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Last week Matthew Taylor forwarded to me an academic paper he had been reading as part of his annual lecture research. I wasn’t expecting a great deal, but the paper – The cuckoo clock syndrome: addicted to command, allergic to leadership – proved to be quite a revealing read. Matthew has written various blog posts before about the author Keith Grint’s work but I think it’s worth taking the time to reiterate in basic terms some of the key messages coming out of this insightful piece…

Broadly speaking, there are three types of problems in the world: Tame, Wicked and Critical

In the 1970s, two academics Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the terms ‘Tame’ and ‘Wicked’ to describe two different sets of problems encountered in life. Tame problems are those which may be complicated but which are contained and easily solved using discreet interventions. They only entail a limited degree of uncertainty and can be addressed by rolling out the same solutions that were used to combat the problem previously. Grint describes these problems as being like a puzzle “for which there is always an answer.”

Wicked problems, on the other hand, are those which are complex, not just complicated, and come about as a result of a number of interrelated drivers, each of which cannot be tackled without having a knock-on impact on the other drivers. Grint uses the example of the Greek financial crisis, where no action can be taken without causing ripples that affect other Eurozone countries. Finally, there are Critical problems, which entail little uncertainty about what response is needed and which demand a fairly immediate reaction from leaders. The Cuban Missile Crisis is an obvious example of such a problem.

Policymakers and leaders often treat Wicked problems as though they were Tame or Critical (and sometimes vice versa)

Wicked problems cannot be treated like Tame or Critical problems. By their very nature these problems – whether it be obesity, issues of mental health or anti-social behaviour – are not caused by a single factor but rather a complex web of drivers; social, economic and environmental. Attempting to solve them with a single, discreet intervention is misguided and likely to be counterproductive. Grint uses the example of global warming and the rise of biofuels as a classic case of mistakenly treating a Wicked problem with a Tame solution, with the result of compounding the original challenge:

When Global Warming first emerged as a problem some of the responses concentrated on solving the problem through science (a Tame response), manifest in the development of biofuels; but we now know that the first generation of biofuels appear to have denuded the world of significant food resources so that what looked like a solution actually became another problem. Again, this is typical of what happens when we try to solve Wicked Problems: other problems emerge to compound the original problem. So we can make things better or worse (we can drive our cars slower and less or faster and more) but we may not be able to solve Global Warming…

Likewise, occasionally policymakers decide to treat Wicked problems as though they are a Crisis. The reason why our leaders choose to react to problems with inappropriate responses is partly because they need to be seen as courageous and as having a strong handle on the problem. Witness our obsession with ‘dithering’ and U-turns when political decisions are not made decisively and without complete conviction. A Wicked problem is met with a Tame response because simple interventions look and sound so much more appealing. Take the challenge of inner city knife crime. Politicians are far more likely to be praised for introducing new police stop-and-search powers than for mobilising the community to engage with the issue in their neighbourhoods, even though the latter may indeed be more effective. Because we demand a decisive response from our leaders, many learn to “seek out (or reframe situations as)” crises.

Wicked problems require ‘Clumsy’ rather than ‘Elegant’ solutions that combine different ‘cultural understandings’

The social anthropologist Mary Douglas describes a number of ‘cultural understandings’ with which people attempt to position and tackle problems: hierarchical, egalitarian and individualist (we’ll ignore the fatalist type for the time being). Hierachists tackle problems by implenting stringent rules and punishments; egalitarians by cultivating the right norms and community values; and individualists by designing the best forms of incentives and support structures. Elegant solutions to problems are those which focus on using one particular cultural understanding. They are often simple, practical and with a clear timeframe, and are therefore useful for tackling Tame and Crticial problems where the response needed is fairly obvious to all concerned. However, when it comes to Wicked problems they rarely do much good and can even exacerbate the situation.  Grint spells this out with a few examples:

Individualists can solve the problem of decreasing carbon emissions from cars (a Tame problem open to a scientific solution), but they cannot solve Global Warming (a Wicked problem). Egalitarians can help ex-offenders back into the community (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve crime (a Wicked problem). And Hierachists can improve rule enforcement for the fraudulent abuse of social services (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve poverty (a Wicked problem).

Grint goes on to argue that Elegant solutions do not work for Wicked problems because they sit across various difficult cultures and institutions. Not everyone responds well to punitive hierarchical measures. Nor is everyone affected equally by the incentives and support offered by individualists. Rather, what is required when approaching Wicked problems are ‘Clumsy’ solutions; those that broach and draw upon different cultural understandings. Here, Grint emphasises the importance of implementing ‘experimental’ approaches “because we cannot know whether the approach we adopt will eventually work; if we did it would be a Tame or Critical problem.” The key is for policymakers and leaders to act as ‘bricoleurs’ and ‘experimental pragmatists’, eschewing nicely framed Elegant responses which are the preserve of many policymakers.

The problem – as I’ll go into in another blog post – is that our leaders, and we as a whole society, can be addicted to certain cultural understandings. The hierachists to their rules and punishments, the egalitarians to consensus and debate, and the individualists to incentives and management. In short, we suffer from what Grint calls “culturally induced cataracts”, which prevent us from tackling problems with new approaches informed by different viewpoints. This is the ‘Cuckoo Clock Syndrome’.

To find out why it’s called that and, more importantly, to learn more about Grint’s thesis it’s worth reading the paper for yourself. In a follow up blog post I'll explore the rest of Grint's paper and discuss why our leaders have difficulty in facing up to this ‘syndrome’.


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