Solving wicked problems via systems thinking

By viewing the world through a systems lens and gaining an understanding that issues are rarely, if ever, linear, we are able to start to move towards possible solutions. We can do this by starting to make sense of the problems we are trying to solve.

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  • While wicked problems are complex and messy, we can start to solve them by applying systems (big picture) thinking.
  • As humans with limited time (and brain power) we can place boundaries around sub systems to be able to comprehend problems. This is necessary, but can lead to an oversimplification of the issues and a return to ‘band-aid’ solutions.
  • Isgood optimises the systems thinking approach by synthesising vast amounts of data and providing insights for people to be able to apply and collaborate with one another

Some problems may be ‘wicked’ but we can solve them.

Sustainability, health and wellness, poverty and equality (all highlighted in the UN’s SDGs) are problems that are notoriously complex. Such problems are both large and intractable, interconnected and multicausal, with a lack of any clear single solution.

In fact, they are so tricky and complex, design theorists, Horst W.J Rittel and Melvin M Webber first coined these problems as being ‘wicked’ back in 1973.

Rittel and Webber note 10 characteristics of wicked problems:

Wicked problems have no definitive formulation
There are often no ‘stopping’ points – i.e. the point at which the problem is solved
Solutions to wicked problems can only be good or bad, not true or false
There is no one template to follow to tackle a wicked problem, only guides
There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem and this will ultimately depend on individual perspectives
Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem
There is no definitive scientific test to solve wicked problems, because humans invented them and science exists to understand natural phenomena
Offering a ‘solution’ to a wicked problem is often a ‘one shot’ design effort rather than trial and error
All wicked problems are unique
People who attempt to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

In other words, wicked problems can be messy! While it can be tempting to try and treat them as though they are ‘tame problems’ or ones where there is a clear or existing single solution, this is flawed and unhelpful.

Taking a systems approach

Solving a wicked problem therefore means having to intervene in a complex system. We need to be able to identify the multitude of factors, perspectives or interactions that might be associated with or contributing to a particular problem and outcomes. In this way we can start to make sense of the complex systems within which we are working.

By viewing the world through a systems lens and gaining an understanding that issues are rarely, if ever, linear, we are able to start to move towards possible solutions. We can do this by starting to make sense of the problems we are trying to solve.

In saying all of this, it isn’t that easy… it can be overwhelming to know where to even begin and, when you start to delve into the web of interconnected problems, it is hard to know where to stop!

To alleviate some of this overwhelm, it can be helpful to place boundaries around parts of systems during an analysis and to gradually broaden the scope.

For example, we might look at the problem of obesity within a local context, and further, might identify that a key driver behind obesity is poor eating habits. We could then try to gain a better understanding of what the key reasons are behind poor eating habits within that local context by engaging with key stakeholders and research. With this new understanding, we could (in theory) take action to increase healthy eating and create change via engagement, cross-sector collaboration and innovation with other stakeholders and partners such as local councils, school canteens or sporting clubs. Taking this approach, we would still need to be mindful of how changes affect the system and adapt accordingly. From there, we could look at how healthy eating could be promoted and encouraged on a larger scale and in a broader system, with the ultimate goal to tackle obesity.

In this way, we have reframed a potentially overwhelming problem into a more manageable chunk that makes it easier to comprehend and take action. However, there is always more than one key driver behind wicked problems and reframing can sometimes lead to reductionism or a move away from embracing complexity.

As humans (or organisations) with limited time and resources, there is still the risk of an oversimplification of issues, which can then lead to a return to ‘band-aid’ solutions rather than any real, systemic change. And so, we have come full circle!

Where isgood comes in…

At isgood we have developed technology that can help to alleviate some of these humanly shortcomings. Our Artificial Intelligence platform allows the multidimensional attribution of causes and effects from disparate and disconnected data across different standards, theories, and frameworks. It compares data, metrics and standards against one another and ultimately provides insights as to what affects what, and why.

In other words, our platform takes the grunt work out of being able to analyse vast amounts of information within a highly complex system so that us humans can go about trying to solve wicked problems, bit by bit.

Our dashboards can monitor in real time, providing ongoing recommendations or insights that are dynamic and evolving. This can allow room for complexity and to test what may or may not be working in a program and within a wider system.

The platform can even help with knowledge aggregation in a way that gives users the best information to suggest how to be able to change people’s lives and where you should deploy resources to get the best outcomes. Further, it gives insights not just from a user’s own program or activities, but also from other programs across an organisation and similar projects from around the world.

We are not saying it is a silver bullet solution to the world’s most pressing issues, but we are saying that it can provide real recommendations as to potential gaps in service delivery or prompt users to consider where there might be room for early intervention or collaboration with other organisations on a systemic level.

Bringing this back to wicked problems, we can see how complexity, information overload and a lack of resources (especially time!) can be massive hurdles in being able to take a systems-wide perspective. Our platform helps to synthesise large pools of data, so that you can get on with doing ‘the most’ good, based on holistic evidence and insights. If we can all start to understand the interconnectedness of the world, we can respond with innovative and more sustainable solutions.


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