In the wide world of problems, there are solved and unsolved problems. Solved problems are dead problems, and few people except historians have much interest in them. When people find themselves up against a problem that has been solved before, what is helpful is to look for previous solutions: Previous experience; recipes and formulae; answers in the backs of books; experts who know what to do and how to do it; our own memory banks.
On the other hand, unsolved problems are not dead but very much alive. They are challenging and often interesting as well. Some of them are troubling. Some eventually are solved, and so are killed. Others, however, do not get solved, and remain on our radar screens to be visited over and over. Eventually, some are determined to be mysteries. We understand that mysteries do not get solved, so we respond with contemplation and awe. Unsolved problems – the “Not-Mysteries” – tend to remain with us until we either choose to take them on or have no choice but to deal with them.
Tame or Wicked Problems
Problems that can be solved are tame: Fixing a computer; doing the shopping for the week; writing a short story; sending astronauts to the moon and bringing them home safely; making an omellete; getting elected to office. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be defined, goals can be set and achieved and, once they are solved, they are put aside. Nevertheless, many tame problems reappear over and over (computers need to be fixed every now and then) but, since we know there are solutions, and we know what they are, we don’t lose much sleep over them. Facing up to them becomes routine.
Problems that have no single solution but still must be wrestled with are mostly wicked: Creating an effective work team; raising children; giving and receiving help; dealing with drug addiction; making a successful marriage; establishing quality in customer service; achieving excellence in education; reducing global warming; governing. While they seem to have a beginning, most have had a long and complicated history. The “beginning” of a wicked problem is when someone enters the picture. The first thing a wise person does when he or she begins to work on a wicked problem is to learn as much as possible about what people have done with it in the past.
What wicked problems especially do not have are endings. A person may give up and walk away, may choose another challenge, may ask for a transfer, may try to turn it into a tame problem (getting a divorce for example), but when a person is fully engaged with a wicked problem, what she or he cannot expect is that it will be over. What wicked problems consist of are only “beginnings” and “middles.”
Tame and Wicked Problems
In the world of problems that are alive then, there are solvable problems (tame) and unsolvable problems (wicked) and then there are problem that are both tame and wicked. These are what I call Nested Problems. They are problem situations that contain elements that can be solved, and elements that cannot be solved.
Here is the definition of Nested Problems that appeared in the previous essay: Nested Problems are to be found in problem situations which, while they have the appearance of being tame (and therefore seem to be solvable), are actually “bundled” problems consisting of tame problems nested within wicked ones.
Two points about nested problems: First, they often are perceived by problem solvers as tame problem and so are treated that way.
And second: It is only after the tame part of the problem has been “solved” and this solution is broadcast to others in one way or another that it becomes apparent by their reactions that the problem was not only a tame one but a wicked one as well.
An Example: Hong Kong’s Wild Boar Problem
The headline in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2015 describes Hong Kong’s problem: ”In Hong Kong, Wild Boar Population has Locals Squealing.” The wild boar problem in Hong Kong seems to be straightforward: Hong Kong is being overrun with wild boars and the people want something done about them.
The Sai Kung Wild Pig Hunting Club has a solution: ”Gun the pesky pigs down.” Chan Kang, 72-year old leader of the wild pig hunting club explains the logic of killing the pigs: ”They are wild animals and not pets. They are fierce and not kind.” And now, said Kang, the boars are growing in number and “fear no man.” In years past, said Kang, when the hunters were allowed to shoot to kill, the city had no wild boar problem.
The times have changed. Today hunting of the boars is in decline. So far in 2015, only 3 boars have been killed, compared to “over a hundred a year” a decade ago.
Why no more killing the wild boars? The answer is the emergence of the Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group, which argues vigorously against killing the boars. ”They are cute,” the members of the Concern Group argue, and tell Hong Kong residents to “enjoy the chance encounter” when they meet up with a boar, some of which can weigh up to 450 pounds. Members of the Wild Boar Concern Group view the boars as part of the natural world that, in an environment that has been heavily altered by humans, need to be preserved. Roni Wong, 31-year old co-founder of the Wild Boar Concern Society, hands out pamphlets that feature drawings of adorable, fuzzy boars, and urges residents to “keep calm,” when they meet a boar and “definitely do not call the police.”
