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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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4.5 Creativity for messy problems

Many problems have tried and tested solutions, or standard ways of working out a solution, and they do not need a particularly ‘creative’ approach. For example, if I find I have no food in my kitchen, I don’t usually have to be creative about solving that problem – I can just go the shops or order a home delivery. It’s only in less usual circumstances (I’ve got people coming to a dinner party, or I’m living miles from the nearest town) that I might need a creative solution to that situation.

While many challenges in organisational life are straightforward and routine, management situations often turn out to conceal what academics involved in writing about systems theory have named variously as ‘messes’ (e.g., Ackoff, 1979), ‘soft’ problems (Checkland, 1972, 1981), or ‘wicked’ problems (Rittel, 1972). These are complex systems of sub-problems in which many different potential issues are woven together in an interdependent way. These sub-problems are closely linked to the differing values, perceptions and world views of the many people who have vested interests in various aspects of the situation; after all, problems are as much to do with the problem-owner’s needs and motives as with the external situation.

The table below is an adaptation of Mason and Mitroff’s version of Rittel’s concept of ‘wicked problems’.

Table 5 Rittel’s characteristics of ‘wicked problems’
CharacteristicHow it appears in tame problemsHow it appears in wicked problems
Problem formulationCan be exhaustively formulated and written downHas no definitive formulation
Problem/solution relationshipCan be formulated separately from any notion of what its solution might beEvery formulation of it corresponds to a statement of solution and vice versa
Understanding it is synonymous with solving it
TestabilityThe solution can be testedThere is no single rule or system of criteria that determines whether the solution is correct or false
Either it is correct or it is falseSolutions can only be good or bad relative to one another
Mistakes and errors can be pinpointed
FinalityProblems have closure – a clear solution and ending pointThere is no rule for when to stop
The end can be determined by means of a testThere is always room for improvement
Since there is neither an immediate nor ultimate test for the solution to the problem, one never knows when one’s work is done, and the potential consequences of the problem are played out indefinitely
TractabilityThere is an exhaustive list of permissible operations that can be used to solve itThere is no definitive list of permissible operations to be used for solving it
Explanatory characteristicsThe problem may be stated as a ‘gap’ between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be and there is a clear explanation for every gapMany possible explanations may exist for the same discrepancy
Depending on which explanation one chooses, the solution takes on a different form
Level of analysisIt has an identifiable formEvery problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem
A level of generality can be found for bounding it and identifying its root causeIt has no identifiable root cause; since curing symptoms does not cure problems, one is never sure the problem is being attacked at the proper level
There is no need to argue about problem level
ReproducibilityIt can be abstracted from the real world, and attempts can be made to solve it over and over again until the correct solution is foundEach problem is a one-shot operation
Once a solution is attempted, you can never undo what you have already done
There is no trial and error
ReplicabilityIt may repeat itself many timesEvery problem is essentially unique
ResponsibilityNo one can be blamed for failing to solve it, although solving it may bring someone acclaimSince there is no way of knowing when it is solved, few people are praised for grappling with it
The problem solver has ‘no right to be wrong’, is morally responsible for what happens and must share the blame if things go wrong
(Source: adapted from Mason and Mitroff, 1981, pp. 10–12)

Mason and Mitroff continue:

Most policy planning and strategy problems are wicked problems of organized complexity. These complex wicked problems also exhibit the following characteristics.

  • Interconnectedness: Strong connections link each problem to other problems. As a result, these connections sometimes circle back to form feedback loops. ‘Solutions’ aimed at the problem seem inevitably to have important opportunity costs and side effects. How they work out depends on events beyond the scope of any one problem.
  • Complicatedness: Wicked problems have numerous important elements with relationships among them, including important ‘feedback loops’ through which a change tends to multiply itself or perhaps even cancel itself out. Generally, there are various leverage points where analysis and ideas for intervention might focus, as well as many possible approaches and plausible programs of action. There is also a likelihood that different programs should be combined to deal with a given problem.
  • Uncertainty: Wicked problems exist in a dynamic and largely uncertain environment, which creates a need to accept risk, perhaps incalculable risk. Contingency planning and also the flexibility to respond to unimagined and perhaps unimaginable contingencies are both necessary.
  • Ambiguity: The problem can be seen in quite different ways, depending on the viewer’s personal characteristics, loyalties, past experiences, and even on accidental circumstances of involvement. There is no single ‘correct view’ of the problem.
  • Conflict: Because of competing claims, there is often need to trade-off ‘goods’ against ‘bads’ within the same value system. Conflicts of interest among persons or organizations with different or even antagonistic value systems are to be expected. How things will work out may depend on interaction among powerful interests that are unlikely to enter into fully co-operative arrangements.
  • Societal Constraints: Social, organizational, and political constraints and capabilities, as well as technological ones, are central both to the feasibility and the desirability of solutions.

The wicked problems of organized complexity that policy makers face have two major implications for designing processes for marking policy:

  • There must be broad participation of affected parties, directly and indirectly, in the policy-making process.
  • Policy making must be based on a wide spectrum of information gathered from a large number of diverse sources.

(Mason and Mitroff, 1981, pp. 11–13)

Activity 7 Tame or wicked?

Identify some issue that concerns you at the moment.

Write down a list of stakeholders in this issue – people who can affect it or are affected by it. In your mind, try to step into each stakeholder’s shoes so that you get some feel for how that party sees your issue. Write a sentence or two about the problem from the point of view of each of these stakeholders. Perhaps make a few notes about some of the more marked differences that emerge from this exercise.

Work through the tame/wicked characteristics (Table 5 above) and see how they apply to your issue. If ‘1’ means ‘very tame’ and ‘10’ means ‘very wicked’, what score would you give your issue?

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Managing messes or wicked problems usually needs a lot of creative exploration of the issue, backed up with ways of ‘mapping’ the situation so that you can see how all the bits fit together, and get to understand how the complex whole is likely to react to any particular intervention. Indeed, wicked problems may have no neat and tidy ‘solution’ at all, or no single or unequivocal solution. Often they boil down to finding acceptable ways of coping. But finding ways of coping, collectively and personally, can itself be a highly creative business – not in the spectacular ‘new invention’ sense of creativity, but in the subtler, moment-by-moment, incremental sense that helps good things to flower out of the most unpromising material.

Problem articulation in these areas can easily become very ‘political’, raising issues such as trust, respect, role and communication, so discussion, debate and negotiation are often critically important if you are to make good progress. In practice, the complexity of many problem situations often means that it may be better to think of continuous, ongoing ‘problem management’ rather than one-off ‘problem solving’ with a clear beginning and end. For a manager, the individual episode is usually just one issue in a continuing portfolio of issues. The resolution of one issue often results in a changed environment that raises new issues – so creative problem-solving skills are vital for managers.

Messy or wicked problems do not respond readily to conventional approaches to problem solving, almost by definition – if it were that straightforward to solve the problem, it wouldn’t be a messy one. Messy issues call for new approaches, different from what has been tried before, and are likely to need solutions that are tailored to that particular situation, rather than something ‘off the shelf’. In other words, messy problems are prime candidates for creative problem-solving approaches.