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PROBLEM TYPES



by John Turner



The concept of "problem" can be easily defined as "a discrepancy between a current less desirable state and a future more desirable state" (Laughlin, 2011, p. 1). When a problem arises, one must determine whether the undesirable condition needs to be changed to a more desirable condition. Is the energy (e.g., time, costs, human capital) required to shift to the desired state beneficial in the long term? If the answer is yes, then resolving the problem is an acceptable course of action. This approach, however, requires knowledge of both the current state and the required desired state. Unfortunately, however, the current and desired states are unknown in times of complexity. Resolution is often made quickly, in which the wrong problem is often selected using false assumptions focusing on the symptoms rather than the causal mechanisms (Chevallier et al., 2023).


One of the biggest obstacles leaders and practitioners face is defining the problem. When defining the problem, it becomes critical to identify multiple potential problems to ensure that everyone completely understands the actual problem and its parameters. This way, when it eventually becomes apparent what the problem is, everyone will begin working toward the same goals. This point is highlighted by Markman (June 06, 2017): "The most consistently creative people and groups are ones that find many different ways to describe the problem being solved" (p. 4). This becomes especially necessary in uncertainty as more unknowns are associated with the problem, and it is hard to define.


Unfortunately, most leaders and practitioners define the problem as they understand it without providing alternate definitions to those assigned to work on it. Rarely do they solicit differing perspectives surrounding a problem so that it can be better understood. They only present the problem as they see it.


More importantly, before defining any problem, one must first know what type of problem they are dealing with. Is it a simple problem with known solutions or a complicated problem requiring subject matter experts (SME), or is it a complex problem with too many unknown parameters? These questions, determining the type of problem you are dealing with, must be answered before the problem can be defined and any method or solution can be selected. The current article briefly identifies differing classifications of problems and highlights how leadership and the strategies chosen to resolve them depend on the problem type.


Problem Type Classifications

Robert's 2000 Classification

One of the initial classifications of problem types came from Roberts (2000) to better identify ways of resolving wicked problems. Roberts (2000) expanded upon Churchman's (1967) initial classification. The types of problems presented were simple, complex, and wicked.


Type 1: Simple

Type 1 problems have little to no conflict among stakeholders on what the problem is and what the solution should be. All parties agree on the problem and solution. These problems are primarily straightforward, so they are called simple problems.


Type 2: Complex

Type 2 problems involve some level of conflict. This conflict resides in stakeholders' understanding of the solution. All parties typically agree on what the problem is but disagree on the resolution to the problem. According to Roberts (2000), this level of conflict makes the problem-solving process more complex, which is why he called them complex problems.


Type 3: Wicked

Churchman (1967), in his Editorial, highlighted the complications that are experienced when dealing with wicked problems. Type 3 problems have a high level of conflict. This conflict arises from stakeholders’ disagreement on the problem and the solution.

One issue Churchman (1967) highlighted when dealing with wicked problems was that many people tried addressing only part of the problem rather than the whole. This was called taming the wicked problem, but these efforts did not solve the wicked problem. Churchman (1967) stated this in the following: “Whoever attempts to tame a part of a wicked problem, but not the whole, is morally wrong” (p. B-142).


To further define wicked problems, Roberts (2000) identified four defining characteristics:

1. There is no definitive statement of the problem.

2. Without a definitive statement of the problem, the search for solutions is open ended.

3. The problem solving process is complex because constraints, such as resources and political ramifications, are constantly changing.

4. Constraints also change because they are generated by numerous interested parties. (p. 1)


Rittel & Webber’s 1973 Typology

In planning and policy, Rittel and Webber (1973) challenged the concept of efficiency, a hot topic at the time, stating that as problems become more interconnected, reliance on simple efficiency measures will not suffice. The problem is that as problems become wicked, the origination of the problem becomes less apparent, making resolving the problem more improbable than probable. Rittel and Webber (1973) highlighted the point that defining the problem becomes the primary objective: “We are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems” (p. 159).

In planning and policy, Rittel and Webber (1973) identified two primary types of problems: tame and wicked. A third type was later introduced by Grint (2010); this problem type was called a critical problem.


