Monthly Archives: February 2014


IMG_0082 Wicked problems are never solved. At best,
they are only re-solved, over and over again.

Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber

“Solving” is for tame problems; “Taming” is
  for wicked ones.

Joseph Bentley


Among the most challenging (and frustrating) aspects of wicked problems is that they do not get solved.  Here is how Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber put it: “Wicked problems are never solved. At best, they are only re-solved, over and over again.” Struggling with problems that never can be solved presents us with a new problem – a meta-level one. With wicked problems, our traditional, well-honed, and time-tested methods and techniques do not work. If we are to make any progress with them, we need to think differently and then  act differently.

Where we can count on our traditional methods to work, and work well, is with tame problems. While tame problems can be complicated and difficult, we can eventually come to understand and then define them. Frequently, by applying our technical knowhow, we can also solve them. The great advantage in working with tame problems is that at the end of the day there is a correct or true answer, something that is not true for wicked ones.  As a society, we have made enormous progress by applying our problem solving skills – based primarily upon technical and scientific knowledge – to our tame problems.

While wicked problems present us with a number of difficult challenges, there is one that is especially vexing: we are never finished with them. As we grapple with them, we often become impatient. We want to fix things and be done with them. Wicked problems refuse to cooperate. They are messy, ill-defined, open to many competing interpretations depending upon one’s point of view, more complex than we can understand, and lacking correct answers. Making things even worse, each wicked problem is unique, and rather than a separate and distinct problem, can be seen as a symptom of yet another problem.  When we try to “fix” them, we inevitably create new and unexpected problems; and, perhaps most frustrating, for them there is no stopping rule. As long they matter to us,  we never get to a place where we are done with them.

Faced with this meta-problem – our traditional ways of dealing with problems are inadequate – what are we to do? Walk away? Given the pervasive presence of wicked problems, as well as their importance, this is not an option. Let other people handle them? Other people are no better prepared than we are, especially for problems that we care deeply about. We have a FIO problem – we need to Figure It Out, then make it happen.

Drilling down into the idea of “taming” wicked problems offers us an opportunity to learn from the lion tamer. Those who make their living in a circus ring with four or five snarling, angry, hostile lions are facing a “taming” problem. The tamers understand clearly that the lions are not “tamed” but are wild. In the ring, lion tamers have two continuing problems: First, to survive, and second, to keep the “taming” process going. For both of these problems, as long as they are facing the lions, there are no stopping rules.  Armed with a whip, a chair, and their authoritative stance, they seek to gain and keep some measure of control over the lions.  They are constantly taming the lions; they know that they are never tamed. For those with the whip, there can be no relaxing of focus nor wandering of attention. There is no walking away from the lions; facing up to them is required. Those who forget this, often regret it.

Those who grapple with wicked problems (all of us) face the same dilemma: the problems we face are never solved, fixed, finished, or tamed. As long as we are concerned about the problem, and involved with it, there is no moment when we can say, “At last, it’s over. Time to move on.” For people who find themselves metaphorically in a circus ring, armed with a whip and chair and facing a wicked problem – a married couple trying to make their marriage work; a business leader facing the continuing challenges of quality, or customer satisfaction, or organizational fairness and justice; an elected leader struggling to make government function effectively – there is no “moving on.” Rather, what they face, as do we,  is staying with it.

What does “taming wicked problems” mean? It means acting in ways to gain some measure of control over the critical variables in a situation or with an issue that concerns us. It means finding ways of taking action in order to narrow the gap between the present state of affairs (usually undesirable), and a future, more desirable, one.

How can we make this happen? What follows is a list of suggested steps to be taken, each of which is in itself a complicated and difficult problem:

Finding a Problem:

A situation or issue is identified and selected by a person, or persons, as a potential problem, one that is important enough to her to warrant her attention. “Here is a situation that isn’t working as it should,” says Mary. “It’s one we need to work on.”

Owning It:

Mary becomes the owner of the potential problem. It is hers. “I care about this,” she says to herself and everyone else, “and I intend to do something about it.”

