Resolving Wicked Problems through Collaboration

Resolving Wicked Problems through Collaboration

Peter J. Denning (Naval Postgraduate School, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch047
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Wicked problems (messes) are tangled social situations that are too costly to stay in and too intransigent to get out of. Collaboration is essential to resolving them. This chapter examines five main ideas: (1) Messes and wicked problems are the most difficult in a hierarchy of difficult problems.(2) Why mess resolution usually involves disruptive innovation. (3) Why collaboration is essential and hard to achieve. (4) Collaboration is a practice generated in six kinds of conversations. (5) Someone who understands the practice of collaboration will find many information technology tools to help with the process: exchangers, coordinators, and games, and can design better tools.
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Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction: It’s completely impossible. It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. I said it was a good idea all along.

—Arthur C. Clark

The Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives.

—Winston Churchill


Solving Hard Problems In Social Systems

Let us begin by considering messes as a category within a hierarchy of difficult problems. We use the word “system” to mean either a social or natural system.

Problems come in four categories of difficulty (Table 1). The simplest are the ones where the solution knowledge already exists, either in one’s own domain (Category I) or in another (Category II). The more difficult require the construction of new knowledge. When the system of interest is complex and governed by fixed (but unknown) laws, its reproducible behaviors can be discovered through experiments (Category III). When the system of interest is complex and adaptive, it tends not to have reproducible behaviors; it adjusts its responses and neutralizes repeated probes (Category IV). The last category is the abode of messes and wicked problems.

Table 1.
Categories of problem difficulty
ISolution knowledge exists in your own domainRedirect attention.
IISolution knowledge exists in another domainFind an expert. Become an expert and design own solution.
IIINo solution exists in any domain; system is very complex but responds the same way to repeated stimuliExplore for recurrent patterns by probes and experiments, design resolution around recurrences discovered.
IVNo solution exists in any domain; system is chaotic and adaptive, does not repeat patterns under the same probesOrganize collaboration in a local part of system, then spread the new organization to the whole.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mess: a tangled social situation that is too costly to stay in and too intransigent to get out of. See also wicked problem.

Cooperation: people working together to achieve a common purpose.

Exchanger: information technology that shares or transfers information among members of a group; supports collaboration.

Consensus: people reaching an agreement for action that is unsatisfying to many in the group but not so bad as to provoke serious opposition.

Collaboration: a practice of working together with others to produce new observers and new possibilities that no one could produce alone.

Collective Action: people coordinating together inside a game, producing some result in the sum total of their actions that cannot be seen from any individual’s action.

Disruptive Innovation: a change of practice in a social system that requires new thinking, new beliefs, an alteration of the roles and their connections in the social network, and shifts of power among groups in the social system. Contrast with sustaining innovation, which means an improvement of performance in existing practices of a social system.

Wicked Problem: a tangled social situation that is too costly to stay in and too intransigent to get out of. See also mess.

Game: a set of rules by which members of a social system interact to achieve some purpose together.

Collaboration Technology: information technology that supports the practice of collaboration. See collaboration.

Coordinator: information technology that helps people move within a network of commitments, by recording when they make commitments and tracking their progress toward completion.

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