Clumsy So­lu­tions for Wicked Prob­lems

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Ney and Marco Ver­weij

Solv­ing wicked prob­lems in­volves mo­bi­liz­ing dif­fer­ent ac­tors, dif­fer­ent forms of knowl­edge and dif­fer­ent

prac­tices. In short, it re­quires messy so­lu­tions.

what UC Berke­ley Pro­fes­sors TO­DAY’S LEAD­ERS IN­CREAS­INGLY FACE Horst Rit­tel and Melvin Web­ber called ‘wicked prob­lems’. Is­sues such as cli­mate change, health gov­er­nance, poverty and in­come in­equal­ity are highly com­plex, and have proven stub­bornly re­sis­tant to res­o­lu­tion by the tried-and-tested tools of anal­y­sis.

Part of the prob­lem is that the com­plex­ity and flu­id­ity of wicked prob­lems pre­cludes find­ing a sin­gle, cor­rect so­lu­tion. Solv­ing these prob­lems in­volves mo­bi­liz­ing dif­fer­ent ac­tors, dif­fer­ent forms of knowl­edge and dif­fer­ent prac­tices. In short, it en­tails find­ing ways to har­ness and ac­ti­vate plu­ral­ism.

In the decades since Rit­tel and Web­ber’s sem­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion, the field of or­ga­ni­za­tional stud­ies has cre­ated a rich reser­voir of the­o­ries and prac­tices to tackle wicked prob­lems. But how well do these ap­proaches re­ally help us deal with wicked prob­lems? And can we pre­dict which ap­proach is most likely to over­come them?

In this ar­ti­cle we will ar­gue that the The­ory of So­cio-cul­tural Vari­abil­ity — or ‘Cul­tural The­ory’ for short, pi­o­neered by an­thro- pol­o­gist Mary Dou­glas — pro­vides a pow­er­ful con­tri­bu­tion to an­swer­ing these ques­tions.

Cul­tural The­ory 101

Cul­tural The­ory pos­tu­lates that four ‘ways of life’ are the build­ing blocks of so­cial life: in­di­vid­u­al­ism, hi­er­ar­chy, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and fa­tal­ism. Ev­ery so­cial do­main — from a kinder­garten to an in­ter­na­tional regime — is said to con­sist of an ever-chang­ing mix of these four ways of or­ga­niz­ing, jus­ti­fy­ing and per­ceiv­ing hu­man re­la­tions. Case study ev­i­dence from a wide range of do­mains sug­gests that one way of deal­ing with wicked prob­lems is through forms of gov­er­nance that cre­atively and flex­i­bly com­bine these four ways of or­ga­niz­ing so­cial re­la­tions.

Even though these ways of or­ga­niz­ing and per­ceiv­ing emerge in op­po­si­tion to each other, Cul­tural The­ory shows that they are also de­pen­dent upon one another. Fur­ther­more, they all con­tain a ‘ker­nel of truth’ as to how peo­ple can and would like to live, and as a re­sult, so­cial di­ver­sity and dis­agree­ment comes

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