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Operational Research, Problem Solving, Systems Thinking

What’s your Problem? Simple or wicked?

Not all problems can be solved in the same way! Now, that may seem obvious, but it’s important to recognise what type of problem you face before you try to solve it.  Problem types might range from:

  • “simple”: problems that can be readily defined and where there are often “best” or “right” answers


  • “wicked”: problems that need lots of stakeholder engagement, are much more complex, with lots of inter-dependencies and don’t have a right answer and no single, right approach for solving them

Different tools and different thinking are required, depending on the type of problem to be solved. Here are some examples, for those of us familiar with a range of Operational Research approaches:

1: Simple Find the right answer. Use data (Excel).  Apply known best practice solutions.
2: Look at the end-to-end process or system. Use simulation and modelling tools.
3: Understand the increasing complexity of the whole system. Use Systems Dynamics tools or Agent-based modelling.
4: Recognise potentially conflicting objectives across the system.  Use Soft Systems tools and aim for consensus.
5: Recognise and address power, politics and minority views.  Use Multi-Stakeholder Engagement techniques.
6: Wicked Complex, fast-paced change, no right answer. Use Large-group participative processes.  Novel solutions are more appropriate than best practice ones.

Some of the characteristics of Wicked Problems are as follows:Wicked Problems

When you are trying to solve Wicked Problems, you face a range of barriers which are both cultural and technical. People “in the problem” are likely to have conflicting objectives and there may be hidden agendas that don’t surface readily. Equally, people may not have the technical capability to solve the problem, either through a lack of knowledge of relevant tools, or lack of skill in applying them in a what will inevitably be a culturally challenging environment. A lack of systems thinking will also hamper progress.

There are some clear lessons to be learned from thinking about the type of problem you face before you launch into trying to solve it.

Firstly, you must decide how simple or wicked your problem is. The number of stakeholders who want to get involved and their degree of consensus should give you a clue. If it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time, it’s probably not going to be simple to solve, is it?

Secondly, it’s no use being a “one-trick pony”; only the simplest of problems are amenable to being solved using basic or single (reductionist) problem-solving tools. Be very wary of consultants who have a methodology (Lean, Six Sigma, Simulation, etc. etc.) and will “do it to (or for) you”, irrespective of its relevance and fit. Anything complex will require excellent facilitation skills and access to a range of possible problem-solving tools which need to be applied intelligently, at the right time, with the right people.

Thirdly, you may need to accept (and get stakeholders to accept) that, for some problems, there will be no right answer. It will be uncomfortable for some people to live with that level of ambiguity, but unless you can, problem-solving will probably be a very painful process.

I’ve written before about Wicked Problems, “foggy strategy development” and the Cynefin model.

[This article was stimulated by an OR Conference presentation made by Ian Newsome – W. Yorkshire Police]











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