Wicked Problems and Many Truths

Three things required to work on them.

I spent a large part of my working life as a management consultant and learned the hard way that most problems are ’wicked in nature’. The client would have come with a business problem or challenge which is not well defined, fuzzy and often unique to his environment. And the client knows more about the issues and the challenges than the consultants does. There are several critical unknowns - most often what the client tells you end up being symptoms or intermediate challenges rather than the main problem. This naturally spans multiple functions and each of the stakeholders has a different view on the problem. The data available is scattered and incomplete. Further, you have limited time and resources to work on it.

So how do you start to deal with these wicked problems with multiple stakeholders, different problem definitions, interdependence, constraints, amplifying loops etc. The key thing to realize is that there is no one truth to find out about the problem but more like ’many truths’ to be uncovered. What you are dealing with is not science, where you can conduct a scientific experiment and find out ‘what is’. You are dealing with a messy real life problem with possibly many solutions to ‘what does not yet exist’.

There are three things required to work on these wicked problem. The first is learning to use a hypothesis driven approach. Think of a consultant as a master professional similar to a physician or an architect. The consultants may have build up a repertoire - based on looking at a number of problems again and again - which enables him to size up a problem quickly and solve it efficiently. However to do so he has to start with generating many hypotheses. An hypothesis is nothing but an educated guess or hunch based on available evidence, his experience so far and his intuition.

Hypothesis generation tries to ask the question “what if”. Hypotheses testing, which follows it up, is really saying “if x, then y” with relevant data and analysis. He needs to look hard at all confirming and non-confirming data about the hypothesis to test it. Which brings us to the second thing. That hypothesis driven approach only works when you use abductive thinking.

When the consultant is using inductive thinking - he starts with the data and work backward to form a rule. For example, he may look at a set of data and notice when price increases, demand falls and then may induce a rule about price-demand curve from there. When he is using deductive thinking, he start with the rule and makes a prediction of what he will observe. For example, he may say that when price increase, demand falls and then he looks at the data to prove it. Abduction however reasons from effect to cause - if demand is down, it might be because prices is up, but it is only an inference to the best explanation.

Induction indicates ’something is operative’, Deduction ’proves that something must be’ but Abductions only ’suggests that something may be’. Because there are multiple possibilities for the event or problem to have happened, the selection of that one explanation to support the hypothesis needs to be viewed for what it is - as one possible explanation. He chooses an explanation which helps him understand the overall problem space better. As the possibility of both the problem and the solution are unbounded, good abductive thinking is critical. If he keeps doing this, the he can keep improving the hypothesis and the explanation. It is a process of “iteration and learning”. Both the definition of the problem and the solution are not separate and he keeps refining and reshaping and sharpening both of them.

Because the solution is an invented choice - only ‘one amongst many truths’ - and not a single truth, it can be both argued for and against. Which brings us to the third and last point. Making the case through a compelling story for the explanation then becomes important. He needs to weave a compelling story, which both explains the problem better and provides support for the possible solution. The compelling story serves as the persuasive argumentation both for himself and the client. Explaining ‘what is’ may be an essential step in building confidence in the solution. Taking the client through the same logical and emotional journey of the problem definition and the possible solution is an integral part of the whole story.

This applies to life problems as much as it does to business problems. We have wicked problems in our life all the time. We may use the hypothesis driven approach - evidence, experience, and intuition - to understand the problem space better. Use abductive thinking to find ‘the some amongst many’ explanations for it. And then tell a story to make sense of it all. Life is then an endless journey of discovery on this path of many truths.