Hong Kong’s wild boar dilemma is clearly a nested problem. What used to be a tame problem with a clear solution - shoot to kill – has become a nested one: People have organized successfully against the tame solution. Shooting boars as a solution is no longer the accepted thing to do.
Taking Action with Nested Problems
Step 1: Determine if the problem a nested one.
Although most important problems are nested, not all are. What is important before beginning to work on a problem is to determine if it is nested.
In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky use the term “bundled” to describe problems that have both tame and wicked elements. ”Most problems,” they write, “come bundled with both technical and adaptive aspects” (their terms for tame and wicked). For them, the necessary first step in working with nested problems is to “distinguish between them in order to decide which to tackle first and with what strategy.”
Distinguishing the presence of tame and wicked elements in a problem situation can best be accomplished by identifying elements that correspond to the definitions of tame and wicked problems. The definition of tame problems includes the following:
- Goals can be reached. The gaps between the present state and the future state can be identified and successfully closed.
- Correct solutions and true answers can be found.
- Problem solving processes can be used that are primarily convergent in nature. Problem solvers move forward by eliminating possible solutions until they converge upon the correct solution or answer.
- There is a beginning (“Here is an interesting problem for us to take on”), a middle (“We think this will fix it”), and an end (“Problem solved”).
- Several problem solvers working on the same problem in different places can be expected to arrive at the same answer.
The definition of wicked problem is quite different:
- Goals exist, but they cannot be fully achieved. Moving toward the goal is possible – this is called progress – but what is achieved are “near misses.” Gaps can never be fully closed, only narrowed. We can get close to our goals, but never reach them.
- Rather than finding true or correct solutions, what is possible are “solutions” that are Good Enough, Better Than the Others, or The Best We Can Do.
- The problem solving process always begins with Divergent efforts: ”Let chaos reign,” said Andy Grove, CEO of Intel. Finding and examining many possible alternative “solutions” gets us started. When there are on the table as many possible alternatives as can be imagined, then the group shifts to a process of convergence. ”Reining in chaos” sets the new direction, resulting in the selection of the “best” alternative.
- Rather than clear beginnings or final endings, what people face with wicked problems are “mostly middles.”
- Five problem solvers working in separate room on the same wicked problem will end up with five different problem definitions, and five different plans for dealing with them.
Step 2: Solve the solvable problems.
Once it is clear that the problem being considered is “bundled” or nested, the next step is to examine the tame part of the problem, define it clearly, and decide if it can be solved without creating more problems. In my previous post I reported that the keepers at the Copenhagen zoo believed that the problem they had with Marius was a tame one and they assumed, falsely as it turned out, that it was one they could solve themselves. If they had paused long enough to ask the question, “If we go ahead with our plan to get rid of our ‘surplus’ giraffe by killing Marius, is it possible that other people might be upset?” By not rushing to their premature solution, they might have saved themselves a great deal of grief.
Over the past decades, psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues have worked with hundreds of couples who were struggling with marital problems. In the process they gradually came to a profound insight: All conflicts, they realized, “…fall into one of two categories: Either they can be resolved [tame], or they are perpetual [wicked], which means that they will be part of [the couples] lives forever.” Of the many problems presented to the psychologists, almost 30 percent were tame problems and so could be solved. The remaining 70 percent were ”perpetual,” problems that could never be “solved” but only worked on again and again. ”… [Perpetual] problems,” they wrote, ”are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way that chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow.”
The most important problems that married couples struggled with were often nested problems consisting of “solvable” problems (tame) and perpetual problems (wicked) bundled together.
While important, this was not their only important finding. Gottman and his colleagues understood how difficult it is to tell people that some of their problems could not be solved, but could only be lived with. They worked to teach the couples how to deal with them. But the most serious obstacle they found was that the ones that could be solved – the solvable ones – seldom were! What was possible, and what could have been helpful in improving the relationship, was often ignored!
