Working with wicked problems 5IntroductionThis is a story about dealing smartly with complexity. But it’s also a story about acknowl-edging the limits of smartness.We deal with friction in our personal and professional environment all the time. Problemscan be persistent features of the way we interact with our environment, or they canemerge unexpectedly. Often we rely on patience and routine to get the friction out of theway. In times of crisis we easily resort to improvisation or strict command-and-control.Smartness starts with taking a step back and acknowledging that a problem is not someobjective given that determines a particular response. Rather than a clearly identifiablefeature of our environment a problem emerges from the way we understand and interactwith that environment. Management theorist Keith Grint sees the ability ‘to consider notwhat is the situation, but how it is situated’ as an essential quality of people in leadershippositions.Arguably there is a lot to be gained by framing friction as ‘simplicity’. Edward De Bono isprobably right when he argues that trying to make things simple is good for us. Ideally,he would like to see a National Simplicity Campaign in every country. Recently, Dr. AtulGawande has written an eloquent ‘checklist manifesto’: a plea to rely on straightforwardtools for structuring and coordinating tasks in stressful and volatile situations.Without denying the usefulness of these strategies in this booklet we will take the op-posite approach. We will assume that we are dealing with a reality that is particularlyslippery and resists responses fixed as clear schemata. To that end we will connect to away of understanding friction that has emerged over the last four decades. It is from the1970s onward that people started to talk about ‘wicked’, ‘messy’ or ‘intractable’ problems.Behind that novel and slightly provocative language was a recognition that ‘problems’can often not be seen in isolation. Increasingly also decision makers were ready to acceptthat science does not always have the answers and that other stakeholders (with otherworldviews) have a role to play in crafting ways forward to deal with policy challenges.
6 Working with wicked problemsSo, what are ways forward if we have the courage to accept complexity and conflict? Herewe will argue that there are basically three approaches, or rather three rich traditions,that may inspire us in working with wicked problems. We will refer to these traditions as‘Ideas’, ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Design’. They connect to the power of thinking interdependences,of investing in social relationships and of visualising new worlds.Luckily problem solvers of all sorts have, during the last few decades, created a range ofsophisticated methodologies that bring together the strengths of these three approach-es in different ways. Here we will discuss five: Soft Systems Methodology, TransitionManagement, Future Scenarios, Design Thinking, and Appreciative Enquiry. The list is byno means meant to be exhaustive. Each of these ways of knowing and engaging has adistinctive scope and spirit. But all of them have been developed to find pragmatic waysforward in dealing with knotty, confusing and contested problematic situations.In a final section we will take a step back and try to understand what these five ap-proaches teach us about working with wicked problems. These lessons have been for-mulated as seven rules of thumb. They are stimulating and sobering at the same time.The good news is that, yes, we can acknowledge messiness and yet rely on powerful andsmart levers to improve our predicament. But diehard ‘optimisers’ and ‘heroic leaders’will be perturbed by the message that where smartness stops persistence and humilitytake over. Final solutions do not exist, should not exist. Working with wicked problemsinevitably means grappling with paradoxes and tensions. ■
Working with wicked problems / 1 guiding idea: wicked problems 7 1 guiding idea:wicked problems
Working with wicked problems / 1 guiding idea: wicked problems 9SummaryAcknowledging the existence of wicked problems means admitting to face societal chal-lenges for which no definitive answer exists. Wicked problems are structurally complex sothat it is hard to say where a given problem stops and another one begins. And stakeholderswill frame these challenges in different ways so that a one-size-fits-all solution is highlyunlikely. Thinking in terms of wicked problems opens up a novel repertoire of strategies tocome to grips with these issues. However, we should guard against getting carried awayby our ability to recognise and deal with complexity and conflict. Even in this complicatedworld ‘simple’ solutions remain possible.What are wicked problems anyway?When talking about the many societal They wrote: Key characteristics of wicked problemschallenges we are currently facing, peo- “They are ‘wicked’ problems, whereas sci- >> There is no definitive formulation ofple increasingly describe them as ‘wicked ence has developed to deal with ‘tame’ prob- a wicked problem. The framing of aproblems’. The notion has an obvious neg- lems. Policy problems cannot be definitively wicked problem can always be con-ative resonance. Someone who is wicked described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society tested.is not to be trusted. We can’t really be sure there is nothing like the undisputable publicabout the intentions of a wicked person. >> Solutions to wicked problems are good; there is no objective definition of eq-So how can a problem be ‘wicked’? not true-or-false, but better or worse uity; policies that respond to social problems from a given point of view.It was in the 1970s that people started to cannot be meaningfully correct or false; andtalk about ‘wicked’, ‘swampy’ or ‘messy’ it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal so- >> Every attempt to intervene altersproblems, partly in response to the turbu- lutions’ to social problems (…). Even worse, the problematic situation in signifi-lence of the 1960s (remember the threat there are no ‘solutions’ in the sense of defini- cant ways.of nuclear annihilation, the Vietnam de- tive and objective answers.” >> Wicked problems do not have anbacle, the student revolt, the emergence What Rittel and Webber pointed out was enumerable set of potential solu-of an environmental agenda). Horst Rit- that in many cases it is better to acknowl- tions.tel and Marvin Webber (a design theorist edge upfront that science is ill-equippedand an urban planner, respectively) wrote >> Every wicked problem can be con- to tackle social challenges. There are twoa paper in 1973 with the forbidding title sidered to be a symptom of another basic reasons for the wickedness of these“Dilemmas in a General Theory of Plan- problem. problems: complexity and conflict. Thesening” in which they argued that scientific problems are ambiguous and hard to pinapproaches to ‘problems of social policy’ down because they seem to consist ofwere bound to fail because of the nature many partial, but interrelated challenges.of these problems. So it is hard to tell what button to push, or what lever to pull to make them go away. And the people affected by these problems will have very different views on what the nature of the problem is and how it can be tackled. So, a solution that can be considered ‘optimal’ from an objec- tive, impartial point of view does not exist.
