Theseus’s Clew: strategies, meta-strategies, and “wicked problems”

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.

4 comments… add one
  • There is a disconnect in most people’s minds. When they see a problem, they look for a solution. With a wicked problem, the solution is often to create a dramatically different problem. Doing so can open up avenues to a resolution not possible before creating the larger problem.

    Take, as an example, terrorism supported by Middle Eastern states. You cannot solve the problem by, say, occupying Iraq. Even though Iraq supported some terrorists, other terrorists were supported by other nations. So while the terrorists that Iraq supported were hurt by our occupation, they simply turned elsewhere (such as the Syria/Iran axis) for support. However, we didn’t merely occupy Iraq: we also changed its form of governance. And that new form is a direct threat to other Middle Eastern states, notably including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran and notably excluding Turkey and Israel. By creating a bigger problem (what is going to become of the concept of dictatorship once faced with an Arab democracy?), we risk losing all, but also have the chance to gain all: replacing the dictatorships with other democracies. If we gain all, we solve the problem of terrorism by removing its means of concealment and its logistical (particularly monetary) support.

    So it seems to me that when one is faced with a wicked problem, the way to make it better is first to make it worse, which makes it different. This doesn’t always work, but it has worked before. See, for example, the Reformation and the wars that followed, which solved the wicked problem of religious tyranny in Europe. Of course, it gave us the problem of militant nationalism. Perhaps solving terrorism will destroy Westphalian nation states, and give us some other problems to deal with instead.

  • In addition to the proposed classification of problems presented in this post, I’d suggest you consider the divergent/convergent dichotomy suggested by E.F. Schumacher. According to schumacher, convergent problems tend to, well, converge on a final solution. They have an answer that can be passed along, or cribbed, so to speak, so that others may take advantage of prior “problem solving.” Convergent problems are typically engineering type problems. They generally deal with the dead things of the universe (aka matter).

    Divergent problems on the other hand, don’t converge towards an answer. Problems like, how to best educate the young, for instance, deal explicitly with the living, conscious, and self-aware things of the universe. They don’t don’t converge on an ideal answer. You CAN arrive at an answer, but you can’t give your answer to someone else, you can only help them negotiate the problem for themselves. Trying to apply convergent “problem solving” to human-based divergent problems results in “Final Solutions” involving gas chambers and genocide. The only answer to divergent problems is transcendence through Self-Awareness.

    You can read more about E.F. Schumacher’s thoughts on this in his book, A Guide for the Perplexed.

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