I’m clutching at raindrops – an idea that appears so perfectly formed is destroyed the moment I grasp it.
I’m currently grappling with the question of what to make for the My Tribe exhibition. 360documentaries has charged me with the task of making a radio piece that explores ideas of community, identity and belonging. As the sun sets on my rather extended period of blue sky thinking I’m feeling an uncomfortable resonance with ‘An ode to the elusive idea’. This is a quirky, highly-crafted and rather confronting animation by Tribe contributor – diam_qut. If you have ever struggled with a problem – it’s well worth a look!
In an attempt to better understand the nature of my problem I read Jeff Conklin’s paper, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity”. Now, I knew problems could be naughty – but I didn’t realise just how diabolical they could get!
Wicked problems, Conklin explains, are a particular type of problem that not only can’t be solved with a right or wrong answer but are dangerous for those who attempt to; they are a leading cause of ‘analysis paralysis’ and a common trigger for group project melt-down. Some examples of wicked problems are – how to deal with climate change? What to do about child poverty? And what to include in the My Tribe radio piece I’m making?
As knowing your adversary is key – and because wicked problems can be lurking inside seemingly tame problems, I’ll outline a boiled down version of Conklin’s characteristics of a ‘wicked problem’ (these points were first set out by the rather earnestly named fellow Horst Rittel who came up with this rather flamboyantly ‘awesome’ term, ‘wicked problem’)
You don’t understand the problem until you have developed the solution
Wicked problems aren’t clearly defined with stable parameters – the goal posts shift according to which way you look at them and the agenda of the person looking. The problem only becomes clear – or definable – when you couple it with a solution (of which there may be many or none). So, answering the problem is the method through which you understand it. Rittel says, “One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve.”
Wicked problems never end and don’t have right or wrong answers
Wicked solutions are just as unstable as the floating questions that precedes them – there are no crunchy, satisfying ‘right answers’ – just a judgment call on what is better, worse, good enough or not good enough. Wicked problems don’t end – they just get exhausted; run out of time, money and energy.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
From what I understand, the ‘wicked problem’ references the whole ecosystem within which the problem exists (including all the details, nuances and subjective viewpoints). While you can theorize a general approach a wicked problems – every one you come across will be different.
Maybe I’m just clutching at straws – but perhaps the only way I’ll solve the problem of what should be in this My Tribe radio piece is when I actually make something and (when I’m utterly exhausted 360documentaries confirms it is ‘good enough’) say it is ‘finished’.
A lot trickier than I first thought!