The psychologists were clear in their recommendations: The best strategy for working with nested problems in marriage as well as in other relationships, in teams, organizations and societies was to solve the solvable ones first!
- A short tempered boss who has a long history of blowing up over insignificant issues may not be able to gain complete control of his emotions, but he can start and end staff meetings on time.
- A husband may not be able to eradicate his feelings of frustration over the way his wife disciplines the children, but he can take a turn preparing dinner and then, afterward, do the dishes and clean up the kitchen.
- A supervisor at work may be uncomfortable with conflict and seek to avoid it at all cost, but she can learn to listen carefully and non-judgmentally to the concerns of others.
- A father may not be comfortable with his son’s choice of music and clothes, but he can show up at his soccer games.
- A VP for Finance in a large corporation may have difficulties not feeling resentful toward his new boss who is not only a woman, but in his opinion unqualified to be CEO, but he can make sure that his work is completed on time and with no mistakes.
-A new mother may be frightened by her feelings of resentment toward her new baby, but she can make sure the baby is fed when she is hungry, and bathed every day.
-A man suffering from Type I diabetes may not be able to cure his disease, but he can leave his house each morning at 6:00 am for a two-mile walk.
In summary, an important and necessary step for moving forward with nested problems is to define the tame problem, determine whether it can be solved without an excessive amount of collateral damage, and then solve it!
Step 3: Work with the Wicked
Once the solvable problem has been solved, and no disasters have been noticed, it is time to turn to the wicked part of the nested problem.
As I have said, while wicked problems cannot be solved, they can be managed. ”We may not love these problems,” writes Gottman, but we can learn to “cope with them, avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them.”
Here are some strategiesfor coping with wicked problems:
Strategy #1: Wicked Problem Talk:
Among the most important strategies for working with wicked problem is becoming a master of Wicked Problem Talk
While much of the work with tame problems is analytic in nature, (including observation, collecting data and organizing it in order to communicate it to others), wicked problems are first attacked with conversations, first with oneself, and then with others: ”Can I figure out why this problems seems to be so important for me?” “How do I see the problem?” ”How do others see the problem?” “Why is it important?” ”Who is affected by it?” ”What has been done with this before?” “By whom?” Central to the process is to be able to speak clearly and concisely, ask good questions, listen actively, express one’s opinions and preferences, seek a balance between advocacy and inquiry, agree, disagree, persuade, convince, and also be open to being persuaded and convinced by othrers. In short, wicked problem talk is Straight Talk consisting of the following
- Meta Talk: Talk about how you are working on the problem;
- Search Talk: Seek helpful and valid information;
- Influence Talk: Seek to influence others toward one’s preference and point ofview; be willing to be influenced by others toward their point of view;
- Self Talk: Saying what you see, hear, want, prefer, intend, and feel. An important part of Self Talk is an I-Message: Describing what you see, hear, prefer; sharing your cognitive and emotional responses to what has happened or is happening; listing carefully to the others’ perspective; and then jointly seeking a new direction.
Strategy #2: Find a Third Way:
In his foreword to Adam Kahene’s Solving Tough Problems, Peter Senge observes that Kahene’s great strength in working with tough problems was that between “a growing sense of powerlessness and an increasing reliance upon force” he was able to find a ‘third way:’ a transformation in our ability to talk, think, and act together. I am convinced,” adds Senge, “this is the only reliable path forward, not only for hierarchical leaders but for all of us – as parents, citizens, and people at all levels in organizations – seeking to contribute to meaningful change.” Finding a Third Way out of the dilemma of being trapped between opposite extremes is among the most important ways of working with wicked problems.
Problem situations are often defined as either Right vs Wrong, or Right vs. Right. For Right vs. Wrong problems there is a right solution amidst many wrong ones, a correct answer among many incorrect ones. Solving Right vs. Wrong problems is a relatively easy call (though often not practiced): Choose the right one. Right vs. Wrong problems are equivalent to tame problems.
