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Corona as a Wicked Problem (10/11): The elephant in the room


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. This is part 10.


The elephant in the room

Property 9: "The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution" (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.166)

Let's start the explanation of what this property means with a parable. There once was a king who noticed that some of his friends were disagreeing on everything and having arguments with each other. He wanted to teach them a lesson and ordered one of them to gather all the blind men he could find. The blind men were all placed around an elephant and the king said: "Before you you will find a so-called 'elephant'. Could you please touch it and tell me what an elephant is?"


The one touching the tusk said “It is a spear.”


The one holding the elephant's trunk said "I think it’s a type of snake."


Another man grabbed one of the ears and said "I believe I have a rug here."


A fourth blind man held one of the legs and said "This is clearly the trunk of a tree."


Yet another was placed next to the elephant and touched its side: "It's a wall, maybe a shed."


"Of course not," said the person standing behind the elephant and holding the tail, "It's clearly a rope."



The point of the parable is that the king wanted to show his friends that everyone experiences only a small part of what's in front of them, and if you keep arguing about what are merely partial understandings, you will miss the whole picture. If everyone bases their opinions on these partial ideas, no one will know that we're in the presence of an elephant.

Now let's take this parable into the now. If there is a problem in your organization, let's say production is not running as smooth and efficient as desired, then you could ask several people about their opinion on what caused the problem. Some will tell you that 'we have to work with outdated systems', others will place the blame in the style of leadership and behaviour of management, yet others will point their finger in the direction of new competitors who are disrupting the market, or the labour market that makes it hard to find the right staff, or the economy which has been slowing down, etc etc. You have gathered all this info. So now what? What are you going to do?


Each explanation, partial as it may be, offers a direction for dealing with the wicked problem but which one is right? In science we have pretty rules and logic to determine how to falsify hypotheses, explanations and modes of reasoning, but we don't have those scientific tools here. According to Rittel and Webber we have to accept that we can only say what explanation is most plausible to us. "Somewhat but not much exaggerated, you might say that everybody picks that explanation of a discrepancy which fits his intentions best and which conforms to the action-prospects that are available to him. The analyst's "world view" is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy" (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.166). You see this happening in the public domain all the time: there are a gazillion partial explanations for problems in sectors like the police, education and healthcare, but in the end one or some are selected based on "intentions" and "action-prospects that are available" and (hopefully) dealt with.


Rittel and Webber don't say that the problem lies in the existence of multiple explanations, that is just an inherent property of wicked problems. But we should be aware of the fact that whichever explanation we choose, we in fact have made a choice for one and not for the others. Because this awareness hopefullly leads to more attention for the choice itself.

However I do think that the parable of the elephant needs some touch-ups and add-ons to make it suitable for our wicked problems. Because if the king wanted to, he could have invited those blind men after his little exercise to walk around the elephant and enable them to feel what the others had felt. And by collecting all their impressions all of them would get a view of what that 'elephant' in fact was. But the thing is: an elephant remains an elephant. Wicked problems on the other hand do not remain the same. They change all the time.


To compare, our parable would start with an elephant but the elephant would be morphing all the time. Remember Barbapapa? This is a Barbapapa 3.0-situation. Now it's an elephant. Now it's a herd of elephants. Now it's a chair. The colour green. A musical piece of Vivaldi. A bowl of soup. The concept of truth. A European flag. The number 6. And so on. And all the time everyone only has a partial understanding of what's going on in that moment, based on their own world view. Good luck with that.


Every understanding we have and each explanation we give of the situation is not just partial but also changing. Same thing you see happening with the Corona-crisis. Who can explain what caused the discrepancy between where we are now and where we were before this crisis? No one can. Because no one has a full view of the elephant. And no one ever will because by the time you take a closer look, chances are the elephant has morphed into something else: the situation has changed. "Clickety Click—Barba Trick" (or in Dutch: Huup Huup, Barbatruc).


Some people are curious and are looking for partial explanations of the spread of the Coronavirus, like Henry Mintzberg, or explanations of the difference in mortality rates between regions (like what explains the low mortality rates in Germany), but some people have apparently seen the light and are claiming that they have 'the' explanation. If you follow the news you have already heard many different explanations, ranging from who to blame for the crisis (China! The US! Humanity! Trump! Factory farming! 5G! Bats!) to explanations of how the situation got so out of hand (Laxity of leaders! Denial of the problem! Lack of test kits! Globalization! Problems in the health care system! People who disobey isolation-rules!). This is what we call 'taming the wicked problem', since we are acting as if our wicked problem is tame. But it's not. People choose an explanation based on what "fits (their) intentions best and which conforms to the action-prospects that are available to (them)". So probably it would be wise to ask ourselves 2 questions:


1) who has a problem here? In terms of Rittel and Webber: whose intentions and whose action-prospects are we talking about? First of all this question makes us aware of the fact that a problem is only a problem if someone finds it problematic (if no one thinks there is a problem there is no problem). But also, it gets us away from the abstract general issues that no one can fully understand or explain and focuses our attention on real people who experience real issues (of course taking into account the levels we spoke about in part 9).


2) why is it a problem for them? This makes us aware of the importance of the "world view" as Rittel and Webber explained. Everyone looks at, understands and explains the situation from their own perspective, like the blind men in the parable.


No one has a full 360 view and that is an inherent property of wicked problems. So we should be humble; our perspective is always partial and therefore so are our explanations. We don't know what the whole morphing elephant situation is and how it can be explained in full. So we have to be critical of what explanation according to whose world view we let prevail, since before we know it our choice of explanation, Clickety Click—Barba Trick, will have determined the nature of our problem's resolution.

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