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Why we suck at “solving wicked problems” (morebeyond.co.za)
74 points by imartin2k 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 14 comments

When I was in my urban planning masters program they suggested a typology of problems as sort of a 2x2 matrix, or a cartesian plane.

On one margin you can classify problems according to how well the mechanisms for addressing the problem are. On the other margin, you can classify problems according to how much agreement there is on what the aims should be.

Wicked problems, in my view, are problems where you neither have agreement on the desired end state, nor a good understanding/capacity to effect any potential outcome.

As a self-professed geek, I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking hard about how to address technical mechanisms of problem solving, usually with an assumed view of what constitutes “solved.”

At least in the disciplines where I’ve spent time, I’m increasingly convinced that the lion’s share of every problem is political rather than technical.

With that definition of a wicked problem, it seems obvious why we’d suck at solving them. They’re wicked after all!

So the climate is a wicked problem as an example? I think a different way to say this is that wicked problems are by definition either political or ideological.

Iagree with you completely.

Absolutely climate change is wicked, but perhaps in superlatively vicious and subtle ways. I mean, it’s not technically hard to stop puttng carbon in the atmosphere, but it is technically hard to do stop putting carbon in the atmosphere and maintain our standard of living.

In my view truly wicked problems have both ideological / political components as you say, as well as mechanistic challenges. In climate both types of challenges abound.

I dont think mechanical challenges are necessary for a wicked problem, but political and ideological challenges always are i think, i would have to think about it some more

wicked problems are by definition either political or ideological

Brilliant. https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup/commit/163a3618ba0d4e...

I believe the key aspect is independence. Can you solve a problem independently from other problems.

If you can implement a new feature within your team, it is not wicked. If you need a few other teams it becomes political and thus wicked.

The solution isn't stopping it but embracing it! There is no way you're going to put the first world genie back into the bottle. Doing so, by forcing the West into an archaic revival type society will result in revolts that will leave cheerleaders of such political solutions shall I say... more carbon neutral?

No, it would be better to embrace it and engineer around and with it.

My own nerdy ponderings on problem solving, tend to lead to communication as the key suboptimal thing. That could be an aspect of political.

For those to whom this article clicks and resonates: at what stage of ego/mental development do you think this perspective unlocks? I perceive this complexity now, but the me of just three years ago wouldn't have. In the past year I have wrestled with a complex software quality cultural transformation... But I don't think that's a reliable growth trigger, as people can stay stuck in linear thinking even as it fails. Is it solely psychological development into the self-transforming mind? Or, what would make this mindset "gettable" by more people?

Mental development is not linear.

This is actually surprisingly good. It could use some Einstein quotes, like the one about how you can't solve a problem from the same mindset that created it.

But there is also the issue that when we do, in fact, solve wicked problems, people essentially "forget" it ever happened.

From my blog, a thing I've said about a billion times and got tired or writing from scratch over and over:

Maybe you have heard of Y2K? No, maybe not. Maybe are you too young to remember it.

When computers first came out, they had very limited storage. It made a big difference if you used two digits or four to record the year. So they used two digits because the extra two were such a hardship.

As the turn of the century approached -- the year 2000 (abbreviated Y2K) -- people began predicting that our global banking system would melt down. Some people became what we now call Preppers. They had five years of flour in the basement and guns at the ready for a post apocalyptic world.

And then midnight came that New Year's Eve and the world did not melt down because old programmers who wrote old programming languages had quietly been fixing the problem for several years. Mostly, you could no longer program your VCR ahead of time to record stuff, which didn't matter that much because most people didn't know how to program their VCR anyway. They just pushed the "record" button when the show started if they wanted it recorded.

No one wakes up these days and says "Thank god! I'm not living in the Y2K Post Apocalypse! ATMs work and the global banking system still works and VCRs have long since been replaced."

Except maybe me and my sons. We occasionally say things like that. But no one else does.

Instead, there are people who mock the idea that this was ever a problem, like "Can you believe those idiots ever thought it would become a global banking meltdown! Ha!"

Similarly, when Iraq set fire to hundreds of oil wells on its way out of Kuwait, experts predicted it would burn for years and be a global environmental disaster. Then crack teams from around the world converged on Kuwait, invented new techniques on the spot and wrapped up the job in a mere six months.

There was no media storm celebrating this amazing victory on par with the dire warnings we heard about endlessly when this disaster was being predicted. This triumph became a minor footnote in more exciting news stories.

We don't run around today thanking our lucky stars that the Kuwaiti Oil Fires failed to become the global catastrophe it was expected to be.

"Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." -- Einstein

Those firefighters were terrific. There's a cool short documentary on them called Fires of Kuwait, all available on Youtube in case anyone wants to know more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L77BSBKvMJk

Same with the Chilean Atacama mine collapse rescue.

The Chilean president gets credit for unwavering support for a rescue, but the American drilling team ultimately was the successful one.


Neither of those seem like "wicked" problems in the sense the article presents. Hard, certainly. Technically challenging and expensive. But lacking the complex multilayered competing social and political tension that defines a "wicked" problem.

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