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  • Foto van schrijverAnna Snel VUCA Academy

Corona as a Wicked Problem (1/11)

Almost half a century ago, Horst Rittel en Melvin Webber, both professors at the Berkeley University of California, coined the term ‘Wicked Problems’. Their description of wicked problems may help in shedding some light on the current Corona-situation, which is why I have decided to create a series of posts on this topic.

Wicked problems: did anyone see my blanket?

Rittel and Webber were fascinated by social policy problems and especially the lack of scientific knowledge on how to tackle these. Scientists had mostly been dealing with so-called ‘tame’ problems: problems that you can formulate, write down, give to an expert and wait for an answer. Also professionals, often with great success by the way, were mostly focused on tools for tame problems. Tame tools were models, theories and resources for working as efficiently as possible towards a goal. People agreed quickly on what the problem was, defined the result and experts used these tools to achieve results in the fastest and cheapest (most efficient) way. Since there were no tools to deal with wicked problems, people used tame tools for wicked problems too, for which they were unsuitable. 

People who were dealing with wicked problems had questions like What are the results that we are trying to achieve?, What is the purpose?, or in more current terms: What is the ‘Why’ (Sinek, 2009)? Or even: what should that purpose or ‘Why’ be?

Attention shifted from the input-side of problems (how can we make sure that our results cost the least amount of time, money, resources?) to the output-side (what result do we find desirable? What is the value of what we do? And how can we evaluate that value?). If you define a problem as a gap between where you are now and where you want to be, between an Ist and a Soll, then Team Input and Team Output have very different worries. Team Input wonders what the most efficient way from Ist to Soll is, while Team Output ask themselves what that Soll is that they should be striving for? And by the way: what is the Ist-situation, the status quo?

"There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all"

This calls for a different way of thinking. The efficiency-based models and theories can’t help you with determining the Ist and the Soll for your wicked problems. It’s not a matter of defining what your problem is, finding consensus and solving it. So using tame tools in such a situation may backfire, because you may be working very efficiently toward the wrong objectives! And “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all,” as the great Peter Drucker wrote.

The problem is: we are used to our tame tools and we can get quite anxious when they don't work or when we can’t use them. A quote by Galbraith that I often refer to is “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof” (1971, p.50). What he meant was that it’s easier to continue to work with what we are used to than to change our minds and accept and learn new ways of dealing with these wicked problems. We are like Linus in the Snoopy-cartoon, holding on to our blanket because it feels safe.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”

And the current Corona-crisis is a superwicked problem, and a very relatable example for all of us to get acquainted with what it is that makes problems wicked, what distinguishes them from tame problems and why using the tame tools we know so well is a bad idea. I hope that the writings of Rittel and Webber may alleviate some of the uncertainty of people who feel like their blanket has been taken away.

Rittel and Webber defined ten properties of wicked problems and I will deal with one of these at a time, with a special focus on Corona.

  1. What’s the problem? 

  2. When does it end?

  3. What is the right thing to do?

  4. Did we do the right thing?

  5. This is not a dress rehearsal

  6. Keeping your options open

  7. No copy-paste

  8. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

  9. The elephant in the room

  10. No right to be wrong

(to be continued)

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