Wicked Problems: Complexity is Here to Stay

This is a guest post by Humberto Mariotti. And not exactly a single essay, but rather a series of three (3) distinct but related posts he made to LinkedIn over the last few weeks. I reached out to Humberto for his permission to integrate them here. He graciously consented. -LH

Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve, as most of their elements are the same of all complex systems: uncertainty, diversity, multiciplicity, interconnectedness and incompleteness. Their solutions are never final: the more solutions, the more problems. Hence the concept of "quasi-solutions", created by the American social scientist Eugene Schwartz.
In our culture, the "Stem" education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) prevails over the humanities. Aristotle identified three points extendable to education: Logos (logic), Ethos (ethics) and Pathos (emotion). Logos predominates in our "Stem" approach. Ethos and Pathos prevail in the humanities. However, without Pathos and Ethos, Logos is shallow, arid, and cold.
One example is intelligence seen as the ability to solve problems. But it also involves accepting uncertainty, and realizing that solving problems is not to rationalize them and blame external factors when anything goes wrong — which includes projecting on others our incompetence. 

Living exclusively to solve problems can be good for business; but it is not living intelligently, because it prevents us from realizing that life is more than a set of algorithms, plans and budgets — and this is our main wicked problem.
Some characteristics of wicked problems: a) they are not clearly defined; b) the stakeholders very frequently have conflicting viewpoints; c) there are no single solutions, as the problems are interconnected; d) the solutions are incomplete and temporary; e) all too often the main difficulties are not in the problems, but in the stakeholders themselves.

Seeing wicked problems as simple issues and trying to solve them only through technologies is a misleading strategy. Even so we have been insisting on it for centuries, without realizing the irrationality of our attitude. In fact, most simple problems can be solved through sequential/analytic methods, but this does not work with social problems, as they include human beings and so the world’s complexity — whether we like it or not. 

Many people think that their views are the only correct, and do not realize that they may be incomplete and not shared. The difficulty or impossibility to convince them with arguments (and even in the face of unquestionable facts) is an age-old phenomenon.

This imperviousness to evidence (which is the hallmark of some political ideologies) is a crucial factor in the genesis and persistence of many wicked problems — and also of much unhappiness, suffering, violence, and deaths.

Jeff Conklin suggests that in wicked problems there are no ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. So he proposes replacing “problems” for “concerns and needs” (how problems influence us) and “solutions” for “resolution and satisfaction” (how we feel when we solve them). 

For Werner Heisenberg, our observation modifies the subatomic particles. The same is true for second order cybernetics: the observer participates in what observes (the problem), influences it (the solution), and is influenced by it (the satisfaction of the solution). 

Focusing on the problem alone presupposes an objectivity that does not exist in the real world. Focusing only on people privileges subjectivity. Everything is intertwined and changing, so there are no definitive solutions. In dealing with wicked problems, the approaches should be always multifocal and the solutions participative. 

There is no uniformity in the understanding of complex thinking. 15 to 20% of people can intuitively understand it. 60 to 70% can understand it with some training. 15 to 20% are impervious to it. Hence the importance of the conversation networks. The separation between subject (people) and object (problems) imprisons all of us to the binary logic — the biggest source of reductionism and wrong decisions.


Humberto Mariotti, MD. 
Physician (psychotherapy) at private practice (São Paulo, SP). 
Creator of the discipline Complexity Management for MBAs in Brazil. 
Counselor and mentor in practical philosophy.


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