10 Working with wicked problems / 1 guiding idea: wicked problems
Working with wicked problems / 1 guiding idea: wicked problems 11Why is it importantto recognize wicked problems?First it is important to acknowledge thatthere is not an objective thing out thereto which we can point and say: “This is awicked problem”. A ‘wicked problem’ isnot a ‘thing’ but a social construct. It is aparticular way of looking at the world, offraming the challenges we are currentlyfacing. What then do we have to gain bytaking this stance?At a philosophical level we can arguethat framing challenges in a differentway opens up a novel repertoire of solu-tion strategies. Sir Geoffrey Vickers, aneminent systems thinker, thought that And if we are aware of the conflicts be- On a more practical level, framing issuesproblems are only dangerous in relation- tween world views in which the issue is as wicked problems can be helpful to pro-ship to what people can see, value and do: enmeshed, then some way of accomodat- gramme managers and strategists in organi-“A trap is a trap only for creatures which ing (if only temporarily) these differences sations that are dealing with complex soci-cannot solve the problem that it sets.” So, needs to be part and parcel of our strategy etal challenges on a day-to-day basis. Theseif we can fashion ourselves a set of tools to move ahead. So, observing the world people will be asked to develop a ‘theorythat allow us to approach complex chal- through a ‘wicked problem’ lens may make of change’ that convinces their bosses andlenges from different angles, then this us a lot smarter, more realistic in our ex- boards to allocate resources to deal withmay increase our chances to find a way pectations, and more alert to the human these issues. They will have to present theforward. More specifically, thinking in sensitivities embedded in complex chal- challenge, the change they would like toterms of ‘wicked problems’ will lead us to lenges. As Jean Monnet, one of the found- see and the approach that might be takenapproaches that acknowledge intercon- ing fathers of the European Union used to by the organisation to make a positive dif-nectedness between many different par- say: “If you are faced with a big problem, ference. The ideas and methods included intial problems right from the start. make it bigger.” That is what thinking in this little guide may be helpful in elaborating terms of wicked problems helps us to do. those ‘business cases’.
12 Working with wicked problems / 1 guiding idea: wicked problemsWhat are the risks related to thinkingin terms of wicked problems?Framing the challenges facing us aswicked problems is looking at the worldthrough a particular lens. Like all lenses,this one has its strengths and its limita-tions. It alerts us to complexity and con-flict but in doing so may obscure simpleand pragmatic ways of making a positivedifference. Sometimes it may be quite ap-propriate to make a big problem bigger.But at other times it is helpful to eliminateall the clutter and reduce the challengeto its barest essence. Jack Sim, successfulentrepreneur and President of the WorldToilet Organisation, has built a powerfuladvocacy organisation around the ‘simple’given that at least 2 billion people on thisplanet are suffering from serious healthproblems because they do not have ac-cess to adequate sanitation. It’s a glaring hides a very complex problem, involving Further readingproblem for which there is an obvious ‘fix’: new technologies, habits of mind, hous- >> RITTEL, H.W.J, WEBBER, M.M. (1973)to get more flush toilets out there. This ing regulations, etc. So it is probably not Dilemmas in a General Theory of Plan-uncomplicated framing helps to focus an either-or story. Whenever possible we ning, Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.energy and attention. No doubt, beyond should be sensitive to wickedness andthis straightforward, linear perspective simplicity at the same time. ■
Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexity 133 ways of dealing with complexity
Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexity 15Once we are attuned to a ‘wicked’ per- For now we suggest taking a step backspective the question is how we might and suspending our thinking in terms ofactively engage with it. ‘Actively engag- ‘tools’ and ‘methodologies’. Let us first re-ing’ means: building up an understanding flect on three key ways to come to gripsof the challenge, developing strategies with conflict and complexity. We’ll callto intervene, getting our hands dirty to them ‘Ideas’, ‘Dialogue’ and ‘Design’.make a positive difference and assessingthe impacts of our work. Although thissuggests a neat ‘plan-do-check’ cycle, wemay be suffering here from the limitationsof our language. Later we will see that theboundary between ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’in dealing with wicked problems is not al-ways so clear-cut.IdeasWhilst we can’t solve all our challenges ancient Greek thought elements of a sys- entered a familiar repertoire of problemby sitting behind a desk and thinking, tems approach can be identified. solving skills. In fact, any programmethe world of abstract ideas continues to manager who has sketched out a ‘diagram Fundamental for a systems approach isbe an important inspiration to deal with of forces’ when pondering the connec- the question how an entity (any kind ofreal-world complexity. More particularly, tions between many themes and trends organism, or organisation) can secure itsover the last six or seven decades a way affecting a certain overarching issue has viability in a changing environment. In re-of thinking has emerged in response to been engaging in a form of systems think- sponse, systems science has developed athe growing awareness that there are ing. Similarly, we have grown quite used to language and a set of tools to get a grip onexceedingly complex systems that mod- thinking in terms of feedback mechanisms how our world is composed of many in-ern science can never quite grasp. Rather when considering why systems behave as terconnected drivers and subsystems (itsthan a neatly defined discipline ‘systems they do: inertia is linked to dampening structure), how it behaves over time (itsscience’ is an interdisciplinary field that feedbacks (the ‘thermostat effect’), whilst dynamics) and how organisms of all kindshas emerged from the convergence of, a runaway dynamic is easily associated to absorb this variety.amongst others, ideas from neuroscience, reinforcing loops that move systems evermathematics, and biology. One could ar- There is no need to be intimidated by further away from a stable equilibrium.gue that it is not at all new as already in systems thinking as, to an extent, it has
16 Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexityFor aspiring systems thinkers it is worth- can start to evaluate where it is most ben- commodation between different points ofwhile to bear in mind that the whole field eficial to intervene to improve that situ- view. The distinction between ‘hard’ andis traversed by an important conceptual ation. This approach could be said to be ‘soft’ systems thinking can be summarizeddistinction between so-called ‘hard’ and positivist. The ‘soft’ system thinker, how- then as follows: in hard systems thinking‘soft’ approaches. A ‘hard’ systems think- ever, starts from the assumption that an we construct models ‘of’ the world, whilster is primarily interested in developing objective representation of reality is not in the soft approach we construct models(quantitative or qualitative) models of a possible. Her stance is constructivist. The ‘for’ the world. The point is not to buildproblematic part of the world. These mod- point of view of the observer always comes sophisticated ‘pictures of reality’ but toels are then considered to be an objective, into play. In a soft systems approach the work with pragmatic devices to make ourmore or less accurate picture of that slice focus is not on the models, but on the way disagreements explicit, identify commonof reality. Once we have that picture we we use these models to come to an ac- ground and take action.
Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexity 17DialogueDialogue is not a recognised discipline (as Quantum physicist David Bohm took the nity, small or large. As long as people dosystems science) or practice (as design, practice of dialogue to a point that is as not feel accountable for the wellbeing ofsee below). It is something we engage in far removed from a preformatted ‘partici- their community, defining and studyingon a regular basis, effortlessly. However, patory process’ as we can imagine. To him problems will be of little help. Social capi-when grappling with wicked problems we dialogue did not serve a particular, fixed tal enables what Block refers to as ‘cho-are aiming for a dialogue that has a par- purpose. The conversation may at any mo- sen accountability’, when people step upticular quality. Probably, we have all expe- ment have a purpose, but for him it was to bring an alternative future into being.rienced at some point in our lives that a crucial not to hold on to it. Dialogue for Dialogue is the only vehicle that is able todeep conversation may lead us to quite Bohm was a sort of meta-exploration, a sustain that kind of transformation.a different place from which we started. joint practice of wanting to suspend judg- Dialogue opens up a space to deal withSuddenly there is the feeling that a trap- ment at all times during our interaction. complexity that is very different from adoor opens below our feet and we are mo- He saw dialogue as a way to plant seeds, systems approach. The two approachesmentarily suspended above an unfamiliar to build a capacity for action that might can be complementary but they can alsobut exciting mental landscape. We feel come to fruition, or might not. be at odds with one another. A systemsthat we are really connecting with our in- All this may sound terribly esoteric. But approach is very often diagnostic in na-terlocutors and that we understand things maybe it becomes more approachable ture. It seeks to understand why thingsthat we haven’t been able to grasp before. when we translate it into a contemporary don’t work. And starting from those in-Context often matters. A very long train jargon that talks about building social sights it identifies measures to remedyride or a remote location seem to bring capital. Author Peter Block sees dealing the problematic situation. Dialogue, asabout these experiences more easily. with wicked challenges not as focusing on we understand it here, is much more ori- deficiencies and fear but as building social ented towards liberating the potential fabric. Problems do not exist in a vacuum. for change of a community. It builds on They are always embedded in a commu- strengths and desires.
18 Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexityDesignA third and very different way to tacklecomplexity is design. Designers are peo-ple who are able to synthesise novel,tangible forms (products, houses, cities) –and increasingly also intangible processessuch as services – out of the messinessof daily reality. They are particularly goodat forging connections between seem- One of the defining features of a design Designers bring very valuable skills to anyingly unrelated issues. As such design is approach is the almost activist energy it team that is dealing with wicked problems.increasingly seen as a way of thinking that seems to generate from its practitioners. Importantly they also inject a unique,is fundamentally different from the induc- A good designer is not easily intimidated positive kind of energy in the process oftive reasoning of science and deductive by complexity. Unlike a systems thinker, grappling with important challenges. Lastschemata of logic. who will take her time to pause and ana- but not least, their capacity to suggest aDesigners make use of concepts but they lyse, a designer will start to sketch almost new reality through physical models andare not merely ‘thinkers’. Learning expert immediately. There is an intimate cou- drawings can function as a unique catalystDonald Schön referred to them as ‘reflec- pling between the motor movement of for change.tive practitioners’: people who are able the hand across the paper and the emer-to ‘reflect on action so as to engage in a gence of an intellectual strategy to dealprocess of continuous learning’. In design with the challenge at hand. Giorgio Vasari,practice it is hard to say where the think- the 16th century painter and architect, ar-ing stops and the action begins. It is a con- gued that a ‘concept’ implied a movementstant, tightly meshed cycle of observation, of the mind. To him the art of drawing wasideation, prototyping and testing. In that a form of thinking. Designers have not lostprocess, designers not only create things this ability to think with their hands.but they also create new knowledge.
Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexity 19All together nowIdeas, dialogue and design provide three Susan van’t Klooster has shown in herdifferent repertoires of thinking and act- research how difficult it sometimes is foring when confronted with wicked prob- foresight practitioners (a particular brandlems. We can see them as different types of system thinkers) and urban designers toof knowing. Action research pioneer John productively work together. These differ-Heron referred to propositional knowing ent communities seem to speak the same(ideas), experiential and presentational language but different meanings may hideknowing (dialogue), and practical know- behind the same words. Furthermore,ing (design), respectively. They are not when it comes to creating a setting forrigidly compartmentalized, however. Sys- authentic dialogue, the professional ex-tem thinkers may embody a designerly, pertise of systems thinkers and designersaction-oriented approach in their prac- may get in the way. Nevertheless, peopletice. Designers will rely on concepts when whose mandate it is to engage with wick-developing their proposals. Both may rely ed problems do well to consider how eachon forms of dialogue in the process. Fur- of these fundamentally different ways ofthermore, it is not always necessary to Bringing different skill sets together also grappling with complexity may contrib-have these three ingredients in the prob- creates its own kind of complexity. It’s ute, in their specific settings, to makinglem solving mix. not a given that they will blend to create a difference that matters. It is worthwhile something that is more than the sum of to seek synergies between these different the parts. We have already pointed out approaches. Ignoring these synergies may that a systems perspective and a dialogue come at a high societal cost. practice are not necessarily aligned.
