Solving Problems Versus Improving Situations


Wednesday, 5.10pm

Sheffield, U.K.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

One of the things about real-world problems is that there is often no way of knowing if you are solving them or making things worse.

A lot of people talk about problems being wicked.

That sounds good – better than complex or difficult – wicked is more about messy, complicated uncertain situations.

But it isn’t clear – what is it that makes a problem wicked?

If you want an academic discussion you might like Guy Peter’s analysis here but I was wondering if we could pick out a few types of problems to consider and see if they might be called wicked.

The effects of feedback

The first type is one that you’ll see quite often, once you’re aware of what’s going on.

For example, you need to invest in sales and marketing to grow your business.

In many businesses that’s not something that will result in immediate sales.

What it does is raise costs straight away.

Increased costs mean profits go down.

The powers that be order costs to be cut which then results in a reduction in the sales and marketing budget.

This process ends up going from left to right and back again, linking two activities that cannot be done at the same time – investing in sales and marketing and cutting sales and marketing costs.

So what this does is set up an underlying tension in the business – an oscillation as the business bounces from investment to cost-cutting and back again – with no real solution or continuity.

Incompatible objectives

When you go to an elite university you will have a choice: social life, sports and grades.

Pick any two.

You can stay out all night partying and do last minute cramming, ending up with great memories and a good degree but you’re not going to get out to the playing field early every morning as well.

If you’re training hard the alcohol, fast food and indulgences are out.

It’s gym and the books for you.

The thing is you can do any two well – but if you try and do all three you’ll probably fail at all of them, or at least not do very well.

And this kind of thing carries on.

Time, cost and quality, for example.

If you increase or decrease one you’ll normally affect the others/

If you increase quality, you’ll probably spend more in time and money.

If you cut costs, quality is going to be affected.

These objectives cannot all be met – and that means when you work on one you’ll affect the others – and not in a good way.

Irreconcilable differences

This comes down to people – how they think and how they act.

There are so many situations where the differences are so big that there seems no possible way to reconcile them.

Take every conflict situation out there, between ideologies such as capitalism and communism, between religious views, conflicting opinions on everything from co-sleeping to gay marriage – there are people for and against who will never see things from another person’s point of view.

Tragedy of the commons

And then you have situations where although we should collectively act in one way the incentives are such that we make things worse by acting selfishly.

For example, if you farmed along with other people on common land, ideally you would make sure that everyone’s animals could feed.

For you, however, the more you feed your stock the more you benefit.

For many of us the way we live – the amount of packaging we use, the number of times we replace clothes, the amount of food we throw away – is unsustainable.

We know that – but we do it anyway.

It’s not evil – maybe it’s selfish but that’s the way things are.

What can we do about wicked problems?

For a start, we need to stop thinking about finding solutions.

There isn’t going to be a point where we can step back and say we’re done.

Maybe it’s thinking about things being dynamic rather than static.

It’s hard to spin a ball on your finger and keep it spinning – but maybe that’s the image to keep in mind.

You’re trying to reach a compromise, an accommodation, an improvement, something people can live with.

All weak sounding words – much less appealing than solving, winning, resolving.

But more realistic and achievable in the real world.

Something that keeps everything still spinning.


Karthik Suresh

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