Right vs. Right problems are almost always wicked problems and are much more complicated. Here is an example: A number of years ago, I sat in an executive staff meeting of a Fortune 500 company while the CEO brought everyone up to date on a decision they had taken several months earlier to close a major manufacturing facility in Dallas that resulted in the loss of over 2500 jobs. He emphasized once again that information could not be shared with others since all of the financial and personnel issues had not been resolved.
Later in the week, the CEO led a Town Meeting session with key managers designed to deal openly with questions and concerns. As the meeting drew to a close, a man stood in the back and asked, “There are rumors that the Dallas facility is going to be closed. Is it true? I am about to close on a house in Dallas and I need to know?”
This is an example of Right vs. Right problem: It is right to tell the truth, especially when asked a specific question, and it is right to hold back confidential information until it can be legally shared.
Here are some examples from How Good People Make Tough Decisions by Rushford Kidder:
“It is right to provide our children with the finest public schools possible – and right to prevent the constant upward ratcheting of state and local taxes;
“It is right to honor a woman’s right to make decisions affecting her body – and right to protect the lives of the unborn;”
“It is right to condemn the minister who has an affair with a parishioner – and right to extend mercy to him for the only real mistake he has ever made in his job;”
“It is right to ‘throw the book’ at good employees who made dumb decisions that endanger the firm – and right to have enough compassion to mitigate the punishment and give him or her another chance.”
Right vs. Right problems are among the most difficult of wicked problems.
Rather than choose one or the other side of the issue, the best way forward with Right Vs. Right problems, is to find a new way: a Third Way. For example, among the most contentious debates in our national conversation is a Right vs. Right issue: Should we move in our politics toward Freedom and away from Equality? Or increase Equality at the expense of Freedom? If natural forces are left free, then the strong and powerful will prosper and the weak will suffer. “Freedom for the wolf means death to the lambs,” was the way Abraham Lincoln put it. Or, in the interest of equality for all, should we curtail the freedoms of the powerful and give support to the weak?
In A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher uses the slogan of the French Revolution to illustrate what is meant by finding A Third Way. To the opposites of Liberte (freedom) and Egalite (equality) the revolutionaries added a higher-order value, Fraternite (brotherhood). When we see ourselves as brothers and sisters, we can find a third path between the two contradictory goals of freedom and equality.
A real-time example of finding a Third Way is a recent development with the problem of the wild horses and burros roaming the western lands of our country. In the last essay, I described how the ranchers wanted the wild horses removed from the range even if it meant killing them, while those who believed that wild horses were necessary in order for the West to be the West meant letting them roam free. It was right for the land to be used for the grazing of cattle, and it was right for wild horses to roam free.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with responsibility for preserving the land and protecting the wild horses, was caught in the middle with no answer that satisfied both sides. Recently, however, a Third Way strategy seems to be emerging. First, the BLM will round up enough horses and offer them for adoption to reduce them to a number that will not damage the land, leaving some wild horses to roam freely. And second, those horses that continue to roam wild and free on the range will be vaccinated with a birth control drug. Will this be successful? No one seems to know. At least the impasse seems to be broken. The BLM is putting in place a Third Way alternative that seeks a way forward.
Strategy #3: Become a Scrum Master
Borrowed from the sport of rugby, a Wicked Problem Scrum is an organized and productive clash of opinions, preferences, ideas, beliefs, and convictions among a diverse group of individuals who are knowledgeable and interested about an issue or situation and are committed to seeing changes made. A Scrum is the most effective way of extracting problems from “messes.” With the help of a “scrum master,” small groups and teams move first to increase the confusion and controversy inherent in the”mess” by suggesting all the possibilities they can think of. Next they move to reduce the confusion by extracting from the mess an actionable problem. Then they make every effort to find the “best” solution or action plan they can come up with.
The requirements for an effective scrum are:
Diversity: Get the “right people on the bus” and the wrong people off – no simple or easy task in itself. The “right people” are those who are knowledgeable about the situation, who care about it enough to work with it, and who are willing and able to make a difference.
Divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking: A scrum begins by “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” and then pruning them back until the participants come up with their very best effort. Divergent and convergent thinking requires open and honest communication, creativity, constructive conflict, confrontation, collaboration, and ends with a consensual agreement for the best way to move forward. Managing these processes effectively requires great skill, patience, and flexibility.
