How Can We Tame Wicked Messes?

The title of this post comes from David Hancock's 2010 book Tame, Messy, and Wicked Risk Leadership. Also, thanks to Mark Phillips for the inspiration behind this post; re-reading his article "Using Risk Management to Solve Strategic Problems," which appeared in Oct 2012 in Small Wars Journal was the motivation for my thinking about this topic.

First, some definitions regarding the different types of problems (and risks) … tame, wicked, and messy problems (according to Hancock).

A tame problem(risk) has straightforward, often linear, causal relationships and can often be solved by analytical methods. Got it; we've been dealing with these for eons.

A messy problem(risk)has a high level of system complexity and may have various interrelationships or interdependencies that require a holistic approach. Even these are not uncommon.

A wicked problem(risk)is characterized by a high level of behavioral complexity, i.e. people who do not act in predictable ways. A fair amount has been written about these in recen tyears.

So then … what is a wicked mess? Somewhat obviously, it is a problem (risk) with both behavioral AND systemic complexity, often with interaction between them.

While Hancock primarily considers problems from engineering and acquisition, Phillips suggests that they can be used in strategy development, even at the national level. He proposes (rightly, IMO) that most significant policy challenges can be categorized as wicked messes. The question then becomes … how does this help us in addressing them?

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