The generation that moved the industry into the digital age is slowly retiring. The new generation grew up digital, so it will be interesting to see what directions they take and what new technologies they will push forward.

One thing I’m fond of saying, sort of just to be provocative, is that we’ve pretty much solved how to do control. We just have other and harder problems to solve.

That’s what made this piece from Jay Rosen, interesting. Jay is a professor of journalism at NYU who is trying to move the practice of journalism into the modern age. I really respect his thought process.

This discussion is in the context of journalists covering today’s most pressing questions. I am writing to engineers, though, and engineers are by nature and training problem solvers. So consider this:

“And that’s what I have for you today: a really juicy puzzle. It begins with a distinction that I have found useful. The distinction is between tame and wicked problems.”

Hmmm, tame and wicked. Sucked me in.

“Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.”

So tame problems are such things as controlling a normal loop. On the other hand, here are the other kind.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.”

What kinds of problems do we face today that are wicked problems? But then Jay adds:

“But it gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try things that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money, or political will. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)”

Consider maybe that wicked problems we face may have more to do with controlling plants. Or groups of plants. Or profitability. Or solving customer problems in a continuously changing environment.

What do you think?

Share This

Follow this blog

Get a weekly email of all new posts.