Tame

Tame problems can be solved using linear methods, most of which have known solutions because others have experienced the same or similar problems. In resolving tame problems, formulas can be developed that contain all variables associated with the problem, and the problem can be resolved in isolation (e.g., closed system).

These types of problems are often associated with minimal uncertainty, clear causal mechanisms, and individual solutions and can be handled using standard operating procedures.


Wicked

Wicked problems, according to Grint (2010), are defined as problems that “cannot be removed from its environment, solved, and returned without affecting the environment” (p. 307).

Rittel and Webber (1973) provided ten distinguishing properties of wicked problems for the planning discipline. Although these properties were presented to the field of planning, they are still relevant today. These properties are suitable for any discipline or practice today. These ten properties follow:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.

6. Wicked problems do not have enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

10. The planner [leader, manager, practitioner] has no right to be wrong. (pp. 161-164)


These problems are often associated with having maximum uncertainty, no clear causal mechanisms, cannot be removed from the environment/system, and must be addressed using requisite variety (e.g., collective engagement).


Critical (Grint’s 2010 addition)

A third type of problem was added to this category by Grint (2010). This third type is for critical problems, which must be handled urgently, as in a crisis or war situation.

These types of problems are constrained by time, with little to no time provided for analysis. Resolving critical problems requires quick action and decisiveness.


Managing Problem Types

Three Forms of Authority (Grint 2010)

Given that knowledge about problem types varies, it is apparent that how one manages or leads a problem-resolution activity should also vary. Depending on the type of problem at hand, Grint (2010) identified three types of management approaches for each problem type: management, leadership, and command.


Management

Management deals more with certainty and problems that have been experienced before. Weick (1993) associated management with “déjà vu.” Others have associated management with the technical aspects of operating a business relating to known problems solved using known solutions (Carroll & Levy, 2008).

Dealing with a known problem using known solutions, management can best be associated with Robert's (2000) “Type 1 – Simple” problems or with Rittel and Webber's (1973) “Tame” problems.


Leadership

In contrast to management, leadership deals more with problems that haven’t been seen before or are new to an organization. Weick (1993) associated leadership with “vu jade.” Carroll and Levy (2008) related leadership to the adaptive aspect of operating a business, dealing with unknown problems that require new solutions.

Dealing with unknown problems using new solutions, leadership can best be associated with Robert's (2000) “Type 2 – Complex” and “Type 3 – Wicked” problems or Rittel and Webber's (1973) “Wicked” problems.


Command

A command approach to management is required when a decisive decision needs to be made, as in times of crisis. In times of need, a commanding presence is warranted. This commanding approach is best associated with Grint's (2010) “Critical” classification.


Coping Strategies (Roberts 2000)

Another mechanism for managing problem types is to look at the power distribution and how it is dispersed within an organization. Roberts (2000) identified three “coping strategies” depending on the problem type and the conflict surrounding the problem: authoritative, competitive, and collaborative.


Authoritative

Authoritative strategies are taming strategies with low levels of conflict around the problem definition and solution. This strategy utilizes subject matter experts and highly experienced employees with the power and authority to manage the problem-resolution process. Authoritative strategies hand over the problem to an individual or team “who takes on the problem-solving process while others agree to abide by their decisions” (Roberts, 2000, p. 4).

Authoritative strategies can be utilized for wicked problems as long as power is concentrated, typically in one individual or a small team, and their authority is not contested (Roberts, 2000). However, it is best for dealing with simple problems and low-level complex problems. Authoritative strategies would also work well in crises.


Competitive

When power is not concentrated among individuals or small teams, authority can be questioned. This introduces competition among members who are not in the decision-making team. When competition exists, the problem-resolution process can become disrupted. Competition is different than perspective-taking in that competition involves agents forcing one perspective. In this case, one definition of the problem. In contrast, perspective-taking involves sharing diverse perspectives for everyone to consider before agreeing on the problem’s defining characteristics. Perspective-taking is more associated with the collaborative coping strategy.


Collaborative

Collaborative strategies involve power that is distributed among members. Whether between leaders or several teams, power is shared with little to no question of the collective’s authority. This strategy provides opportunities for everyone to learn from each other. Members can share their knowledge while listening to other’s knowledge about the problem. Roberts (2000) described this strategy in the following: “What they can learn in working together is that each holds ‘some truth’ in dealing with wicked problems” (p. 13). This learning process helps to make the collaborative strategy successful for wicked problems.