20 Working with wicked problems / 3 ways of dealing with complexityConclusion>> We have distinguished three very dif- >> These different repertoires are not Further reading ferent ways of thinking and acting to rigidly compartmentalised. An indi- >> BOHM, D. (2007) On Dialogue, Rout- come to grips with wicked problems: vidual practitioner may be skillful in ledge, London. Ideas (systems thinking), Dialogue and combining all three in helping people Design. to grapple with conflict and complex- >> BLOCK, P. (2008) Community. The ity. However, bringing these different Structure of Belonging, Berret-Koe->> Systems thinking essentially tries to skills together creates its own kind of hler Publishers, San Francisco. understand how entities can maintain complexity. Nevertheless, it is always their existence in a changing environ- >> KOLKO, J. (2010) ‘Abductive think- worthwhile to assess how each of ment. ‘Hard’ systems thinkers inter- ing and sensemaking: the drivers of these different repertoires may con- vene in the system’s architecture as design synthesis’, in: Design Issues, tribute to making a positive difference engineers. Soft systems thinkers cre- Volume 26, Number 1, Winter, 15-28. to wicked problems. ■ ate a context to increase the system’s >> VAN ‘T KLOOSTER, S. (2007) Toe- capacity for learning and action. komstverkenning: ambities en de>> Dialogue is a vehicle for creating social praktijk. Een ethnografische studie capital. Social capital in its turn is the naar de productie van toekomstkennis fuel which drives a community’s capac- bij het Ruimtelijk Planbureau (RPB), ity for transformation. Uitgeverij Eburon, Delft.>> Design is a skill to materially extract the shape of an alternative reality from a very messy context. As a rule design- ers bring a positive kind of energy to the process of grappling with impor- tant challenges.
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 215 ways of knowing and engaging
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 23In this section we will discuss five coher- Given the open-ended nature of wicked support structured and effective learning.ent approaches to tackle wicked prob- problems it will also be clear that none It’s not about reaching final solutions, butlems. They embody in various ways the of these approaches provides us with a about being able to continuously adapt tothree key ways of dealing with complexity neat, stepwise template. When dealing changing circumstances. The discussionsthat we discussed in the previous section. with wicked problems we are in a terri- necessarily have to remain very brief. In-Obviously this is not an exhaustive list tory beyond shrinkwrapped tools. We will terested readers are invited to follow theof tools and methodologies to engage in have to shape interventions in a creative pointers to additional literature that arecomplex problem solving. Some of these and context-sensitive way. As we will see, supplied at the end of each section.approaches have been around for a long all of the proposed approaches boil es-time, others have emerged more recently. sentially down to different strategies toA/ Soft Systems MethodologySummarySSM is an approach that is able to integrate systems ideas, dialogue and action-orientationinto a coherent whole. It proposes a disciplined process to create clarity in a complex, prob-lematic situation. Soft Systems Methodology allows us to step back from the messiness of theactual challenge and to think about ways of organising in an idealised realm. It is a processthat takes differences between the world-views of people affected by the situation explicitlyinto account. The purpose is to come to a joint agreement about what actions are desirableand feasible that may lead to an improvement, however modest, in the situation.Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is an action”. SSM has not been designed to a very different understanding. What SSMapproach that is both very simple and very solve the world’s greatest problems. But it does is to make these differences in fram-sophisticated. Peter Checkland, who was can be of great help to a group of people ing very explicit and then to seek an ac-a key figure in its development, captured who jointly want to agree on how to deal commodation between these differencesthe approach’s raison d’être very succinct- with a problematic situation they are all in deciding upon actions to bring aboutly in the title of his last book: “learning for affected by but of which they may have improvement.
