Wicked Solutions: one more explanation

The complexity of addressing complexity

Last June “Wicked Solutions” was published to provide readers, facilitators (not manipulators), or stakeholders with a generic systems approach for addressing wicked problems. Wicked problems are a special category of problems. They are also known as hyper-)complex problems, social messes, or unstructured problems (see e.g. Managing wicked problems: a primer or Cynefin framework in brief). Wicked problems were only described as such in the 1970s. Despite their (unrecognized) ubiquity and the passing of several decades only very few people are now able to recognize a wicked problem when they “see” one, and even fewer know what systems methods are available to address  them. Such methods have a tendency of being pretty complex themselves and rather at odds with common modes of thinking. Little suprise then that it is difficult to explain successfully how the approach used in “Wicked Solutions” works. For this reason “Wicked Solutions” gives a worked example along with the explanation and many tips to make sure that even systems novices would know where to get started and how to proceed, without having to understand the process as a whole or its workings. We swear that we have made every effort to keep “Wicked Solutions” as simple and brief as possible, but we ended up with a 97-page workbook, nevertheless. Every once in a while I get new ideas for giving you a quick overview of what it is about and how it works. This is my latest effort. Let me know if it is clear so that I can stop worrying about it.

The actors know best     The people directly involved in a problematic situation are in the best position to find ways for addressing it. The trouble is that they may not know or believe that; yet! And they may also need a little help to get there: as explained in The Design Way: first principles there is some midwifery involved. The midwifery is embedded in the Wicked Solutions approach, but this doesn’t mean that the approach is effortless. On the contrary, systems thinking involves some hard thinking. But systems methods prevent you from going haywire. Especially if the methods are well organized and properly explained, like in Wicked Solutions. But beware, there may be some iteration involved, because it is impossible to predict at which stage of the problem resolution process a particularly useful or creative insight may dawn on the actors.

The activities involved    The activities of the users or actors are indicated in dark brown beige in below concept map. They are more or less arranged in clockwise order, i.e. the top ones from left to right, the middle-left ones from bottom to top, the middle-right ones from top to bottom, and the bottom ones from right to left. In a few cases it was not possible to stick to this ideal. So key activities include: (1) identifying the wicked problem; (2) exploring inter-relationships; (3) exploring the stakes; (4) selecting key framings; (5) deliberating critical questions by contrasting “is” versus “ought”; (6) exploring boundary choices by contrasting existing and novel values & assumptions; and (7) composing an intervention outline by holistically combining the best corrective options.

One more way to explain Wicked Solutions

Where do problems come from?       Problems, especially wicked problems, emerge in situations of complexity that are valuated differently by different stakeholders or actors. And they endure for the same reason. Resolving such problems require other methods than ordinary problems (although there is nothing extra-ordinary about wicked problems, really). Most people are “unblissfully” unaware of wicked problems as such a special class of problems, and equally unaware of the need for special approaches to deal with them. It is a systemic catch-22 situation: “shit happens,” we don’t recognize its nature, so we don’t know how to address it.

Aligning stakes in ten steps      The full, deep-dive approach of Wicked Solutions involves about 10 steps. The number of steps may vary a bit depending on what you call a step. Because it is about systems thinking it involves some sort of situations (some people like to call them “wholes”) that have turned messy because of many parts interacting in ways that defy normal analysis. Systems thinking, and systems approaches such as the one of C. West Churchman in particular, have been designed to deal with such situations. In many of these situations some of the parts or elements happen to be people, whose views or valuations of the situation may differ a lot in ways that are not easily comparable. This is what often may have caused the problem in the first place, so it is where we should look for the solution. You can read more about that in It’s a wicked problem, stupid!

Framings help structure the inquiry     One of the innovative aspects of Wicked Solutions is the use of framings. Framings are ways of encapsulating the key meaning of the diverging stakes of key stakeholders to help structure the inquiry. The framing step follows after mapping the problematic situation and analysing the stakeholders, and identifying the stakes. It is a way of structuring the problem space without imposing early limits on the solutions (see Resolving wicked problems: rules of the game). It is only after having structured the problem space, that a first effort is made to synthesize the solution space by outlining a possibly ideal situation. The ideal situation can then be contrasted with the actual one using a whole battery of critical questions, which will lead the group exploration to identify key issues, which can be addressed by so-called boundary choices.

Values underlie stakes and boundary choices   This has been recognized by a great many authors, including Churchman, Ackoff, Meadows, Nelson, and Ulrich. Churchman, Ackoff, and Nelson emphasize the importance of the ideal. Somehow the diverging stakes must get better aligned in a new, improved situation. According to Ulrich this can only be done by answering critical questions that are more or less based on Churchman’s framework of planning or design categories, which are considered to form a comprehensive heuristic. “Heuristic” here means a method for finding out things, using Churchman’s or Ulrich’s framework for formulating critical questions. Dana Meadows identifies 12 leverage points, of which the 3 most effective ones are in fact value-based.

Critical issues are very practical   All this talk about values may sound disquietingly unpragmatic to the more hard-nosed among you. There is no need to be worried for three reasons. First of all, team members will bring up matters that are technical, economic, or organizational in nature anyway, simply because they consider them to be important. Secondly, Churchman´s heuristic is also known as “the systems approach“. Churchman developed the systems approach to improve systems like industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions, and so on. It is a highly systemic and systematic way of analysing systems or organizations. Third, the critical additions by Werner Ulrich help identify what Churchman called the environmental fallacy, which was his term for the unintended, ignored, or unexpected consequences of a particular intervention.

Corrective options may have disadvantages       Ideals, being what they are, can never be fully realized. That’s one way of interpreting the proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It implies that ideals can be acted upon, but only with due caution. The trick is to identify which values and assumptions underlie which boundary choices and examine very carefully what are the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of corrective action they enable. Note that only novel values and assumptions allow truly innovative corrective action. The combination of this type of innovative valuation with boundary critique is another innovative aspect of Wicked Solutions.

The final intervention design       …. is produced by combining the best of the incremental and innovative options, i.e. the best of the old and new values and assumptions in a compositional assembly that can cause things, including people, to stand together as a unified whole (see blog posts on The Design Way). The combination of Option One-and-a-Half (i.e. seeking the halfway optimum between the old and the new, but not some sort of half-baked compromise) with Churchman’s Systems Approach or Ulrich’s Critical Systems Heuristics is the third main innovative aspect of Wicked Solutions.

By way of summary     Diverging stakes of different stakeholders cause wicked problems to persist. These stakes are difficult to change, because they are underlain by values, world views, purposes, and aspirations that touch the core of our being. The most effective way of addressing wicked problems is by transforming these values and assumptions in relation to the problem at hand, which reconfigures the stakes and improves the problematic situation. Wicked Solutions manages to do so by helping stakeholders to develop new perspectives on the problem and the underlying causes. Wicked Solutions is unique by its readily applicable combination of existing systems tools and approaches in a novel package designed for effective group exploration of wicked problems, including the ensuing composition of innovative intervention outlines.

A free, 24-page partial preview can be downloaded from www.bobwilliams.co.nz/wicked.pdf. Wicked Solutions can be purchased from gum.co/wicked.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. 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. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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