• Paul Barnett

Continuing to attempt to tame a world increasingly filled with messes and wicked problems.

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Ten years ago David Hancock, a director at the Cabinet Office, Infrastructure and Projects Authority wrote Tame, messy and Wicked Risk Leadership because of his “continuing frustration that risk management as described by most current management literature does not correlate very closely with my own experience of the ‘real’ world”. A feeling that he said was widely shared by many project professionals in the private, public and third sectors at that time.

He agreed to speak at the conference the Strategic Management Forum hosted on 9th March, "UNDAUNTED: How Successful Leaders Face Up To Wicked Problems and Avoid Predictable Surprises", so I met him for a coffee to explore his intended contribution to the conference. And I later asked “It is a decade since you wrote the book, what’s changed, if anything? Are we seeing improvements? Can you illustrate the changes with examples? To which he replied, “the short answer is no, and little has changed."

Fortunately David didn’t only give a short answer. He added, “there is still a strong human tendency towards wanting determinism and any models that support the illusion and give confidence (false in my opinion) that we can manage the future get far more traction than those which indicate that the future is uncertain and ambiguous which requires strong leadership to resolve”. He also expressed concern about the continuing “need in projects to cling to a process solution like reference class forecasting (which works for tame problems and to a lesser degree messes) but is clearly inadequate for the other types of problems. The same goes for PMI BOK, Prince2, APM etc”.

His responses came as no real surprise to me. It seems quite obvious little has changed. First, we still see the evidence of failures, the consequence of no change. Secondly, as other contributors to the conference confirm, management theory and practice changes very slowly and is “based on assumptions that “do not hold in the modern world”. So, “classical management theory provides the wrong prescriptions” says Michael C Jackson in Critical Systems Thinking: The Management of Complexity. Or as Dennis Tourish states even more forcefully in Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, most management research is “rubbish”, many research papers are “unreadable” and the topics they focus on are “trivial”, ignoring many important issues.

Tourish is clearly outraged by the standards of management studies. His outrage is justified and supported by the evidence he provides, the detailed examples, and his well-reasoned arguments. It reads more like the work of a ‘whistle blower’, but he is only saying more forcefully what has been said before, and what most academics I speak to know to be true. Having read many academic papers myself, one of his comments on them made me laugh — “many of our papers seem to be written by sadists who enjoy inflicting pain on masochists”.

Hancock’s book, which is less than 100 pages in all and is written plainly, clearly and directly, in stark contrast to what Tourish says about academic papers. And, in its brevity it does not lose any integrity. It is well reasoned and supported by evidence. I suggest many management writers might learn something from Hancock’s approach. It is just a pity it has not been more widely read and the insights it contains are yet to be learned.

In the preface to the book Hancock defines then explains the difference between types of problems: Tame problems, Messes, Wicked problems and Wicked Messes. Tame problems “have straightforward, simple, linear causal relationships that can be solved by analytical methods”. Messes feature “high levels of system complexity and are clusters of interrelated or interdependent problems that cannot be solved in isolation and require systems thinking to resolve them. Wicked Problems are likes messes, but social ethics are a feature. They are characterised by divergent assumptions, opinions and belief that result in conflicts, so one solution cannot be agreed upon.

In the case of Wicked Problems, “each problem we encounter is essentially unique with no real definitive statement of the problem and is framed in vague ambiguity”. “All of which means that, dependent on your position and proximity to the problem, your view of the problem and the concluding solution will be very different.” Yet, “None of the present risk and project management literature and techniques helps us resolve these issues”.

Wicked Messes are problems featuring both “behavioural and dynamic complexity” which “co-exist and interact”. “Solving wicked messes requires high level conceptual and systems thinking skills; behavioural complexity requires high levels of relationship and facilitative skills”. And, The main thrust of resolution of these problems is stakeholder participation and ‘satisfying’, because there is “no single optimum solution”, but, “ alternative or acceptable scenarios”.

In this context Hancock talks of the “inadequacy of present risk and project management practices and their inability to deal with everyday challenges faced by managers”. He says, “our present risk practices, even with ‘best in class’ organisations, do not pay enough attention to the behavioural and organisational aspects of risk management”.

After outlining the reasons projects are becoming ever more complex and feature more wicked messes, he provides a brief history of risk management and the tendency for it to be dominated by mathematics and engineering, with a focus on three types of probability. The first, where the probability of occurrence is known specifically. The second, where there is a statistical probability of relative frequency over a long series of events or a large enough data set to be able to make predictions. The Third, characterised by natural, unpredictable variations in the performance of the system being studied leading to irreducible uncertainty. Hancock notes, “Most risk management practised today focuses on the first two types”.

The heart of the problem in the third case is people. Human beings learn from experience and from technology. “Yesterday’s response to a given set of circumstances is only a hint of what tomorrow’s response to that set of circumstances will be and, in any case, tomorrow’s circumstances will never reappear tomorrow precisely as they were today. So, we really do not know what tomorrow holds.” “Risk in other words is nothing more than uncertainty about the decisions that other human beings are going to make and how we can best respond to those decisions.” For these reasons Hancock believes “the essence of risk analysis lies elsewhere”, beyond the “jumble of equations and models” which mean lead to us to “lose sight of what risk is all about”.

One of the key messages that must be stressed is that resolving each of the different problem types requires a different strategy, and if we do not apply the right solution to the right problem there is a real possibility of problems intensify at a future date, even if it may appear to solve the problem in the short-term. He acknowledges framing the problem in the right ways is a challenge, but argues, “continuing to attempt to tame a world increasingly filled with messes and wicked problems, makes it a dangerously unstable place.”

Hancock then explains what the right response to each type of problem is. I cannot cover these explanations in the scope of this article, so I recommend you read the book. I will instead conclude with a few additional quotes that explain why far too many leaders remain daunted by the challenges they face.

Our understanding of our existing complex systems and those we are creating may be growing. It is therefore disturbing that there is a reluctance on the part of social scientists, managers, administrators and educators to ask the kinds of questions germane to messes. “Indeed, it sometimes seems we don’t know that we don’t know”. “We remain grossly ignorant of the dynamics of too many messes and the social interactions of wickedness”. “We are still predominantly organised to solve tame problems”, and our businesses and institutions of higher education seem largely strangers to the solutions that are needed.

A related problem is the reluctance to accept that problems are not controllable or resolvable, with the creation of fall-back positions being the best responses. As Hancock notes, what amount to ‘insurance’ policies are a hard sell. Yet, “we now know that effectively sorting through messes entails some fundamental changes in what we think and how we think, in what we teach and how we teach, and ultimately in the ways we organise ourselves”.

Of the changes Hancock proposes, one of the first is, “to move risk management from predominantly a science driven by numbers, systems and processes to an art with a greater behavioural foundation”. He notes, “Projects are essentially social interventions, conceived, designed, led and delivered for society through people”. What is required is a reflective, situational approach” that “distinguishes between tame, messy and wicked problems and uses different methods and tools for each problem type”. And, wicked messes “have to be approached using behavioural methods.”

The approaches needed will require Risk Leadership, not Risk Management he says. “Risk leadership is when the risks are managed to some arbitrary preferred albeit fuzzy vison of a satisfactory future where we admit that the future is uncertain and may change, and we acknowledge that there is no generally applicable dynamic relationship between perceived and actual risk, but that experienced and well-informed leaders, whether of the risk or project type, are the best capable of handling these dilemmas.”

It is a great pleasure to be able to announce that Dr David Hancock has agreed to be a member of the Steering Committee that helps design and develop the Critical Systems Forum.

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