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Systems Thinking and Wicked Problems

August 6, 2012

Dr. Greg Waddell

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The term “systemic thinking” is a fancy way to say that all of life’s things—both visible and invisible—constantly bump into one another causing reverberations that expand out and affect every other thing. Take, for instance, the iPhone—an intelligent phone—a simple idea that had a revolutionary impact on many levels. This one thing has increased the production and sharing of information to a place where more information is produced in one day than was produced in the last two thousand years leading up to 2007.

Peter Senge defined systems thinking as the ability to discover structural causes of human behavior. People who don’t think systemically usually see only one problem and seek only one solution. This may simplify life but, as someone once said, “For every complex problem there is a simple answer that doesn’t work.” Simplicity is not always good, particularly when all it does is create a false sense of security or resolution.

Systems thinking is the effort to grapple with the complexity of an organizational problem. It means not jumping to conclusions or playing the blame game or the scapegoat game. It means recognizing that effects often have multiple causes and that a solution hardly ever comes about by making just one neat self-contained decision that resolves the problem.

In 1973, W. J. Horst and Melvin M. Webber came up with the term “wicked problems” to describe those pernicious problems that plague organizations and that do not have simple answers. It is not just that these problems are more difficult; in some ways they are unresolvable. They have innumerable causes, are tough to describe, and do not have a right answer. Some classic examples include environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty. Often the proposed solutions to a wicked problem end up making the problem worse.

Systems thinking is the recognition that there is a certain amount of chaos built into the fabric of life. Time and distance often separate their cause from their effects making them virtually impossible to detect. Solutions have side effects that were impossible to foresee.

Systemic thinking makes a person diligent but also humble in their search for fixes. To walk confidently cautious is the way of systems thinking.

In order to engage in systemic thinking in a practical way, you must have some framework through which to understand the organization. I like Jay Galbraith’s five-point star model that sees all organizations as combinations of five policy areas: strategy, structure, reward systems, processes, and people. A single problem will often have roots in each of these areas and will certainly have consequences for each of these areas. In addition, consequences become causes and causes become consequences.

A wise leader knows this and uses a combination of knowledge and sheer intuition to make choices fully knowing that the outcome will bring some surprises.

What has been your experience? Can you give some examples of systems thinking in your organization? Please share in the comments section below.

4 Comments

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  1. Tom R. #
    August 10, 2012

    Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:

    http://bit.ly/TqJODI

    Regards,

    Tom Rintciey
    SweMorph

  2. August 11, 2012

    Thanks Tom. I will definitely check it out.

  3. Chad Newton, PhD Candidate #
    August 18, 2012

    There has been much evidence in practitioner research to support Senge’s theory. Edgar Schein and Peter Drucker purported the systems model. However, most organizational theories fail to incorporate organizational psychology which is as vital as the syatemic processes in place. Eric Berne’s Transactional theory provides strength to the systemic practitioner’s approach to diagnosing organizational problems.

  4. August 18, 2012

    Chad. Thanks for dropping by. I agree completely. In fact, I would even say that the psychological dimension is a part of the system. I remember talking with another consultant about how he uses the Galbraith model for organizational analysis but adds another point to the star which is Organizational Culture and that is where the psychological factors come into play. So, yes indeed, you are right. Like most organizational reality; it’s hard to stuff into any one box. Thanks again for your astute observation.

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