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  • Anna Snel VUCA Academy

Corona as a Wicked Problem (2/11): What’s the problem?


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 2.


What’s the problem?

Property 1: “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 161)

A tame problem can be formulated in all the necessary detail. This definitive formulation of the problem can be handed over to some expert who can then start solving it. All the information the expert needs can be known. 


For wicked problems the situation is different, because you don't know upfront which information you need. That depends on the direction in which you are looking for answers. And every piece of information leads to different questions and a different need for more information. So to be able to define the problem in a definitive way, you would first need to know all the information for solving it. This is not only impossible but it also begs the question whether you would even have a problem, since you already know everything you need to know…


However, not only is it impossible to know all the solutions and thus to formulate the problem in a definitive way, but every partial formulation of the problem will lead to different ideas for dealing with them. And that’s a tricky aspect of these wicked problems. Because in fact every definition of a wicked problem already contains your idea for how it should be solved. Let’s look at what the problem of Corona is according to different media.


Is it:

-     that people are dying?

-     that IC units of hospitals can’t deal with the influx of patients? 

-     that it hurts the economy? 

-     that we look bad on the world stage if we don't handle this situation well?

-     that people are going bankrupt or losing their jobs?

-     that people are hoarding in supermarkets?

-     that your surgery of therapy has been postponed?

-     even a problem? Or is it all a hoax and a way of diverting attention from other issues?

-     not a problem but a wake-up call, to force us to rethink other problems related to the environment, globalization, our healthcare system, income gaps, geopolitical forces, the use of data and technology in relation to privacy and so on?

-     ….


The list can go on and on. Just look at all the news coverage worldwide and you’ll recognize all these different viewpoints and then some.


How the Corona situation is defined determines how it will be dealt with. Lockdowns, flattening the curve, social isolation, playing with statistics, volunteers who do grocery shopping, experiments with basic income, singing and applauding from balconies but of course also denying or trivializing the whole situation are just some ways of dealing with it based on the definition you have of what is going on. 


How the Corona situation is defined, determines how it will be dealt with.

This goes for every wicked problem: it is impossible to give a definitive definition of the problem and each definition always sneakily contains the direction in which someone is searching for solutions. If you are used to a tame world with tame problems that can be solved by experts using the right tame tools, then this plethora of different definition-solution combos may make you uncomfortable (and spoiler alert: some of the other properties that will be discussed in later editions won't help ;-)).


All those tame tools, blueprints and recipes for dealing with tame problems start with a 'formulation of the problem'-stage. But let's face it: we can't. We don't have ‘the definition’ of our wicked Corona-problem. Our understanding of it has to grow based on the way we deal with it. We are just getting acquainted with the situation, no-one has the definite answer yet. By acting on it, dealing with it, intervening in it, we can begin to understand the situation better. 


A rowing analogy

Wicked problems create uncertainty for people who expect their leaders to know-it-all and have-all-the-answers but unfortunately: we just have to deal with this first property of wicked problems. We have to act based on what we do know (or what we think we know) at this moment and learn about the problem along the way. The same goes for the experts. We all have to make do with what we have. In Dutch we say ‘roeien met de riemen die je hebt,’ rowing with the oars you have at hand. 


And yes, this may mean that we are sometimes confronted with unintended consequences or that in the future we will discover that we’ve gotten some things wrong, but that’s an inherent part of the whole learning process. It isn’t all clear yet and no-one has 'the' answer or solution. 


We are like rowers. Rowers row backwards, observing only their past while they glide into the future. Sometimes rowing crews have a coxswain on board, a person who sits facing the bow and sees what lies ahead. A good coxswain can be trusted to keep the boat going in the right direction and to coordinate the crew. But the projections and predictions are only valid for the trajectory he/she can see, no-one knows exactly what lies behind the next bend of the river. The same goes for our leaders and experts and ourselves.


The following explanation of the meaning of a well-known nursery rhyme takes the rowing analogy even to an inspirational level:

The lyrics of this song can be used by teachers and parents to explain the children the importance of a positive attitude in life. Row, Row, Row Your Boat’s meaning is to not quit, keep going with your life no matter how many difficulties or duties you are meeting. (https://allnurseryrhymes.com/row-row-row-your-boat/)

Maybe we could sing Row, row, row your boat while washing our hands. Three times (Yes, I timed it ;-)).


Social isolation may prohibit us from taking up rowing at the moment, so maybe instead this is a good time to learn about action research. Action researchers are used to the process of getting to understand phenomena by taking action and intervening in them, without knowing upfront what they will find. Maybe we should all become (amateur) action researchers to help us cope with the first property of wicked problems.


One property down, nine more to go. To be continued.

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