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Commentary: Wicked Problems, Network Solutions

Dec. 1, 2013 - 01:03PM   |  
By STEVEN NIXON   |   Comments
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In 1973, planning theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber divided the world’s problems into two categories: those that can be solved with linear “system” processes and those that can’t. Rittel and Webber called the former “tame problems,” and the latter “wicked problems.”

At the time, Rittel and Webber were principally concerned with trends in urban planning, a domain with characteristics they associated with wicked problems. To them, wicked problems were complex, ill-defined, constantly changing and involved lots of stakeholders with conflicting views.

Rittel and Webber contrasted urban planning with the problems faced by military and space programs. They viewed military and space programs as “tame,” since at the time, these programs could be managed successfully with classical linear systems engineering processes. Indeed, these processes sent mankind to the moon and developed many sophisticated weapon systems.

But that was 40 years ago and the world has greatly changed, particularly for the US military.

Now the traditional systems processes increasingly fail to deliver the right capabilities at affordable costs in a reasonable time. Programs such as the Future Combat Systems, National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and the Joint Tactical Radio System are just a few of the troubled programs canceled or scaled back after billions of dollars of investment.

What changed? Military programs are no longer “tame.”

Since the 1970s, the rapid proliferation of communications, computers and transportation systems has transformed the world, connecting more and more people and things in a dense web of networks.

In this networked world, military programs can no longer be developed in isolated silos. Our planes, ships, satellites, ground vehicles and soldiers are nodes in hundreds of networks, and any new weapon system must be integrated into this dense web of network capability.

The challenges are complex, ill-defined, dynamic and involve more players than ever. The dilemmas faced by modern military program management look increasingly like those faced in Rittel and Webber’s urban planning domain. In short, military acquisition is a wicked problem.

Since the wicked problems faced by the military are closely linked to the proliferation of complex networks, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the solution to such problems might also involve networks.

Networks evoke thoughts of nodes and links. With network organizations, the nodes are people, and the links are the personal and professional relationships that connect them.

Whereas bureaucracies are characterized by boss-subordinate relationships, network organizations are built on peer-to-peer relationships.

In terms of solving wicked problems, networks have many positive attributes (relative to bureaucracies):

■Networks are better at crossing organizational boundaries.

■Networks are more adaptable to changing circumstances.

■Networks are more amenable to emergent (non-linear) processes.

■Networks are better at promoting open dialogue.

■Networks are more resilient.

The best news is that the two organizational types are not mutually exclusive; each can exist simultaneously, enhancing the shortcomings of the other and forming symbiotic relationships.

For example, bureaucracies excel at the “care and feeding” of resources and capabilities needed to perform repetitive tasks — and networks need these resources and capabilities.

Likewise, bureaucracies need the boundary-spanning, emergent problem-solving attributes of networks.

It’s no coincidence that bureaucracies, when faced with new problems, often assemble cross-organizational “tiger teams” to develop recommendations. Network organizations are like tiger teams on steroids.

Given their compatibility, it’s easy to envision a future in which DoD adopts a dual organizational model to solve its wicked problems. Doing so means the DoD workforce must gain more understanding and experience with some of the subtle differences characterizing network organizations, particularly stemming from the lack of boss-subordinate relationships and the implications this has for leadership, collaboration and decision-making.

Gone are the halcyon days when so many of the military’s programs were tame. Now DoD’s problems are wicked, and top-down management simply won’t yield positive results. DoD will have a fighting chance to solve these problems when it can embrace network organizational constructs better suited for this new world.

Steven Nixon, an independent national security consultant and former chief technology officer of the US Intelligence Community.

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