or finalise your design.
The book is grounded in systems theory, using ideas of Peter Checkland, Bob Williams (one of the authors), C. West Churchman, Werner Ulrich, Martin Reynolds, and Bob Dick. For a a more complete explanation of where our ideas came from, go to the partial preview of Wicked Solutions at www.bobwilliams.co.nz (see also the acknowledgements on page 89).
About the authors
Bob has been using systems concepts in his work for over 30 years. He was originally trained as an ecologist — one of the earliest ‘systems’ disciplines, and spent four years with the Systems Group at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He is well versed in a variety of different systems methods, including relatively ‘old’ approaches, such as system dynamics and soft systems methodology, as well as relatively new ones such as complex adaptive systems, critical systems and activity theory.
For the past few years, Bob has been exploring how to adapt systems ideas and systems methods into the practice of evaluating and redesigning complex social programmes. In particular, he is interested in how systems concepts can be applied to methods of inquiry, analysis and design that do not originate in the systems field. In other words how to make more ‘systemic’ the methods you are familiar with and use expertly in your own work rather than learn an entirely new bunch of methods. Hence this book.
But if you are interested in systems methods then his book with Richard Hummelbrunner, Systems Concepts in Action : A Practitioner’s Toolkit describes twenty of them (see Further Reading).
Sjon van ’t Hof
Sjon got acquainted with systems thinking while working at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. First he was introduced to multi-stakeholder learning in agricultural innovation systems (RAAKS or Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Knowledge Systems) and a few years afterwards to the use of monitoring and evaluation to facilitate learning in rural development. He is convinced that the complexity of international development projects and programmes often goes unrecognized while at the same time the systems tools needed to deal with complexity issues are unknown, ignored, or considered impractical.
He has a background in tropical agriculture (BSc) and irrigation engineering (MSc, Cranfield University). In the early 1980s he worked as a land use planning officer in Zambia, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an irrigation engineer for UNICEF in Timbuktu. In more recent years he has carried out missions in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, India, China, Kenya, Mauritania and Niger. The common thread in his work is understanding and strengthening the smallholder perspective in agricultural development efforts.
Sjon has written a number of posts in this blog that deal with the fundamentals of wicked problems and that may be of interest to you. But be careful: some of these earlier posts have not yet benefited of Sjon’s later insights as presented in Wicked Solutions. One of the things is that wicked problems defy normal thinking categories such as problem, solution, and system. It takes time to let that sink in.