A skilled and effective Scrum Master: The presence of a team leader who is skillful in beginning the process, keeping it on track, and bringing it to a successful end is essential. He or she is able to:
- Create an environment where team members can take risks by expressing themselves openly;
- Create and maintain helpful structures and supportive norms;
- Encourage wide and full participation;
- Value conflict and disagreements;
- Support, even protect, people when things get tense;
- Avoid losing focus or falling off the path;
- Produce results – bring the team in on time and under budget!
Strategy #4: Create an Early Warning System
Working on both the tame and wicked parts of a nested problem is in fact a system problem: other parts of the larger problem situation will inevitably be affected and new problems are likely to emerge, often without any awareness by those who are working on the problem.
What is needed is an Early Warning System (EWS), a way of detecting new and unexpected problems that are taking shape before they gain traction or momentum. While working on a culture change project with a Fortune 500 company a number of years ago, I put in place a system of ”informants,” – employees and managers from all parts of the country and at all levels in the organization. Each Monday morning I would call them for their report on what was happening in their part of the organization in response to the change initiatives. I would organize this information into a brief summary and then in the afternoon share it with the CEO and the VP for Organization Change. This EWS detected a number of surprise developments that allowed us to take action before things got out of hand.
John Gottman and Nan Silver, working with couples who were struggling with the marriage relationship, discovered the value of an EWS in providing information about problems that, while partially hidden, were putting the relationship at risk. ”…every marriage,” they wrote, “ought to be equipped with a built-in early warning system that lets you know when your [marriage] is in danger of deteriorating. We call this system the Marital Poop Detector because it is a way of saying that something doesn’t smell right!” An effective Marital Poop Detector can help locate incipient problems while they are still minor, “before they build up steam and become combustible.”
A Bold Stroke and the Long March.
One part of any nested problem is most often a “rattler,” a tame problem that can be killed with one shot. Shooting a rattler is an example of what Rosabeth Kanter calls a Bold Stroke: A dramatic action that solves the problem. At a GE Workout session a young woman shared her problem: ”I publish a plant newspaper each month and before I can publish it, GE policy requires that I get seven signatures. Can you explain why?” Her boss was dumbfounded. After a minute or two he drew his revolver out of his holster and shot the rattler: ”That’s crazy, he said. ”OK, from now on, no more signatures.”
In nested problems, however, there are also ”pythons”- wicked problems – lurking within that cannot be dispatched with one shot. Pythons can only be managed with a Long March. A long march is what its name implies: a long-term slog through the swamp requiring effort, dedication, persistence, and patience. The marchers are not looking for a solution since there isn’t one, but for a new and temporary arrangement that will make things better, at least for a while.
Success with nested problems requires bold strokes and long marches!
Nested Problems? Solving and Grappling Required
“Good scientists, says Nobel Prize winner P. B. Medawar, “study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” And yet, when scientists, engineers, and physicians, as well as others, decide to apply the solutions they have discovered in their research to real world problems – infectious diseases, education, public health, obesity, suicide, abuse of women and children, global warming, AIDS – they are often amazed to learn that what is now required is something more: They must become grapplers! They must learn to move beyond the relative simplicity of solving the problem and get into the middle of grappling with the new challenges of preaching, teaching, persuading, and convincing others, something they were never taught to do in their professional training.
Working with nested problems?
Guidelines to reflect upon:
1. Determine if what you have is in fact a nested problem.
2. If the answer is yes, then define carefully the tame part of the problem situation to determine what could happen if you move forward.
3. Solve the solvable problem.
4. Address the wicked problem part of the sitution by
- Using wicked problem language;
- Finding a Third Way;
- Convening and leading a Scrum and using it to extract a “wicked problem” from the mess;
- Working through the newly formulated problem to determine the “best” possible plan of action to be implemented.
5. Put in place an Early Warning System (EWS), an equivalent to Gottman’s “Poop Detector.”
6. Keep in mind that both Bold Strokes and Long Marches are required.