Sunday, May 08, 2005

Touchstone Tools and Resources: Part One

Touchstone Tools and Resources

This is a magnificent article, full of sound and fury, signifying a helluva lot. The problem is posed:

There is a subtle but pervasive pain in organizations. You can recognize it in such complaints as "How am I supposed to get my work done with all these meetings?" and "We always have time to do things over again, but never time to do them right." It is the pain of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality. It is the pain of trying to do good work in an environment full of motion and effort but few results.

Ah, the voice of experience with a firm grasp on reality. I have felt the same way in both high school and college teaching. Tell us more gentlemen.

We are having to solve a new class of problems-wicked problems-using thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler problems. That is like trying to use woodworking tools to fix your car. The pain is exacerbated by the fact that people have not distinguished this new problem variety. It is as though we believe the best tool for a tune-up really is a hammer. The pain and frustration are so pervasive they seem inevitable.

Yes, to the surgeon all problems can and must be fixed with a scalpel. I love this expression—wicked problems—they do seem to be intractibly bad. So what metaphor would you use to describe the conventional wisdom on problem solving

Traditional thinking, cognitive studies, and existing design methods all predicted that the best way to work on a problem like this was to follow an orderly and linear process, working from the problem to the solution. Everybody knows that. You begin by understanding the problem, which can include gathering and analyzing data. Once you have specified the problem and analyzed the data, you are ready to formulate-and then implement-a solution…. In the software industry, this is known as the waterfall model because it suggests a waterfall as the design flows down the steps.

Duhs-ville, man. I don’t work that way so tell me how we really solve problems.

In the MCC study, however, the designers did not follow the waterfall model. They would start by trying to understand the problem, but would immediately jump to formulating potential solutions. Then they would go back to refining their understanding of the problem. Rather than being orderly and linear, the line plotting the course of their thinking looked more like a seismograph for a major earthquake….We call this pattern both chaotic…and opportunity-driven, because in each moment the designers are seeking the best opportunity to progress toward a solution.

So why call them wicked?

Of course, linear processes are quite appropriate for solving many problems, such as computing the square root of 1239 or choosing the shortest route to the new mall. But within organizations-such as corporations, institutions, and government-where lots of people work on complex issues, people are encountering a new class of much more difficult problems. We call these wicked problems because of the dynamic and evolving nature of the problem and the solution during the problem-solving process.

What does this mean for me and the online learning business? When we consider what it is we want our students to know and do at the end of our tenure together, aren’t we posing a seismically wicked problem? And if this study is true then we need an equally wicked folksonomic solution. Could this be as simple as saying let’s leave the lower level taxonomies for the web and save the higher stuff for class? I don’t think it works that simply. Let’s look at the elements of a wicked problem as they see it.

First, “the problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of the problem. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution.” Christ, is that ever assbackwards, but as Richard Saul Wurman so pithily put it, “Ready, fire, aim instead of ready, aim, fire.” One must, therefore, be satisfied with ever-tightening approximations toward a ‘bullseye’ that grows smaller all the while. This runs counter to any institutional wisdom I have ever heard, especially within schools. In fact, the further up the educational foodchain, the more hidebound and inflexible the system becomes. This non-linear solution set puts you very counter to conventional wisdom.

Second, since there are many folks with a stake in a wicked problem it is important that those folks have a say in the answer, even if it is the wrong one. Wicked problems are social first, logical second. We realize this instinctively when we talk about how we have to “buy into” the solution, but that has usually had the equivocal baggage of the sales metaphor chucked in with it. And most people don’t buy it. And we end up with half an answer most of the time.

Third, constraints change all the time. Legislatures go broke, university presidents who spearhead initiatives move on which is simply to say that wicked problems are slippery. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised when we get grease all over ourselves handling these “little pigs.”

Fourth, final solutions do not exist.

Where does this definition leave us?

A wicked problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. A linear approach to solving a wicked problem simply will not work.”

Now that presents a seriously wicked problem for all of us, even if we give it only a passing glance. I plan on responding further to this because it corresponds so closely to the wicked problem I will be facing all week--what do I want my students to be able to do after they have finished my online literature class?

Many thanks to Chris Corrigan who pointed this out via his weblog, Parking Lot. This is for me a groundbreaking analysis on the nature of problems and problemsolving. Thanks to E. Jeffrey Conklin and William Weil for finally bringing all this to the surface for me. The binary of taxonomy and folksonomy has finally fallen into place with a satisfying click of recognition. Part 2 tomorrow.

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