Summary

Given the classifications presented previously, it would be worthwhile to synthesize the different types of problems into a single table, along with the recommended forms of authority and coping strategies. Table 1 provides four problem types along with the associated information.


Table 1

Problem Types, Authority, & Strategies



Problem Types

Type 1 simple problems (Roberts, 2000) and Tame problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) can be combined into one problem type. We will use the term Tame for this problem type. Type 2 complex problems (Roberts, 2000) are a type of problem by itself. Wicked problems were represented by both classifications (Rittel & Webber, 1973; Roberts, 2000) and made up the third problem type. Critical problems (Grint, 2010) represent a fourth type of problem.


Authority

The primary type of authority for managing the different problem types is listed in Table 1. While each type of authority could be used for multiple problems, we only listed the primary (desired) type of authority with the understanding that there are certain circumstances in which a different type of authority could prove useful. As problems are contextual, so are their relationship with the types of authority.


Strategies

While the strategies listed could be applied to all the problems listed, the primary type of strategy is listed in Table 1. These primary strategies are most effective for the type of problem shown in Table 1.


Conclusion

The problem dictates how the problem should be managed and the type of strategy utilized. Known problems and solutions are best handled using traditional management authority with an authoritative, command-and-control strategy. The problem and solution are known, so it can be resolved by telling people how to solve it. In contrast, complex problems are not as straightforward. There are unknowns around the problem and its parameters, making not only defining the problem difficult, but finding a solution can also be problematic. Complex problems haven’t been seen before and often call for new and innovative solutions from leadership. Complex problems require diversity and perspective-taking activities from all stakeholders involved or impacted by the problem, calling for a collaborative strategy.

While wicked problems and complex problems are two different types of problems, the authority and strategy for resolving wicked problems are like those used for complex problems. For critical problems, however, a commanding presence is called for by someone who can make decisive actions. This calls for a command type of authority with an authoritative strategy.


The type of problem also dictates what type of method or technique can be used to resolve the problem or to understand the problem better. Simple problems have known solutions and can be addressed using standardized processes. As problems become more complicated, expertise is required regarding the methodology or technique that can be used. Here, the problem begins to dictate what methodology could be helpful. As problems reach complexity and wicked levels, standardized and linear methods and techniques will not work. At this stage, there are too many unknown parameters surrounding the problem. The current and desired states are unknown. Understanding the problem and its environment better becomes necessary, which begins a sensemaking activity. Traditional linear, standardized, and cause-and-effect methods will not work effectively now. Working on complex and wicked problems requires different methods and techniques than those used on simple and complicated problems. Beginning this sensemaking journey when dealing with complexity will be the main topic of my next article.


References

  • Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2008). Defaulting to Management: Leadership Defined By What It Is Not. Organization, 15(1), 75-96. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508407084486

  • Chevallier, A., Enders, A., & Barsoux, J.-L. (2023). Become a better problem solver by telling better stories [Decision Making]. MIT Sloan, 64(3), 73-78. sloanreview.mit.edu

  • Churchman, W. C. (1967). Wicked problems [Editorial] [Editorial]. Management Science, 14(4), B-141-B-142.

  • Grint, K. (2010). The cuckoo clock syndrome: addicted to command, allergic to leadership. European Management Journal, 28(4), 306-313. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2010.05.002

  • Laughlin, P. R. (2011). Group problem solving. Princeton University Press.

  • Markman, A. (June 06, 2017). How you define the problem determines whether you solve it. HBR Digital Article. hbr.org

  • Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning [Article]. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730

  • Roberts, N. (2000). Wicked problems and network approaches to resolution. International Public Management Review, 1, 1-19. http://www.ipmr.net

  • Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(4), 628. https://doi.org/10.2307/2393339


 

John Turner is an Associate Professor at the University of North Texas (USA) and the co-author of “The Flow System Playbook” and “The Flow System: The Evolution of Agile and Lean Thinking in an Age of Complexity.” He started his career as an engineer where he was employed for 15 years with ABB. As an engineer, he lived internationally for four years (Argentina, China, South Korea). His areas of research focus on complexity, distributed leadership, team science, decision making, and the intersection of lean and complexity.

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