24 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engagingThe trick is that SSM asks its practitioners ent purpose. Clearly, these models do not The diagram on the opposite page, origi-to leave the complexity of the real world describe the real world, as each of them nally developed by Peter Checkland, cap-for a while and think about how we might is based on one pure worldview. They are tures this basic logic: the discovery andwant to act in an idealised realm. Suppose just tools to explore the problematic situ- articulation of a problematic situation inthat we are confronted with a problem- ation in an organised way. the real world (‘finding out’) leads to aatic situation in a health care system. SSM phase of conceptual modelling in an ide- Once we have those models we can useasks us to step away from the concrete alised realm (‘systems thinking’). The com- them as a source of questions about themessiness of the particular health system parison between the conceptual (activity) real-world situation. The idealized activitywe are studying and to think about the models and the problematic situation pro- models can be contrasted with the actualpurpose of that system from one specific vides a compass for feasible and desirable care system and from the gap betweenvantage point at a time. We might, for changes, which leads to action to improve the two may emerge ideas for change andinstance, argue that the care system ex- the situation (‘taking action’). improvement. Obviously, the differencesists ‘to return people to a state of physi- in worldview will continue to exist andcal and mental normalcy’ as quickly and the distinct activity models will make sureefficiently as possible. Other people may The power of SSM derives from a num- we will be quite aware of them. The chal-put forward that the system is there ‘to ber of unique features: lenge is then to find changes that are bothhelp people to maintain quality of life desirable (given these models) but also >> The willingness to make differences inwhen confronted with an illness’. Clearly, feasible for people in this particular situ- framing of problematic situations verytwo very different, but valid purposes that ation. That is a process of seeking accom- explicit: SSM assumes upfront thatmight underpin the functioning of a care modation. Depending upon the urgency clashing worldviews are always pre-system (and maybe there are more pur- of the situation and the ambition level of sent in human affairs. Rather than pre-poses to be found). If we were to consider the participants, accommodation may be tending these differences aren’t there,how the care system would have to func- weak or strong. The option to do nothing it takes the disagreement as a sourcetion to realise those different purposes, is not warranted. So even if accommoda- of insight, energy and creative tension.we would realise that this would involve tion is weak, at least some action towardsdifferent kinds of activities. For example, >> The temporary move away from the improvement will be taken. Maybe thatin the former case there ought to be pro- messiness of the real situation: by pull- will build some trust in the capacity offessionals in the system that busy them- ing the enquiry away from the actual the multi-stakeholder group to jointlyselves with diagnostically assessing how situation and thinking about it from an deal with the problematic situation. If itlarge the gap between the patient’s situ- idealised, single-worldview perspec- does, then after a while another soft sys-ation and ‘normality’ is. In the latter case tive, SSM creates a more relaxed and tems exercise may be undertaken whichwe would have people (not necessarily disciplined setting to deal with urgent will hopefully lead to more far-reachingprofessionals) who would be engaged in challenges. accommodation. And so a soft systemshelping those with an illness (not neces- approach gives impetus to a social learn-sarily labelled as ‘patients’) to build skills ing cycle that builds some understandingto play a role in their own recovery pro- about the wicked problem and trust tocess. What SSM requires us to do then is jointly intervene in it over time.to build a separate activity model for acare system underpinned by each differ-
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 25 taking action The problem Action to improve Definition situation: the situation of feasible unstructured 1 7 desirable changesFinding out 6 2 Comparison The problem of 4 with 2 situation: expressed 5 Real world Systems thinking orld about the real wSystemsThinking 3 System definition expressed from 4 Activity models a particular worldview
26 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging>> The focus on activities rather than lematic situation’ we refer to a slice In terms of implementation, an SSM- organisations: in wicked problems re- of the everyday flux of events that we based project may take anything between lated to human institutions people will recognise as being in need of improve- an afternoon and 6 months. Given the very often be tempted to think in or- ment but of which we still need to make requirement that only people participate ganisational terms. However, as a rule sense. ‘Problem’ implies a well-defined who have first-hand experience of the this is very political territory and will given that asks for a ‘solution’. Similary problematic situation and who can take be seen as very threatening to those SSM aims for ‘accommodation’ not responsibility for intervening in it, the who are at risk to lose power. By focus- ‘consensus’. The former is more fluid number of participants will usually vary ing on an organisation’s purpose (its and temporary than the latter. between 10 and a few dozen. essential contribution, seen through Above we have briefly discussed the or- the lens of a particular worldview) thodox soft systems approach as it has and the activities that are needed to Like any methodology, SSM also has been described and practised by its origi- fulfill that purpose, the enquiry is mo- relative weaknesses: nal developers. However, there are many mentarily isolated from organisational >> The focus on feasibility: in SSM the elements in the approach (for example power play. Only later, once it is clear interventions are limited by what is thinking in terms of activities rather than what activities are needed, we can ask deemed culturally and politically feasi- organisations) that will be valuable in oth- ‘who will contribute to what action?’ ble. They do not emerge from a vision- er ‘wicked’ settings as well. As a rule there are many organisation- ary perspective that radically wants to al configurations that fit the require- transcend the existing challenges. ments posed by a given activity model. This creates space for accommodation. >> Process-wise it is sometimes difficult to convince participants to go along with>> The focus on local, pragmatic action: discipline of developing multiple activ- the approach has in the first place ity models each of which is associated been developed as a way to help peo- with a different purpose for the system. ple that have first-hand experience of In acute problematic situations people a problematic situation to take steps are often so hungry for structure that towards dealing with the situation. It is they are happy to stop after a first ac- those people themselves that have to tivity model has been generated. Going decide (and hence take accountability beyond that to explore other world- for) the scope of the accommodation views (and hence to increase complexi- they want to mutually agree on. This ty) may require considerable persuasion ensures buy-in and commitment, even Further reading skills from a facilitator. if it is only for small steps. >> CHECKLAND, P., POULTER, J. (2008) >> Whilst it is founded on a set of simple,>> The importance of language: In SSM we Learning for Action. A Short Definitive clear ideas, SSM embodies a logic that talk about a ‘problematic situation’ not Account of Soft Systems Methodology, people do not easily make their own. It about a ‘problem’. The difference is sub- and Its Use Practitioners, Teachers and may take a while before they really get tle but important. When we say ‘prob- Students, Wiley, Chichester. the logic of the approach.