“Creating” the Problem:

Wicked problems are not discovered, nor are the uncovered. They do not exist until human beings create them and claim ownership of them. They come to life when a person, or persons, imposes order upon a confusing, chaotic, messy situation.  Only when the problem is “created” does it become possible to take action to make things better.

Formulating the Problem:

Wicked problems are not like apples on a tree waiting to be picked. They are created, then formulated by people extracting them – pulling them out – from a  confusing, chaotic, “mess.”  To formulate a wicked problem is to define it, then give it a name.

Defining the Problem:

Problems are defined when the gaps between the present state and a future state are described. Defining a problem begins with setting a goal – “this is where we want to be” – and is followed by describing clearly the present condition – “and here is where we are.”  The nature of the gap, together with the obstacles, barriers and detours that are to be found within this gap, is the definition of the problem.

Naming the Problem:

In order for people to understand the nature of the problem, communicate with others about it, and make plans to grapple with it, the emerging problem needs to be named. In medicine, naming the problem is the diagnosis.  Until the doctors have an accurate diagnosis of the health problem, no treatment for the illness or disease will be effective. In the process of taming wicked problems, naming the problem is not the same as a medical diagnosis, but it serves the same function.  Naming the problem opens the door to helpful thinking and acting.

Engaging, Recruiting, Enlisting Others:

With wicked problems, other people are almost always involved, either directly or indirectly. The right people need to “get on the bus;” they need to be engaged, recruited, and then those who can help need to be enlisted. Guidelines for finding those people to involve and recruit include:

-   Who cares about the emerging problem?

-   Who is affected by it?

Who knows about it (knowledge and experience)?

-  Who can do something about it (authority and influence)?

-  Who will do something about it? (motivation)?

Creating and Implementing an Action Plan:

The goal of the “people on the bus” is to gain some measure of control over the important variables in the situation, leading to making changes in the situation or the people or both. This is achieved by creating an “action plan” (which takes the place of a solution). First they work together to create the plan, and then to implement it. Implementing the plan means taking whatever actions are necessary in order to narrow the gap between the present state and the future one.

In summary:  Taming a wicked problem begins with a person, or persons, who identifies a situation or issue that he or she cares about and wants to see it changed.  Other people usually become involved, and they also come to care about the emerging problem. Together they “create” the problem, then formulate it – define and name it.  An action plan is developed and, when implemented, will narrow the gap between a future state and the present one. Narrowing the gap is best achieved by identifying the obstacles that stand between Here and There, then either removing them,  going around, over, or through them.  Narrowing an important gap is what we call Progress.  All of this occurs in the midst of Continuous Change, and since Continuous Change eventually changes everything, this will be repeated over and over. As the Nike ad tells us, “There is no finish line.”

None of this is easy, simple, or straightforward. There are no quick fixes or magic bullets. There are no answers to turn to in the backs of books. As I suggested earlier, with wicked problems we have a Figure It Out (FIO) problem. For wicked problems,  then, there is no “solution,” or “fix;”  what we face is “Taming.”*  And there is no stopping rule.

Perhaps this is how it should be. The really important aspects of our lives are never over and done with.  As the poet Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

(*The critical distinction between “tamed” and “taming” was suggested by my collaborator, Michael A. Toth.)

“Going Meta…”

IMG_0081“Anything you can do I can do meta…”  Many will recognize this as a take-off of the song Anything you can do I can do better, from the 1946 Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun.  The quote appears in a recent book by philosopher Daniel Dennett titled Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking  (2013)  Dennett believes that “meta” is a very big deal.

“Going meta,” according to Dennett, is a philosopher’s most important tool for thinking and learning.  It is also among the best ways to gain a new perspective, get unstuck, get out of a rut, and move forward when struggling with a difficult problem.  It is not only the best way, there are times when it is the only way!

“Going meta,” Dennett writes, is “thinking about thinking, talking about talking, reasoning about reasoning.” The philosopher W. V. O Quine uses a different term, “semantic ascent.” For Quine it means ascending, or going up from talking about justice or freedom or elephants to talking about talking about justice, freedom or elephants. Going meta means to stop doing what we are doing – thinking reasoning, talking – then move up to the next level and examine how we are thinking, reasoning, talking.

