Tame Problem or Wicked Problem?

We espoused tradition in December, and here we are in January, combining the Founder’s Message and article, and breaking a long-standing practice. Worse, we’re going to suggest you break a habit, too … specifically the one called: making a New Year’s resolution.

Most New Year’s resolutions are customarily made in January, for the month itself was named after Janus, the Roman god of ‘beginnings’ and ‘guardian of doors and entrances’. His unmistakable visage, a face at the front and back of his head, meant he could simultaneously look at the past and future (as can you and I), and inform a devotee’s wise decisions in the present.

We tend to make New Year’s resolutions because we were beguiled or bedeviled into: 1) adopting the beliefs and practices of others, 2) comparisons, 3) shoulds, 4) expectations of quick high returns, 5) out-of-whack timing and, 6) the possibility that this time, we’ll exercise enough willpower.

Alas, a 2007 study[5] of 3,000 people revealed 88% of those who made a New Year’s resolution failed to stay the course. Most people who fail, believe they don’t have the willpower, and as it turns out, they’re probably right. The prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of it, has other more crucial duties. It keeps us focused, and handles short-term memory and solves abstract problems. It has limited capacity though: when stressed, it diverts the power used by our ‘will’ into those more-vital duties.[4]

The assumptions we form about a problem or habit also affect success or failure; e.g., the habit of smoking. A smoker tries quitting, perhaps numerous times, but fails. Convinced they don’t have the willpower, they tend to set the failure in the “can’t” of a wicked problem[2]  rather than where it belongs … in the “can” of a tame problem.

Essentially, a tame problem is solvable; it has a definite starting point and endpoint, and is typical of other problems. The pure naming of it often guides the choice of solution(s). “I smoke”, prompts: “I want to quit”, prompts: discovering how the addiction works. It could be •CHEMICALLY (The solution is pharmaceutical); •PSYCHOLOGICALLY (The solution is found in ‘why’); •HABITUALLY (The solution is found in tracking the habit’s cue, the routine(s) used to get the reward, and the reward itself.)  Routine is the easiest of the three to alter and monitoring can result in exchanging a poor routine with a good one. It’s the base thinking used by many organizations that support countless people through difficulties.[1]

A wicked problem is unique and can’t necessarily be solved. It’s often hard to name; it defies cohesive understanding; there is no clear place to start, no discernible ending and no ‘best practices’ (straightforward actionable benchmarks) to follow. Moreover, multiple stakeholders propose contradictory solutions based on vested interests and judgements about what’s important. Rancour is common, especially when one stakeholder’s proposed solution steps on another’s vested interests. If a stakeholder’s solution is adopted, and it changes the nature of the initial problem unexpectedly, or reveals a tangled mess of problems, or up-ends a new sticky-wicked-problem, scorn and ostracism are often the price.

In June 2012, Professor Jay Rosen (Faculty of Journalism, New York University) gave a speech in which he exampled a wicked problem,[3] paraphrased below for brevity.

“When I first moved to New York City in 1980, lowering the sky-high crime rate was a wicked problem … until we found out that the same people who were evading the fare in the subways were committing more violent crimes. A stop-and-frisk-for-fare practice went into effect; people were arrested for the violation, and the crime rate in New York City fell dramatically. However, there were unintended consequences. Because the majority of fare evaders were/are minorities, the practice of questioning or frisking them may turn out to be unconstitutional.

That’s the way wicked problems roll. Lots of times you never solve them. Each successful action reveals a further dimension of the problem, or a new and different one which is frustrating, but less so if we learn to distinguish between wicked problems and the tame ones.”

We’d do better if we simply distinguished and then observed problems or habits before pledging any resolve or taking any action. Seeking resolution, each will surface in the natural stream of events and with its perfect timing. It doesn’t mean that it won’t present challenges, backlash or ripple effects; razor nerve-endings; cry-out for guidelines (such as those referenced[4] in The Times article below), and take every bit of discipline and courage we can muster.

Resolutions go head-to-head with our limited beliefs, and with difficulty, stretch them. The pay-off however, is worth it. Along the way, we build observation into awareness, and burgeoning self-reliance into self-mastery—the ability to lead ourselves. Self-mastery holds the key to a contagiously-inspiring and empowered attitude, and to the open-minded view we have about others. Above all, it is the key to inner integrity, and by extension, ethical actions.

Yes, indeed; resolution has a beyond-price pay-off.

I want to acknowledge my core team for their role in the writing of this combination Founder’s Message/Article. Together, we wish you our very best for a healthy, successful and above all, fulfilling New Year. Peter

[1] Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. p.71,72. Random House, New York, New York.
[2] Rault, K. & Ange, P. (2009) Public Participation in Integrated Water Management: A Wicked Process for a Complex Societal Problem. Paper, p. 28. Cranfield University. Accessed 17 December 2012. <www.libsearch.com/contributor/98918>
[3] Rosen, J. (2012) UK Conference of Science Journalists, Speech. The Royal Society, London, England. Accessed 17 December 2012. <http://pressthink.org/2012/06/covering-wicked-problems>
[4] Tierney, J., (2012) Be It Resolved. News Analysis. New York Times. Accessed 18 December 2012.
[5] Wiseman, R. (2007) Survey. University of Bristol. Bristol, England. Accessed 18 December 2012.
<Blame It on the Brain.  Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009>

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