AMSJ » The problem is that we don’t understand the problem

The problem is that we don’t understand the problem

Sometime in the late 1960’s the term “Wicked Problem” was introduced by Hortst Rittel, initially in relation to social planning. A wicked problem is not about something being easy or hard, and is meant to evoke a more emotional response.

Labelling something as a wicked problem is done to create a different way of dealing with the problem. It is about creating a different viewpoint and language. It doesn’t change the problem, but should change your approach to the problem.

Oh, and I’m not the first one to have thought of this by a long shot. Authors like Dr Robert Long have written about this in all three of his books, and a 2010 report prepared by Peter Wagner and Associates called ‘Safety- A Wicked Problem’ also highlighted the problem through their survey of CEO’s in Australia demonstrating how fragmented the issue is.

The opposite of a wicked problem is a tame problem. Tame problems may still be complex, but they are solvable. For example, going to the moon is a tame problem. You know the end goal and you know if you succeed or not. Wicked problems on the other hand tend to involve social complexity and fragmentation of the issues (lots of people with differing views and needs). This makes it very hard to even define the problem, let alone come up with a single perfect solution or decide you have fixed it.

Wicked problems have these characteristics:

  1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. What is the problem we are trying to solve within safety? How many different answers would I get if I asked 10 people this question? Is it about people, or the company, or society, or education, or the economy, or accountability, or leadership?
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. How “safe” is safe enough? When can we stop trying to find a solution and sit back and congratulate ourselves? The point is that we may never know, and so often we end up saying this is “good enough” when we run out of resources like time, money, people, or energy (that’s not wrong by the way, just a function of wicked problems).
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong. Solutions are simply more or less effective, or good or not good enough. You can’t say a training course, or Take 5, or Management Walkaround is wrong, especially before you try it (of course, you can say it wasn’t good enough afterwards).
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel. Every work group, workplace and organisation is unique, and therefore so are the safety challenges they face. The list we could create here is almost endless about how places, systems and people are different rather than the same (which is a problem when we think about the amount of “recycling” of systems and information that happens from one organisation to the next).
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation. Every solution you try changes the situation. To learn more about the challenge you have to try solutions, which in turn changes things.
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions. There is no clear “this or that” solution with wicked problems. Usually there will be a bunch of potential solutions to choose from, plus ones you haven’t thought of or don’t know about.

Note: This is really a scale, so a problem doesn’t need every criteria, but the more you have the more wicked the problem.

OK, what happens if we decide to treat safety as a wicked problem instead of a tame problem? Well, a few of my thoughts are:

  • We stop trying to look for THE solution.
  • We become forgiving of solutions that are less effective because we know there isn’t “one” solution.
  • If nothing else, seeing safety as a wicked problem actually creates some alignment, which forms the basis for working together with shared meaning and understanding (social collaboration and cohesion).

safety-daveWHAT NEXT?
Wicked problems are wicked. We can never solve “safety” and we will never have a perfectly “safe” organisation (all “zero harm” crusaders can address correspondence on this point to 1300REALITY). However, by first of all acknowledging this, and by then engaging with it I believe we can do better than we are doing now. The underlying strategy to tackling wicked problems is addressing some of the factors that contribute to them, namely the social complexity and fragmentation of the issues. This is done through promoting and creating social collaboration and cohesion, or put simply, creating shared understanding and meaning. Yep, it seems to come back once again to genuine engagement and effective communication.

Safety Dave Whitefield

“How “safe” is safe enough? When can we stop trying to find a solution and sit back and congratulate ourselves?”


Jeff Conklin – Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (2005)

Dr Rob Long – Risk makes sense (2012)

Peter Wagner & Associates – Safety- A wicked problem (2010)

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