Going meta not only applies to getting better at thinking, talking, and reasoning, but to almost any other activity: making decisions, persuading other people, solving problems, leading a meeting, praising others, discipling children, giving (or getting) feedback, writing an essay or a report, and on and on. Meta-work begins with stopping whatever we are doing,  then examining how we are doing it, then making changes so that things will work better in the future.  Here are some phrases that begin the process of “going meta” in real time:

“This isn’t working for me.  I would like to start over.”

“It seems to me that we’re lost.  Where are we on the agenda?”

“I don’t want to have a fight.  Let’s stop and see where we are.”

Going meta is useful for working on previous problem situations as well. It begins when one person says “You know that argument we had yesterday?  I would like to talk about how we got into it and what we can do to avoid it in the future.”

“Going meta” is especially useful when people are struggling to make something work and having limited success.  What usually happens is everyone tries harder;  often, this only makes things worse.  What “going meta” offers is for people to take a look at what is happening, then “try differently.”  It offers an opportunity to break up unproductive patterns, whatever they are, and make a new start.

“Going meta” is among the most important skills for dealing with problems.

The purpose of  this website, and of the themes and issues addressed in these posts, is “going meta” with problems as problems.

There will be no attempts to “solve” any specific problem.  What we will do is “ascend,”  move up one level and then, looking down,  explore in depth the nature of problems themselves.

There are several reasons for this approach:

First, problems are an important part of everyone’s life.  In many ways, they are at the center of our lives.  As human beings, struggling with problems of one kind or another is surely among our most widely shared experience.  As the poet once noted (in what has been called the shortest poem ever written) “Adam had ‘em.”  Though he was referring to microbes, he could just as well have meant problems.  And not only Adam! The rest of us have “had ‘em” as well!

Second, even though problems are ubiquitous, many of us hold a number of profound misunderstandings about the nature of problems.  As a result, many of our most important problems, the ones that affect our lives most deeply, rarely get resolved no matter how hard we try.

Third, while we can “solve” some problems we face, there are others that seem to be beyond us.  As I will make clear later, these problems – the Wicked ones – are almost always among the most important.

Fourth:  Our “Quality of Life” – our satisfaction with what we do, our sense of personal worth, our successes in our most important relationships, and at work, our experiences of well-being and happiness – is largely determined by our abilities and skills in managing successfully our difficult,”messy” and complicated problems. While working on them is complicated, successful results with problems is not:  More skill with problems leads to more happiness; less skill, to more unhappiness.

Are problems really important in our lives?  Or can we, as some suggest, safely ignore them, focus on the positive, and get on with it.  This is an important issue I will come back to in the future.  For now, consider Mike Myatt’s, position.  Writing in Forbes Magazine Myatt argues that

the biggest problems all leaders face is problem solving
itself…Pick any leadership challenge and it boils down to a
problem solving issue – nothing more, nothing less.  Issues
surrounding talent, finance, public policy, operations, strategy,
social purpose, execution, competition, litigations,etc., are simply
problems to be solved.

And then Myatt adds a zinger:  ”…most leaders are woefully inept when it comes to problem solving.”

Myatt’s insight applies not only to leaders, but to the rest of us as well. Pick any issue that we care about and struggle with, and it turns out to be a problem to be “solved.”

The biggest problem we all face goes beyond any one problem.  It is figuring out how to deal with the processes of working on problems. And, sad to say, many of us are woefully inept in dealing not only with some problems, but with problem solving itself.

Learning about “problem solving itself” means going meta with problems.  Where to start?  I will come back to this in some detail in a future post.  For now, it is crucial to grasp the importance of “going meta:” stopping the action when things aren’t working, figuring out why, then trying again.  As I suggested earlier, this is among the best ways of making sure of progress while working on any problem.  When people, teams and organizations get off track, “going meta” may be the only way of making things better instead of making them worse.