Friday, August 28, 2009

It’s Wicked Out There

Remember the old speaker joke about the dog that was always chasing cars, until one day he caught one and didn’t know what to do with it? Well, that’s what is happening now in Washington, in nearly every dimension of politics and policy.And in no areas of debate is this more vividly apparent than in the realms of healthcare reform and the environmental movement, with its long-sought chase for solutions to global climate change. I’ll leave the contentious and near-irresolvable issues of healthcare reform to others and confine my focus to environmental concerns.
Let’s start the topic by declaring that addressing global warming is not a “tame” problem, it’s a “wicked” problem. I learned about the difference between tame and wicked problems from John Peter Thompson, former CEO of Behnke Nurseries, an ANLA member in Washington. John Peter, currently an industry consultant, has been an invaluable advisor to ANLA in developing and advancing our policy in several areas, most significantly the invasive species issue, to which he first applied the tame-wicked concept.

First, the characteristics of a tame problem:
• has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement
• has a definite stopping point (i.e. we know when a solution is reached)
• has a solution that can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong
• belongs to a class of similar problems that can be solved in a similar manner
• has solutions that can be tried and abandoned

A wicked problem is, well, pretty much the opposite of a tame one:
• has no definitive formulation—wicked problems are defined in terms stemming from one’s idea for solving it
• has no stopping rules—there are no objective criteria for which there is a “final, complete or fully correct” solution
• has no objectively evaluated solution as right or wrong—rather recommended solutions are considered better or worse in accord with personal or business interests, or ideological predilection• is unique unto itself, but can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem, connected in accord with personal or professional interests, or ideological predilection
• has no solutions that can be tried and abandoned—rather, solutions are attempted until resources are exhausted, the result is deemed “good enough” or there’s a sense in which “we’ve done what we can”

The reason I’m going into such detailed analysis is that the political debate surrounding wicked problems, such as addressing global warming, has so far been dominated by interests—for and against—in the context of tame problems, not wicked ones. Under those rules, the earliest move in the discussion is to figure out who’s on which side of the debate, join the preferred side, and then repeat that side’s pre-ordained causes and solutions, with no real change of heart or mind.
The only result is ... exhaustion, or maybe cynicism, or abandonment altogether and a channel switch to “American Idol”—a truly tame problem if there ever was one.

Here’s the point: Elections are conducted as though every thorny problem our society faces is a tame problem. Effective governing consists of learning that what were thought to be tame problems are, in reality, wicked problems. This is the reality that the dog suddenly faces when the car stops and driver walks away.Wicked problems can be better managed by not standing on opposite sides of the room (or broadcast studio table) yelling at each other.

Step one is identifying who, among all the people on both sides, is genuinely interested in solving the problem, not just barking at the noise.The second step is to acknowledge the issue as a wicked problem and begin to convert portions of that wicked problem into tame problems, however miniscule that portion may be. And repeat the second step. And repeat it again.ANLA’s work addressing the meaning of sustainability in (and to) our industry is an experiment in taking a portion of the wicked problem of environmental degradation and global climate change and taming it. Better to be the car driver than the dog.

Bob Dolibois is executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association and a member of the board of directors of the Small Business Legislative Council in Washington, D.C.
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1 comment:

John said...

At the end of the day, aren't all problems wicked? I remember Severeid's Law, attributed to the famous broadcaster Eric Severeid. Severeid's law says that all problems begin as solutions. As a society, we are blind to this reality, which is in itself a wicked problem.