PONDERING THE LIMITS OF THE INTRACTABLE: ON " WICKED PROBLEMS "
For the purposes of promoting clear thinking, Dave Schuler
recently had a very informative post "Theseus’s Clew: strategies, meta-strategies, and “wicked problems”
"; if you wish to look at the dynamics of conflict based scenarios with a clear ( some might say " glittering") eye, then you should read Dave's post
But for the more slothful of my readers, an excerpt from Dave on the nature of " wicked problems":"Even more unfortunately there are many real-world problems that have neither engineering solutions like the first class or negotiated solutions like the second. These are the difficult problems and, in some cases, these have been called “wicked problems”.
There are many reasons that a problem may be a wicked problem:
* the problem may be ill-defined * the stakeholders in the problem may have dramatically different world views and framewor for understanding the problem * the problem may have no stopping rules
* the problem may be unique and previous experience may not be applicable
Or, in many cases, the very act of selecting an approach to solving the problem permanently forecloses other alternatives. It is impossible to arrive at an iterative solution to the problem.
Consider, for example, the mythological Greek hero Theseus. Theseus navigated through the Minotaur’s maze with a clew, a ball of yarn. The clew gave him the ability to trace back to his starting point. Without it he’d have wandered the maze forever.
That’s the key to any iterative solution: you’re able to return to some point of departure and try another way. But when the initial choice precludes returning to the starting point, i.e. the decision has consequences, you can’t just try another way. When you’ve chosen the second branch, the only way out of the maze was through the first branch, and the first branch is no longer accessible to you, you’re stuck. There may no longer be a solution."
Dave offered some excellent strategies for dealing with "wicked problems", all of which I find to be both useful and generally correct. But as he asked me for some feedback, I have to say that there is more to the story here and some nuances to "wicked problems" that Dave did not include in his concisely written post.
First of all, not all "wicked problems" were created equally wicked. We must differentiate between those problems that are intractable
from those that are merely hard or prohibitively expensive. The latter involves a significant
degree of human value choice while the former is effectively beyond any direct solution within our present power to efface. Many cutting edge scientific questions are temporarily intractable until, say for example, computing power increases by a given order of magnitude. Some philosophical or religious questions, perhaps dealing with the nature of God or the afterlife, are intractable in a permanent sense.
"Wicked problems" dealing with conflict in a complex social system are not usually intractable, though we often use that word to describe very difficult to solve conflicts in places like the Middle East or Northern Ireland. What we really mean in such cases is that the problems are exceedingly complicated as well as deeply rooted in terms of psychological and emotional investment for those involved. We often describe the second aspect as being "self-destructive" or " irrational" but in economic terms it is not irrational behavior if you place overriding value on minimizing your opponent's gains ( though it may indeed be self-destructive to execute such a strategy at all costs) even if that value-set is a product of your own skewed perception of events.
How to deal with such " wicked problems"? Here are several options to consider for non-intractable but difficult scenarios:
- Avoidance: The costs to benefits ratio of becoming deeply engaged in solving "wicked problems" are often unfavorable, even should you be successful. Unlike with the Middle East, the United States has never, for many reasons, invested much prestige or resources in remediating the legacy of 700 years of "Irish troubles" in Northern Ireland. Arguably, without any significant harm to our national interests whatsoever.
- New Eyes: If you must get involved, force yourself analyze the problem from a wide range of perspectives, the more non-traditional the better. Hone in on those perspectives that yield options with the greatest systemic effects even if those effects do not " solve" the wicked problem per se.
- The Gordian Knot: Every social system-based "wicked problem" represents a dynamic that is difficult to solve in part due to the rule-sets under which the participants are operating or the rule -set interacting with a unique environment. You can consider swallowing hard and just cutting through the entire mess by rejecting the entire paradigm in a single bold stroke ( a " Big Bang" system perturbation) that renders the problem irrelevant. This is of course, a risky move that invites replacing old problems with new and possibly worse ones.
- Rule set Reset: Somewhat akin to the Gordian knot, old paradigms are replaced with new ones because the advantages of so doing create a new consensus behind them. This is difficult but not impossible to pull-off. The Westphalian system of state sovereignty was a rule-set reset that reduced the geopolitical incentives for pursuing religious-dynastic warfare existing during the medieval world. The combined changes of nuclear weapons, the UN, Bretton Woods, and Cold War bipolarity was a partial rule-set reset from the diplomatic norms of the prewar era.
For "wicked problems" that are not intractable, wickedness is often in the eye of the beholder.
More to come later tonight.