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 27B/ Transition ManagementSummaryTransition Management is an approach to guide big systems (in health care, agriculture, mo- As a rule they are difficult to change (be- cause they exhibit lock-in). A landscapebility, etc.) towards a more sustainable equilibrium. However, despite the label it is less about is the wider context that influences the‘managing’ than about creating the right conditions for change to happen. Three elements regime. A niche, finally, is an emerging innovation that is seeking to destabiliseplay a crucial role in a transition process: a guiding image of a more sustainable future, a or adapt the regime. For instance, in ourcollection of innovative experiments that explore the boundary of the possible and an infra- personal mobility system the regime piv- ots around the petrol-powered car. Todaystructure to extract and diffuse the learning from those experiences. Transition management this regime is under pressure from variousrelies on creative incubators (‘arenas’) to spearhead these processes. The approach bundles a developments: climate change, local air quality, congestion. The electric car couldvery rich experience in dealing with complexity, participation and innovation into a coher- be considered as a maturing niche thatent framework. However, it is by no means a cookbook approach but requires creativity and might challenge the preeminence of the internal combustion engine. The interplaystamina to turn vision into hands-on realities. between landscape pressures and impuls- es from niches may create conditions forIn contrast with Soft Systems Methodol- management (Plan C), sustainable build- large socio-technical systems to change.ogy, developed to guide relatively small ing and living (DUWOBO) and agriculture Transition Management aims to creategroups of people in dealing with local (The New Food Frontier). the right conditions for change to happen.wicked problems, Transition Management Transition Management relies on an in- In that sense, the very notion of ‘manag-focuses on radical changes needed in teresting framework to understand these ing’ a transition is somewhat paradoxical.large systems, such as regional or national large-scale change processes. The so- People engaged in bringing transitionshealth care, mobility, agriculture and en- called ‘multi-level perspective’ (MLP) sees about are more in the role of a ‘midwife’ergy systems. Transition Management transitions arise when developments at than of a controlling ‘engineer’.has the ambition to change structures, different scales – landscape (macro), re-practices and culture that are deeply en- Three elements play a crucial role in a gime (meso), niches (micro) – reinforcetrenched in our society in an attempt to transition practice. First there is the devel- each other (see diagram on the nextmove towards a more sustainable future. opment of a visionary long-term perspec- page). Regimes are the dominant wayThat, clearly, is a ‘wicked’ context. In Flan- tive on what a sustainable system might to do things, embodied by familiar infra-ders transition processes have been initi- look like. structures, institutions and worldviews.ated in the area of sustainable materials
28 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engagingLandscapePatchworkof regimesNiches(novelty)That vision is not a fixed image of a de- Practically, a transition management effort It is important to realise that a transitionsired future that needs to be shared by relies on a ‘transition arena’ as a participa- process can never be a cookbook ap-all but rather a broad canvas intended to tory instrument. It is a temporary incuba- proach. It is a complex strategy to deal withinspire and energise a broad stakeholder tor populated by a medium-sized group of wickedness. It’s a multi-actor, multi-level,arena. That is another key element: an creative and concerned people (so-called multi-phase and multi-pattern process.evolving field of innovative experiments, ‘frontrunners’) from different sectors (con- In essence the approach revolves aroundsupported by diverse coalitions of actors, nected to the transition focus), with a mix ensuring some degree of fit between aoriented towards learning by doing. These of competences (systems thinking, com- broad, systemic vision and a collection ofexperiments are not so much about solv- municating, initiating) and networks. They probably very different experiments. It’s aning particular problems in a community, are supported by process and content ex- exercise in balancing between chaos andor market-driven introduction of a new perts. The arena serves to create trust, ex- order. That has to be a participatory sense-technology but about pushing the en- change ideas, dig deep into the issues and making process that is inevitably traversedvelope, and in that process seeing what shape an engaging future agenda. This eas- by uncertainty, new insights and evolvingworks and what doesn’t. The third crucial ily takes a year, sometimes more. Once the power relationships. In this fluid environ-element is a ‘learning network’ to help agenda (which can be a single, overarching ment the three pivotal approaches of sys-identify new opportunities, to strengthen vision, or a looser collection of images) is tems thinking (envisioning new systemongoing experiments and to extend the felt to be rich and engaging enough, it can architectures), dialogue (joint learning andbuy-in for the change process. be shared with a wider community. Then sense-making) and design (experimenting) begins the hard work to try and turn these are very much intertwined. ideas into tangible experiments.
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 29 Problem structuring, establishment of the Strategic sphere transition arena and envisioning Developing Evaluating, coalitions monitoring and Tactical sphere and learning transition- agendas Mobilising actors and executing projects and Operational sphere experimentsThe diagram above (after Loorbach) visual- together. The paradoxical task for transi- socio-technical experiments. These quiteises this interplay between these strategic tion champions is to force “radical change different transition philosophies do not(envisioning), operational (experimenting) in incremental steps”. have to be compartmentalised (but in ac-and tactical (building coalitions; learning) tual practice they often are). Given the complexity and scope of transi-spheres. tion efforts it is very likely that regional orA key question that bedevils many transi- national governments play an importanttion initiatives is the relationship between role as funders, conveners and also as cli-innovators (niches) and regime players. If ents for new policy ideas. Orthodox Tran-they join forces in an early phase of the sition Management is, as a rule, strongly Further readingtransition there is a possibility for creating dependent on established institutionsnecessary buy-in with established actors. even if only for receiving a mandate to >> LOORBACH, D. (2007), TransitionBut the risk is that the process is stalled innovate. The ‘transition’ label has been Management: New Mode of Govern-because of conflict and power play. In the claimed by more activist groups as well. ance for Sustainable Development,alternative case the lack of broad support Transition Towns, for example, is a social International Books.may hamper innovation efforts. There movement that seeks to equip local com- >> HENNEMAN, P., LOORBACH, D.,is no right or wrong approach to this. A munities to deal with future effects of TIMMERMAN, D. (2012) Burger-soft systems practitioner would simply scarcity of fossil fuels and climate change. meesterboek. Lokaal en duurzaam in-observe that initially the space for accom- The focus is on empowering citizens to noveren voor iedereen, Van Gorcum,modation will be smaller when frontrun- adopt new practices and lifestyles rather Amsterdam.ners and vested interests try to transition than on creating a setting favourable to
