- Wicked problems are different again. They involve complex, messy and often intractable challenges, which can probably only rarely be totally eliminated. There are no known solutions, partly because there are no simple, linear causes – the actual causes are themselves complex, ambiguous and often interconnected – multiple causes and causal chains abound. Similarly, multiple, partial solutions are the order of the day – the aim is always to take bite-sized chunks out of the wicked problem, so that its magnitude or severity is reduced.
Here are some examples of typical wicked problems that managements face:
In passing, note the emphasis, explicit or implicit, on learning that is both iterative and ongoing.
Wicked problems, change and control
When the concept of wicked problems is combined with insights about change and control, the very real challenge for leaders becomes clear.
Changes occur over three time frames – short, medium and long term. These are sometimes known as closed change (about knowing;analysis), contained change (about probability;prediction) and open change (about intuition:experiment). Each requires a different type of control approach. Control by variance works for closed change; control by grand design is OK for contained change; but the only approach that makes sense for open change is control by trial-and-error. These different types of change are applied to past, present and future change, producing a nine-cell table or matrix.
If we then add in the three different types of problem (if there was such a thing as three-dimensional paper to draw on!), it would be possible to turn the three-by-three change and control matrix (with nine cells) into a three-by-three-by-three box (with 27 cells). The same sort of structures with respect to control mechanisms apply, but with a difference. Mostly (but not always) tame problems are short-term challenges, which means that control by variance can safely be applied. But there are exceptions. Mostly (again but not always) critical problems are ‘here and now’ challenges, otherwise they could not reasonably be classified as critical - so again, control by variance is probably just fine.
But when dealing with wicked problems, there is no short-term; there are no certainties. Prediction may work, up to a degree, but the very nature of the sort of multiple, partial solutions that are needed dictates a move away from control by variance to control by grand design, and (predictably!) into control by trial-and-error. Unfortunately, it is common for management to rely excessively on short-term, control by variance models. In the real world of wicked problems, the need for working with probability and prediction, and ultimately trial-and-error, leads to what has been tagged ‘the illusion of control’. On the surface - the illusion - it appears that it is the numbers that drive everything, and that things are as the numbers suggest. Under the surface - the reality - there are chaotic systems operating, with people trying to create order by solving real-world, wicked problems.
So, this produces a recipe for extreme tension in managers trying to live with the 27 cell box. They are already living with complexity now coupled with ambiguity, and here comes a short-term numbers-driven manager who only uses control by variance. Time for a different style of leadership and a new approach to resolving wicked problems!