Habemus … librum

Wicked Solutions now available as a physical book

Since its first publication as a PDF in 2014, Bob Williams and I have worked on a second edition of Wicked Solutions. It can now be ordered as a US Letter-sized paperback from lulu.com/shop/product-22562407.html. The improvements to this second edition are not just cosmetic in nature: not only did we incorporate suggestions by the users, but we also greatly improved the intervention design phase. At the time of writing the many hundreds of customers who already bought the PDF will have already received the updated PDF version free of charge.

It is about wicked problems        Wicked problems are complex, intractable problems. They require a systems approach to be dealt with properly. Wicked problems are real world problems. Examples include: the construction of roads or pipelines through contested areas; climate change; fundamentalist attacks and injustice; the demise of the welfare state; the rise of Asia; the ineffectiveness of international development; and the innovation of obsolete business models

Systems thinking itself wicked      Many great minds have attempted to explain the importance and use of systems thinking, but its uptake and spread continue to leave much to be desired. This problem was first addressed in The systems approach and its enemies by Churchman in 1979. We believe its explanation is best done by working a wicked problem, which is the main reason for writing Wicked Solutions. People who may benefit of using a systems approach include entrepreneurs, managers, (action) researchers, teachers, lecturers (and their students), people in networks or platform organizations concerned with civil society and the public sector, policy workers and decision-makers, evaluators, community workers, consultants, and coaches.

Hercules slaying Hydra

Hercules slaying Hydra

Wicked problems like Hydra      The term ‘wicked problem’ was first applied to ghettos in the USA in the 1960s. Rittel (1972, 1973) was the first to recognize the non-linear, ill-structured nature of wicked problems. He described their characteristics and general principles to address them in a non-linear fashion. Wicked problems resemble the Hydra, a mythological water monster that was killed by Hercules as his second labour. The myth contains several warnings that are relevant to wicked problems: it requires collaboration to finish off the beast; and it remains invulnerable until its last head is chopped off and the wound cauterized.

Wicked problems are a mess      Generally speaking wicked problems are hard to solve because of the tangle of interacting causes that cannot be dealt with separately. Hence the need to approach them as a whole, which is the essence of the systems approach. Many people are aware of the special nature of wicked problems, e.g. when they reproach somebody (such as a politician) that he should take the whole picture into account. Unfortunately, we rarely agree about what should be in the ‘whole picture’ and what not. And what the causes are that need to be dealt with, so what the goals are that could lead to an improvement in the situation.

 Multiple stakeholders       To find a solution we must come to an agreement by opening  each other’s eyes so that we understand how it is to be in the position of the other. It may not be necessary to directly take the other’s interests into account, but rather to see the point of view of the other. This enables us to agree on the contents of ‘the whole picture’ and about the different ways in which the whole picture can be appreciated.

Framings as a key step       An important step in harmonizing the different ways of seeing the ‘whole picture’ is by summarizing them in two to four framings. A framing is a way of saying that the situation (i.e. the problem as well as the solution) has to do with ….. In the case of the worked example in Wicked Solutions, which is about the problem of making smallholder irrigation in Sahelian Africa sustainable, there are three framings: rice production, income generation, and a market for pumps. By combining thee framings one can achieve three things: a. you prevent the design of a one-sided plan that doesn’t work on all inter-related causes at the same time; b. you take into account the interests of the main stakeholders, because you need their collaboration to work on the different causes; and c. it helps you clarify the ideal situation you should strive for.

Boundary critique       The next step is a critical inquiry using a heuristic of twelve interdependent aspects that need to be taken into consideration when making a plan, any plan, in a logically coherent manner. What is the purpose? Who will benefit? How can we know whether this is achieved? Who should make the decisions? What resources are needed? What environmental factors need to be taken into consideration? Whose expertise is important? What knowledge is needed for an effective implementation? How can we know whether this expertise or knowledge is enough to ensure a satisfactory result? (often we can’t, which is important, e.g. to allow for learning). Who or what is victimized? Who should play the role of witness or representative? What changes to the system’s  world views could minimize the negative effects? Continually compare the actual (the ‘is’) with the ideal situation (the ‘ought’). So do not just ask: what is the purpose? But also: what ought to be the purpose? And discuss why one purpose may be better than the other.

From critical ideas to intervention design     The result of all this critiquing and discussing may well be between fifty and hundred ideas. You will use those to design a new plan. Keep all of them clearly in mind by using Post-Its and by summarizing the key points, all the way preserving their critical nature. The last step is to outline the intervention design, which is a synthesis of the ideas generated by the critique. To make the design feasible some last-minute practical ideas will probably have to be added.

Implementation     For actual implementation the intervention outline will need further elaboration using more conventional, non-systemic methods. During implementation you will need to ensure you stay responsive and redesign when necessary. A systemic view, a systems approach, is always incomplete. Action creates further information and insights.

Steps before framings       We started the present outline of the systems approach in Wicked Solutions BY formulating the framings. However, the framings are preceded by three steps : a. ascertaining that you have a problem that is really important to you and determining the general nature of the problem; b. the second step is to draw the whole picture. This is indeed an actual drawing or ‘Rich Picture’, which is enriched with everything that seems important, including the stakeholders, their motivations and their stakes. Make use of Post-Its and the ideas of key participants; c. the third step is to identify the main stakeholders and 6-8 key stakes, which you summarize in 2-4 framings to guide your systemic inquiry and intervention design.

Wicked Solutions is special         … for several reasons: 1. it is grounded in practical philosophy, from Kant´s categorical imperative and Hegel´s thesis-antithesis-synthesis to Singer’s sweeping in and Churchman’s systems approach; 2. it stimulates finding new alternatives in a thorough, systemic way; 3. It is a unique way to acquire knowledge for planning in complex situations that need to be approached as a whole; 4. it is understandable and suitable for a group approach; 5. it prevents clever talkers, lobbyists, politicians to sway opinion in cunning ways; 6. It prevents bland, ineffective compromises; 7. It provides a systemic drive to implementation that is best expressed as the Principle of Systemic Agency: human action and understanding are most effective and meaningful when conceived systemically; and 8. it provides a manageable alternative to handling complexity in the face of powerful institutional incentives to simplify things.

Any disadvantages?    The disadvantages are: 1. There is still no guarantee that the end result is OK (that’s a fundamental characteristic of systemic problems, so it’s better to accept it); 2. It requires a lot of tough thinking (although the basic principles are easy to grasp) and seeing through other people’s eyes (that’s a fundamental necessity for systemic inquiry, so it’s better to aceept that, too); 3. Wicked Solutions presupposes that people are prepared to think about problems  in this particular way (People are not used to think in this way, even though most people do have some level of systemic sensibility, so why not tap into that and get better at it? ); and 4. It requires a certain measure of good will (that too is Kant. The systems approach of Wicked Solutions also creates more space for exercising good will, so it’s also a matter of gaining systemic momentum, either gradually or quickly). We conclude that systems approaches are not without their disadvantages, but these are outweighed by the advantages. Furthermore, the balance between the two can be influenced. In the end we can say with Churchman that: the systems approach is not a bad idea (4th principle of deception-perception).

Try it: lulu.com/shop/product-22562407.html (paperback 25 $) or https://gumroad.com/l/wicked (eBook 12 $).


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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