Why are so many real life problems, the really big ones, so hard to solve? I mean problems like poverty, terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and so on.
Some people think that it’s lack of imagination and the proper application of resources. In this line of thought with enough information, application, and marshalling of resources a deterministic, optimal solution can be found for any problem. This approach can be effective in solving many real-world problems. It’s how we put men on the moon.
Unfortunately, many real-world problems just don’t have optimal solutions. There’s a broad class of problems that can be classified as “non-zero-sum games”. In game theory a “zero-sum game” is a transaction in which, if I win, you lose. There is one winner and one loser. In a “non-zero-sum game” all of the participants may benefit or all may suffer. The real object of the game in a non-zero-sum game is maximizing utility rather than winning or losing (although individual participants may not see it that way).
Generally, there is no single deterministic, optimal solution to a non-zero-sum game. The best strategy in such a game generally requires information and negotiation.
- Trade is an excellent example of a real-world problem that has those characteristics.
Even more unfortunately there are many real-world problems that have neither engineering solutions like the first class or negotiated solutions like the second. These are the difficult problems and, in some cases, these have been called “wicked problems”.
There are many reasons that a problem may be a wicked problem:
- the problem may be ill-defined
- the stakeholders in the problem may have dramatically different world views and frameworks for understanding the problem
- the problem may have no stopping rules
- the problem may be unique and previous experience may not be applicable
Or, in many cases, the very act of selecting an approach to solving the problem permanently forecloses other alternatives. It is impossible to arrive at an iterative solution to the problem.
Consider, for example, the mythological Greek hero Theseus. Theseus navigated through the Minotaur’s maze with a clew, a ball of yarn. The clew gave him the ability to trace back to his starting point. Without it he’d have wandered the maze forever.
That’s the key to any iterative solution: you’re able to return to some point of departure and try another way. But when the initial choice precludes returning to the starting point, i.e. the decision has consequences, you can’t just try another way. When you’ve chosen the second branch, the only way out of the maze was through the first branch, and the first branch is no longer accessible to you, you’re stuck. There may no longer be a solution.
I think that happens a lot in life. After some number of bad decisions none of the alternative courses that present themselves are even remotely appealing.
So what’s the best strategy? I’m not sure there is one. Apply the best engineering you can; negotiate eagerly, inventively, and honestly; try to keep as many options open as possible; and try to build adaptivization—the intrinsic capacity for change—into any solution.
For more on wicked problems the bibliiography in the Wikipedia entry cited about is pretty good. Also, the folks at Winds of Change have written extensively on the subject.