“We campaign in poetry, govern in prose.”
What is “wicked” about wicked problems? Here are some ways:
- We never seem to agree on what the problems are or what should be done about them;
- They keep us up at night;
- We argue endlessly over them, and can’t seem to get them settled;
- They reappear when we least expect them, often wearing new disguises;
- They generate strong emotions which, at times, seem to be irrational;
- They are “perpetual.”
“Perpetual” is the name psychologist John Gottman uses for wicked problems in relationships. In over 30 years of research and clinical practice with married couples, Gottman reports that almost 70 percent of the problems that couples bring to therapy are “perpetual;” they never go away, they are never solved. Making marriage work, then, means knowing how to work with perpetual problems, which includes neither expecting or hoping that you will be rid of them. And what is true of relationships in marriage is surely true for relationships of all kinds.
No will can expect to be successful in “taming” wicked problem without a deep understanding of the differences between tame and wicked problems. Former governor Mario Cuomo of New York adds to this understanding with his insightful phrase, “We campaign in poetry, govern in prose.”
Cuomo’s “poetry” of campaigning leading to an election is a tame problem. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Fifty percent plus one vote is enough for one candidate to win and the other to lose. Campaign tactics often include attacking an opponent, manipulating the facts, putting a favorable “spin” on events, introducing “wedge” issues designed to divide the opposition, and so on.
“Prose,” Cuomo’s term for governing, is a completely different approach. Governing needs to be inclusive and not divisive; rather than focusing upon the winners, everyone should be included. In governing there can be no long-term winners or losers. If some win while others lose, then people will disengage from the process. Rather than ending with an election, governing is perpetual; it never ends. If party in power continues with their campaign strategies of attacking, then anger and a desire for revenge is generated. The party out of power waits for its turn to attack and on and on, making certain that “what goes around, comes around.”
Cuomo’s phrase helps us understand why effective government is so elusive and rare. While getting elected is a tame problem, governing is a a wicked one. Many politicians seem not to understand this difference and, once they are elected, make no attempt to change their styles and approaches. If elected leaders rely upon the tactics and strategies that were used during the campaign, it becomes impossible to govern effectively. And we know how that turns out: gridlock.
Important differences between tame and wicked problems go beyond politics. Here are some compare and contrast examples:
- Go on a date, Create and maintain a relationship;
- Get married, Make a marriage;
- Conceive a child, Raise a child;
- Buy a house, Make a home;
- Say “trust me,” Be trustworthy;
- Play it as written (symphony), Improvise (jazz quartet);
- Have a team building event, Build an effective team;
- Make a strategic plan, Implement the plan;
- Set goals, Reach those goals;
- Get promoted, Be effective in the new position;
- Win the lottery; Recover your life afterwards;
- Create a problem, Learn from it;
- Say “I’ll help,” Be helpful;
- Problems with answers, Problems without answers;
- Retire, Have a successful retirement;
And, as I quoted before on this website, from former Secretary of State George Schultz:
- ”Problems you can solve,” “Problems you can only work at”.
Farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry clearly captured the distinction I am trying to make when he wrote: ”Science can arm us, but Science cannot disarm us.” Once a nation makes a decision to arm itself (which is a wicked problem), then making it happen is for the most part a technical problem, a tame one. Disarming is an entirely different story; not tame but wicked.
Former Secretary of State George Schultz once drew a distinction that makes clear the difference between tame and wicked problems: Some “problems you can solve,” he said, and some “problems you can only work at.” Author Gary Hamel, commenting on Schultz’ insight, wrote “When you are up against problems you can only work at, even modest advances can yield big dividends.”
Taming wicked problems means making “modest advances” toward important goals, whether they be raising a child, implementing a strategic plan, or disarming a nation. In order for these “modest advances” to occur, when working with wicked problems, learning to think differently and act differently is the way forward.