The hidden workings of Wicked Solutions

Getting to the bottom of one more wicked problem

In a previous post I spoke of the The ‘hidden workings’ of the systems approach of Wicked Solutions. The strange thing is that the steps and stages involved in Wicked Solutions allow you to intersubjectively reveal the networks of patterns and processes that form the system, i.e. that allow one to approach the messy, problematic situation ‘as a whole’, both for inquiry and design, without you being aware of that. The workings are hidden by the complexities of the boundary critique, the various preceding steps and the subsequent synthesis of formulating a comprehensive, wicked solution. The ´hiddenness´ of a wicked solution mirrors the ´hiddenness´ of the problematic situation ´as a whole´ of the wicked problem. It is not that it is really hidden; in fact, it is more open to inspection than ever. The real problem is that it is complex, which poses a cognitive challenge to many of us (at least to me). This post is designed to better prepare you for this challenge (or is it one more wicked problem as suggested in the subtitle?) and perhaps even overcome it altogether.

How to explain the systems approach?       If you have followed this blog over the past few months, you may have noticed that I have made several attempts to summarize the essence of the systems approach as used in Wicked Solutions – a book I co-authored – in a satisfactory way. This may seem strange, but a fact remains a fact, whether one denies it or not. Besides, some facts are interesting and perhaps the strangest facts are the most interesting. What I seem to have said in the first sentence is that one of the authors of Wicked Solutions, i.c. me, doesn’t understand its systems approach well enough to explain it properly. Now that may depend on what you mean by ‘properly’. If you mean understanding and knowing something well enough to regurgitate a resemblance of understanding at an exam, then I could probably pass. But if you mean understanding it well enough to show its workings from first principles, then I might well fail, depending on the phrasing of the question and the modality of the expected answer. I find this utterly frustrating, even though I know that I am not the only one, nor the least one, who has ever struggled with this matter.

Hidden explanations in Wicked Solutions      ‘Wicked Solutions’ is a workbook. Its explanations are aimed at letting readers work a case of their own. The explanations in the book serve to ensure that the reader is able to do so in a hitchfree manner.  This applies as much to the trips and tricks as it does to the underlying principles. An interesting phenomenon is that one can work in a ‘systems approach’ mode without being aware of the general, systemic principles one is applying, especially when one is a learner. To be aware of both, the actual problem one is dealing with as well as the systemic principles one is applying, requires a mix of experience, training, and intelligence. In fact, this might perhaps best be ignored, if it wouldn’t hamper implementation, especially because some of the most inquisitive minds are not offered the full conceptual oversight they need in order to convince them of the approach and its results. So, even though the main explanations of the more theoretical workings Wicked Solutions of can be gleaned from the current workbook text, acceptability of the systems approach and its results may improve from a discussion of the hidden workings.

Concept map of the systems approach        The systems approach involves a somewhat convoluted methodology with linkages back and forth and across multiple linkages. supersimpel-expandedHaving made hundreds of concept maps, the task of representing the systems approach has baffled me for years, trying one approximative concept map after the other. It is quite likely that today’s approximation is not the last, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t any good. It’s just that, like other complex problems, there is no way to settle its resolution completely and definitively. For the sake of clarity I will introduce a novelty, at least in this blog, viz. the concept map “presentation builder.” I will not explain here how it works (better look here), but let it suffice to say that I will use three screenshots of a somewhat complex concept map to bring out just those elements and linkages that I want to say something about. The basic concept map is above. Don’t worry about the spaghetti (having to do with the basic non-linearity of meaningful understanding), I will explain it step by step.