30 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engagingC/ Future ScenariosSummaryScenarios are basically multiple stories about how the future might unfold. They help in un-derstanding the uncertainty that goes with an open future. But the future is not empty:understanding it is also an invitation to intervene. Scenarios are wonderful containers forbreakthrough ideas. They can also act as launching pads for action and experimentation. Andin environments riddled by conflict they provide a safe space for dialogue. The approach is averitable intellectual Swiss Army knife for dealing with ‘wicked problems’.As human beings, and more specifically We need to go just a little bit beyond this open and exploratory perspective that ac-as Westerners who embrace belief in pro- basic insight to capture the essence of the knowledges uncertainty (see diagram ongress and in the power of reason to shape contemporary scenario practice. Indeed, the opposite page).the world according to our own under- distinctive of how people use future sce- The basic idea underlying the use of futurestanding, we happen to be interested in narios today is that these descriptions scenarios is therefore quite simple and it isthe future. In response to that fascination do not occur in isolation, but in sets. The a practice that comes naturally to us. Givenpeople have adopted or developed intel- point is not to tell just a gratuitous story the simplicity it is perhaps not surprisinglectual strategies and practices to make about the future, but to develop differ- that the scenario methodology has provedsense of the not-yet-known. ent, internally consistent perspectives on to be adaptable to many different circum- what might come to pass. Hence, we are inFuture scenarios are one of these devices stances and to serve a broad variety of agreement with Philip van Notten when hethat have been fielded in this quest. In goals. Scenario thinking has in some views defines scenarios as “consistent and coher-fact, we are dealing here with an ancient been narrowed down to churning out 2-by- ent descriptions of alternative hypotheticalpractice – storytelling – that has been re- 2 matrices (defining 4 scenarios) in stand- futures that reflect different perspectivescontextualised against the background of ardised workshop formats. But the reality on past, present and future developments,our desire to come to terms with the fu- of the scenario practice is more complex which can serve as a basis for action.” Thatture. So scenarios revolve around a very than that. For instance, the database of the multiplicity is key as it entails a move awaybasic idea, namely that it is potentially European Foresight Monitoring Network from a predictive stance that sees the fu-useful to develop hypothetical descrip- contains thousands of published studies. Al- ture essentially as a unidirectional extrapo-tions of what the future might be. though it is possible to find patterns in the lation of certain trends in the past, to an
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 31 Alternative futures Drivers of change Development Complexity pathsway the approach has been deployed the Then we need to agree on what the purpose have effectively constructed an anten-variety remains bewildering. This flexibility of the scenario development is. What would na for us to observe and interpret ouris a strength of the approach, but it is also we like our effort to achieve? One way to evolving environment with. Sometimesa potential weakness. When it is not exactly get a grip on the approach’s flexibility is the this process is also referred to as ‘hori-clear what scenarios are meant to achieve it following typology of non-exclusive goals zon scanning’.is very easy to go astray and end up with an that may be pursued with scenarios: >> ‘Windtunneling’: organisations that areend result that nobody really needs. The art >> Interpreting: the world around us is contemplating significant investmentsof scenario development does really reside complex, certainly when we are trying might want to test those against thein connecting clearly stated objectives with to understand long-term developments. background of possible futures. Thisavailable resources through a process that is Scenarios can be considered as a set of is similar to engineers putting scaleenabling and fit-for-purpose. sophisticated lenses to observe our en- models of cars or airplanes in a windTo anchor a scenario exercise we need vironment with. Each scenario allows us tunnel to test their resilience whento agree first and foremost on a substan- to attach meaning to signals we pick up subjected to extraordinary forces. Ide-tive focus. What are the scenarios going through our interaction with the world. ally, critical decisions are robust in theto be about? That is really a matter of our For example, a certain newspaper arti- face of uncertainty. That means thatchoice. We are free to think about global cle may strike us as pointing to a future they perform more or less well againstdevelopments against a time horizon dec- as embodied by scenario A. Another fits whatever future scenario we mightades away, or about the future of our own rather in scenario C. And so on. So by think of. Caution is advised when deci-community in the next couple of years. developing a set of future scenarios we sions entail significant risks in any of
32 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging the scenarios. In this kind of scenario organisation’s ability to shed its familiar grate various sources of knowledge and work solid research is key. ways of looking at its environment and orient experimentation. We are moving its own purpose. In management theory closely to what Sondeijker has called>> Seeking alignment: sitting together to a powerful image has emerged to cap- ‘transition scenarios’. jointly imagine alternative futures is ture that ability: ‘blue ocean strategy’. potentially a powerful and liberating ex- From the above it is obvious that scenarios Rather than competing for the same perience, particularly in settings where are an intellectual and participatory Swiss prey (in a ‘red’, blood-saturated ocean) violence and conflict have led to deep- army knife. They can be used in many dif- we are at liberty to bring to life a new seated distrust between stakeholders. ferent ways. Processes and resources will opportunity space, based on a refram- No one has privileged insight into the vary accordingly. Scenario projects do not ing of how the world works, what needs long-term future. That is why the fu- have to be costly and time-consuming, exist out there and how we might want ture is a safe conceptual space in which however. In the right circumstances, with to make a difference. Richard Normann people can explore each other’s world- the right people around the table, an after- has shown how scenarios can be used views and develop a shared language to noon back-of-the-envelope exercise might as a scaffolding for drawing new mental talk about choices and developments do the trick. In other cases there will be no maps of our environment. These maps that affect them all (albeit in different other way than to create time and space can gradually change the landscape for ways). In these settings the process is for deep research, building trust and broad other actors as well. more important than the product. The communication. purpose is to develop trust and social >> ‘Enabling collaborative action’: in a plan- capital, not to