Untangling wicked problems

News 26.09.19

Untangling wicked problems

As a company, we work with both private companies and public institutions. The difference between the two, is that in the private sector service design is a means to an end. It is part of the process to determine the best way forward, to understand what matters to people and where value is really created, and then to deliver that better. Ultimately, that may mean a better website, new customer loyalty program, improved ergonomics in a car seat, better instructions on the side of the package or a faster way through the airport to the gate. One way or the other, however, the output is quite concrete.

With engaged and interested clients, the value of the process – how we got to the result – is very much appreciated. It creates an “aha” moment and places the organisation on the path to organisational change, as the implications of actually understanding the customer become apparent from senior management to frontline staff. Overall, work with commercial companies has reached a certain level of maturity and routine. Not routine as in boring. But routine in so much as, that the process is reasonably predictable and it can be effectively planned and executed.

Public sector work, however, has become consistently more challenging over the past ten years. While the tasks we worked on at the end of the last decade were more in the line of fixing concrete outputs or creating digital versions of analogue services then today, we have moved into the area of wicked problems.

These are projects, where the number of moving parts is no longer in the single or double digits. But in the hundreds. Where no matter how much insight you have, you always run into new facts, that you didn’t have and didn’t consider, that upset some of the other facts you were going to base your conclusions on. Most interestingly, there are a myriad of opinions and experiences around the service and each one of them is correct, while often being completely opposite to what someone else experienced and valued.

These are also the situations where everyone has a natural inclination to do more research, because there is always more to find out. While it is true, that there is more information out there, starting to run experiments instead, is a more reasonable use of design resources. Wicked problems don’t get less wicked by looking at them more. (Probably quite the opposite.) Therefore, breaking it into manageable chunks, in whatever way fits, and testing your way to a better solution is more economical and much less frustrating.
 

Playing god with real lives

However, there is an important realisation to be had before you start work. Once you start working on services that affect real people in real time, your experimentation cannot be guess work that may or may not work. Like a doctor, you can’t allow yourself to do more harm. Approaching these situations in a very humble manner, making sure that everyone involved has been informed and has understood the process at hand is crucial. Misunderstandings that can negatively impact the end beneficiary, if even temporarily, cannot be allowed under any circumstances.

Unlike in the private sector, where some tests can have negative results, in critical public sector services, the testing of different options can never lead to a worse result than the current service offers. This sounds like a contradiction to the idea, that more and more research will lead to better results. It isn’t. There is a natural tendency in complex situations to want more information. However, this often leads to layered solutions where complexity is piled upon complexity and the full picture is understood only by a handful of bureaucrats and lawyers.

Therefore, being able to experiment with different service approaches, based on enough research (not endless research), will provide the missing information that no amount of digging can reasonably provide. Moreover, the testing of different approaches helps build a team understanding of both problem root causes and possible solutions, that is the key to actually implementing them widely throughout the system.

Just be careful when you experiment. You aren’t god.