The beginning and the end     Whenever things are complicated it is good to have a look at the beginning and the end from the vantage point of the connecting centre. To start supersimpel-expanded2with the centre: wicked problems are best approached ‘as a whole’. This ‘whole’ is a complex system, which consists of a tangle of inter-related elements, of which the actors involved do not agree beforehand which ones are most relevant to the wicked problem. This implies: (1) that the boundary of this system (and therefore of the problem!) is contested; (2) that in order to address the wicked problem we should emphasize the most relevant inter-relationships, including the inter-relationships between actors or stakeholders; and (3) that we should sweep in all inter-relationships that may be relevant (instead of brushing them aside in an effort to simplify things). Since the boundary is contested, the main actors involved should attempt to elucidate the boundary by means of a so-called boundary critique. The boundary critique ‘unfolds’ the boundary choices. These choices are left open to the very end, when a synthesis takes place. The most unusual thing about this is that the synthesis delineates both the problem and the resolution. This follows from the fact that often the definition of a problem implies a particular solution. Also, it is nothing new. As early as 1973, in their discussion of the nature of wicked problems, Rittel and Webster stated that the ideal planning system (for wicked problems) continually and simultaneously searches goals, identifies problems, invents strategies, simulates alternatives, forecasts contextual changes, monitors relevant conditions, and feeds these back into the planning process. Such a planning system, which resembles the ultimate chess Grandmaster, is – of course – unattainable. Instead, the planner must acknowledge that in the case of wicked problems he cannot mimic science and engineering (and apply linear problem-solving methods). He (or she) also must learn to accept that social processes are the key links in systems of systems that are interacting and unpredictable. Instead of narrowing down these system (for detailed analysis), he must expand their boundaries (for a higher synthesis). And finally he must state the problem(s) in a valuative framework (see below). In short, Rittel & Webber advocated what we call a systems approach (Churchman, 1968).

Inter-relationships, Perspectives, and Boundaries      In our second screenshot we demonstrate the operational primacy of the three fundamental IPB concepts (inter-supersimpel-expanded3relationships, perspectives, and boundaries) and among these the central importance of ‘perspectives.’ The actors, swept in in the previous screenshot, differ in their perspectives of the situation, i.e. they value the system boundaries differently. There is no absolute truth in these perspectives, except perhaps relative to the totality of the problem (or: relative to the ‘system as a whole’). Since the actors are part of the problem, so the perspectives are part of the problem, none of them being able to reveal the ‘truth’ of the ‘problem as a whole’. What the perspectives can do is shed light on the tangle of inter-relationships by showing how these inter-relationships make up networks of patterns & processes, or, reversely, how networks of patterns & processes help to structure the tangle of inter-relationships (or to disentangle them, so to speak). It is critical to remember that perspectives can only do so partially, i.e. deceptively. The boundary critique is a way to structure the communication between contrasting perspectives, either by aligning them or by clarifying subtopics of importance. To do this, the boundary critique disposes of a number of tools that are designed to keep the structure of the communication oriented towards the ‘problem as a whole’, which – as we have seen – is closely associated with a possible ‘solution as a whole’.

The hidden workings revealed          Now comes the crucial part. We have seen that the boundary critique uses contrasting perspectives to disentangle the wicked problem. By supersimpel-expanded4structuring the tangle of inter-relationships the critique is able to reveal the contours of a possible systemic solution. This is not as mysterious as it may sound at first. There are two ways of looking at this: (1) by trying to look at the problem as a whole we can see how the different networks of patterns and processes make up the ‘system as a whole’, from which the wicked problem emerges; and (2) some of the networks of patterns and processes are actually leverage mechanisms that can contribute to improving the ‘wicked problem as a whole’. Some of these mechanisms are so-called systems archetypes. If they are new mechanisms, or modified ones, or part in a reconfiguration of old and new mechanisms, they constitute innovations that are able to transform the ‘system as a whole’ in a way that the  wicked problem is addressed in a more effective and desirable way. The final, systemic design requires one to keep a full overview of all your critical insights and potential mechanisms and synthesize (or combine) them in the best way you can. To make the design a practical, effective, desirable and feasible ‘whole’ some ‘final’, additional ideas may have to be added. But remember, wicked solutions are temporary improvements. Actors will continue to evolve new perspectives that may compel you to reconsider some of the steps in the process, which in turn may force you to refine or redesign your wicked solution.

Why couldn’t we see this?         The reason why we couldn’t see this is because:  (1) we were so very busy revealing partial networks by applying boundary critique tools on various perspectives that we couldn’t at the same time see that we were improving ‘the whole’ ; (2) the sheer number and detail of boundary choices overwhelms our cognitive capacity; and (3) we lacked a basic explanation such as the one proffered here. And as I said, this remains an approximation. If anyone sees serious flaws or knows a better one, do not hesitate to contact me at sjonvanthof (a)

P.S.   There are other ways of reading the concept map. E.g. the actors evolve (i.e. develop new) contrasting perspectives, thus changing their perception of the (leverage) mechanisms that affect the wicked problem. Factors affect the way in which actors evolve their perspectives and reveal boundary choices, so it may be worthwhile to take those factors into account when designing a new systemic intervention.


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