by Judith Curry
Believe it or not, “messes” is a technical term used to describe complex problems. Social messes are resistant to analysis and to resolution.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say:
Russell L. Ackoff wrote about complex problems as messes: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.”
Extending Ackoff, Robert Horn says that “a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.”
According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:
- No unique “correct” view of the problem;
- Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
- Most problems are connected to other problems;
- Data are often uncertain or missing;
- Multiple value conflicts;
- Ideological and cultural constraints;
- Political constraints;
- Economic constraints;
- Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
- Numerous possible intervention points;
- Consequences difficult to imagine;
- Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
- Great resistance to change; and,
- Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.
Contrast this to ‘wicked problems’:
“Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.
Rittel and Webber’s (1973) formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics, perhaps best considered in the context of social policy planning. According to Ritchey (2007), the ten characteristics are:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- 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.
- The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
Seeking to generalize the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy, Conklin identifies the following as defining characteristics of wicked problems:
- The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
- Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
- Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.
Kelly Levin, Benjamin Cashore, Steven Bernstein and Graeme Auld introduced in 2007 the distinction between “wicked” and “super wicked problems”. They first presented International Studies Association Convention in Chicago, February 28 – March 3, 2007. They presented a revised version of the paper to the Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges and Decisions Congress, 10–12 March 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark.
They defined super wicked problems as having the following additional characteristics:
- Time is running out.
- No central authority.
- Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
- Hyperbolic discounting occurs
While the items that define a wicked problem relate to the problem itself, the items that define a super wicked problem relate to the agent trying to solve it. Global warming is considered as super wicked problem by others.
New Tools for Resolving Complex Problems
Horn and Weber have a paper entitled New Tools for Resolving Complex Problems, with subtitle Mess Mapping and Resolution Mapping Processes. From the Executive Summary:
Wicked Problems (equivalently, Social Messes) are seemingly intractable problems. They are composed of inter-related dilemmas, issues, and other problems at multiple levels society, economy, and governance. These interconnections—systems of systems—make Wicked Problems so resilient to analysis and to resolution.
Wicked Problems include issues such healthcare in the United States and elsewhere, the AIDS epidemic and perhaps other emerging diseases, global climate change, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, terrorism, homeland security, and nuclear energy and waste.
Since 1999, one of us (Horn) has been developing an approach to resolving Wicked Problems that combines interactive group processes with Visual Analytics to produce (among other outputs) detailed graphical representations and analyses of Wicked Problems.
Another of us (Weber) has been a leader in applying a particular form of scenario planning that we call Resolution Scenario Mapping. Resolution Mapping is a knowledge-based, highly interactive group process for analyzing contingent Events and divergent outcomes. Participants can choose their most desirable and attainable outcomes and those milestones or Events that lead logically to the desired outcome. Implementing key Events substantially increases the likelihood of resolving the Wicked Problem at hand, at least for a period of time.
In this paper, we show how Mess Map diagrams and Mess Mapping and Resolution Mapping processes can be used to represent, analyze, evaluate Wicked Problems and then to choose actions that ameliorate the Wicked Problem at hand.
Resolution Mapping and Mess Mapping are each powerful process and analytic tools for helping stakeholders resolve Wicked Problems. These tools can be successful where others have failed (or have feared to tread) because both incorporate or address uncertainty and risk; complexity; systems interacting with other systems; competing points of view and values; different people knowing different parts of the problem (and possible solutions); and intra- and inter- organizational politics.
“C-level” executives, Boards of Directors, thought leaders, authorities, and change agents will find Mess Mapping and Resolution Mapping indispensable for creating consensus, choosing specific actions, and determining responsibilities for implementation.
JC comment: I find this pretty interesting. Climate change to me seems to be the mother of all messy super wicked problems. I like the mess mapping approach, with scenarios, etc. This makes much more sense to me than developing a scientific consensus that all but demands a specific policy.