display intellectual rigour. ning environment that is ‘wicked’, i.e. that is characterised by abundance of>> Agenda setting: stories about the future information and the continued friction have an obvious communicative appeal. between multiple worldviews, it is wiser In the hands of activists they can be to pursue a strategy of collaborative Further reading turned into a powerful vehicle for ad- in(ter)vention than to simply draw up vocacy. Scenarios are then used as nar- >> VAN DER HEIJDEN, K. (1996) Scenar- ‘a plan’. In response, Angela Wilkinson ratives that exemplify the negative im- ios. The Art of Strategic Conversation, has proposed to use scenarios as flexible plications of unwanted policy decisions Wiley, Chichester. canvases for a process of action learning. or, vice versa, the desirable effects of a She calls them ‘reflexive interventionist/ >> GODET, M. (2001) Creating Futures. proper course of action. In this setting, multi-actor’ (or RIMA) scenarios. They Scenario Planning as a Strategic Man- scenarios are inevitably normative: they are reflexive because they feed a process agement Tool. Economica, London. adopt a position – for or against, desir- of continuous reframing of the environ- able or undesirable – with regard to the >> NORMANN, R. (2001) Reframing ment and our relationship with it. They future. This judgmental quality can be Business. When the Map Changes are interventionist because they sustain used to energise and orient a societal the Landscape, Wiley, Chichester. action learning. In this setting, scenarios debate around choices with important will only be part of a wider toolbox. They >> WILKINSON, A., EIDINOW, E. (2008) consequences. are not an end in themselves, but a ve- ‘Evolving practices in environmental>> Reframing: one of the most decisive hicle to enable conversation, to explore scenarios: a new scenario typology’, sources of competitive advantage is an ideas far beyond the status quo, to inte- in: Environ. Res. Lett. 3
Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging 33D/ Design ThinkingSummaryDesign has just started to move away from shaping individual products and buildings toa more strategic agenda. Design thinkers approach the world as a giant laboratory. Theyare not intimidated by complexity but start with patient observation of the ‘system-as-is’.Every ‘problem’ contains ‘positive deviants’: practices that contain the germs of novel solu-tions. Immersion leads to ideas, drawings, sketches, models, and back to observation andideas. Visualisation and prototyping is a powerful means of catalysing new ideas and testingemergent solutions. Skillful design thinkers are reflective practitioners, engaged in a processof action learning.For many people ‘design’ means still es- global hinterland. What underpins de- novation and business strategy.” Whatsentially ‘styling’: the art of giving pleas- signers’ ambitions to tackle these chal- this means is that the way companies oring or striking shapes to consumer prod- lenging issues? In two words: a mindset public services create value is increasing-ucts or buildings. But design has always and a methodology. Recently these have ly a reflection of what designers have al-been more than that. Recently this has been packaged and branded as ‘design ways done: understand and reframe thebecome obvious in designers’ move to thinking’. But it’s just another one of needs and requirements of users, look formore strategic briefings. Industrial de- those unlucky oxymorons as design goes solutions together with these users andsigners are not only designing isolated beyond ‘thinking’ to inextricably weave other stakeholders, visualise ideas andproducts, but increasingly also consumer the ‘doing’ in the way it deals with reality. review those with users (see diagram onand citizen experiences, commercial and the next page). Let’s look at each of these Thomas Lockwood, President of the De-public services, and larger systems in the key steps in turn. sign Management Institute characterisespublic sphere (in transport and health ‘design thinking’ as “a human-centered >> Understanding the needs of users: de-care, for example). Urban designers are innovation process that emphasizes sign work does not start with abstrac-looking beyond the scope of a single observation, collaboration, fast learn- tions but with a careful observationbuilding or even a neighbourhood to ing, visualization of ideas, rapid concept of lived reality. Urban designer Paolasome of the most complex systems on prototyping, and concurrent business Vigano’ refers to this process as ‘hav-this planet: big cities embedded in their analysis, which ultimately influences in- ing a conversation with a situation’. De-
34 Working with wicked problems / 5 ways of knowing and engaging1. Define the challenge/ >> Visualise solutions: one of designers’ opportunity 10. Iterate most distinctive skills is to turn ideas into tangible shapes. Even in the age of computer modelling great archi- 2. Gather data tects will insist on making (sometimes 9. Implement hundreds of) models along the way in a complicated project. They do this 8. Assess not only to provide the user or client 3. Re-frame/ outcomes/ (who is usually less skilled in imagining clarify refine three-dimensional structures) an idea challenge of what the future reality might look like, but also to stimulate their own 7. Prototype / test thinking. The actual process of using 4. Incubate motor skills to draw or to make a mod- el does something to the brain: model- 6. Evaluate / refine ling is a very special form of thinking. 5. Ideate/illuminate Again, a wide variety of formats may be used, ranging from tabletop ma- quettes to storyboards to more con- ceptual representations such as maps signers immerse themselves and open to see solutions and opportunities and cause or flow diagrams. themselves up to the system-as-is. They where other people see only prob- >> Test solutions: design thinking is ac- use a wide range of techniques to learn lems. Designers always have a utopian tion learning. Prototypes, often made to look through other people’s eyes: streak. They refuse to be intimidated with very modest means, reveal a lot ethnographic methods (as used by an- by complexity but start from the prem- about how new solutions might work thropologists to study foreign cultures), ise that ‘anything is possible’. An archi- in real life. Of course, it’s easy to make participatory processes, mapping. This tect opens up novel solutions when a dummy of a new shaving foam holder part of the work is potentially time con- she recasts ‘a social housing project’ and much more difficult to get a han- suming. In complex systems such as as ‘an opportunity to new ways for dif- dle on complex services and systems cities this process of data gathering can ferent communities to live together’. where many people are involved. Still, easily take many months. Similarly, a service designer enables designers will ask users to play through new experiences when he considers a>> Reframing the needs of users: inevita- different scenarios, for example with patient as a person who has unique ca- bly designers make choices about what the help of LEGO bricks and figurines, pabilities to maintain his or her quality and who to include in their studies and or an improvised game board. The of life, rather than as a deviance from how to understand the purpose of the feedback that is generated from these normalcy. In framing challenges in new (service) system in the first place. This experiences halfway between concept ways the scope of design thinking is al- is not so much a separate step in a and solution is then an input for an- ways fundamentally critical. fixed process as a designerly instinct other iteration in the design process.