On Never Being Done – Cope vs. Solve

“We believe organizations are Complex Social Problems.”

That’s the first sentence in our organizational philosophy and represents an almost axiomatic principle upon which interstitio was founded and a consideration to which we view all of our work – both internally and externally.

So, the first question to address is — what the fuck does it mean?

Well Dear Reader … step into, the flashback machine …

In 2010, as I was thinking about employee engagement, and during some random internet wandering, I found an academic paper from the seventies by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber from Berkeley.

The paper describes the concept of ‘wicked problems’, and rails against the planning field (Rittel and Webber were both urban planners) which they felt approached planning as if it were a ‘tame problem’. The authors felt this was inappropriate as ‘tame problems’ were  mechanistic, deterministic, and linear – all of which planning most definitely was not.

Rittel and Webber go on to describe the conditions they attribute to ‘wickedness’ which include that you don’t permanently solve wicked problems. You can’t. Why? A whole host of reasons that we’re sure will sound familiar to you: because there’s often disagreement around the framing of the problem, there’s no clearly defined and understood ‘stopping rule’, and a changing and dynamically evolving context within which the ‘problem’ exists.

‘It’ cannot be solved, because ‘it’ is constantly changing and reconstituting itself.

At best, you can design and execute a strategy that copes with the problem. And, to make matters worse, you have to be ready to revisit that strategy (and the requisite execution) continuously, because the ‘it’ that your strategy copes with changes and morphs. And you have to do this over and over and again …


That is a hard thing for organizations to realize and an even harder thing for organizations to operationalize.

Okay, back into the flashback machine. To, er, flash forward now … to the present, to our current work at interstitio and what this means for us now …

Firstly, what about ‘Complex Social Problems’? Well, they share a lot of similar characteristics to wicked problems (indeed, there are numerous articulations of essentially similar problem phenomenologies, something we’re exploring in a longer piece – ‘Shevin and Thompson, “Wicked is the New Normal: Unifying Languages and Methodologies for Navigating Complex Problems”’), and the language is more accessible (turns out ‘wicked’ is a bit of a loaded word). So we went with that.

Secondly, our belief that work is a Complex Social Problem, or is ‘wicked’, permeates everything we do. As such we try to work with speed. We explain that any ‘solution’ we will co-create with a client is for that facet of how the problem has manifest at that time. Most importantly, when you view work as a complex social problem, you embrace a philosophy of coping, not solving – because solving implies ‘one approach to rule them all’ – and we simply do not think that’s how it works.

I sat with this organizational challenge of having to set up systems to dynamically cope, versus solve, as I listened to several presentations during last years Collective Intelligence meeting. In a number of presentations I heard the tenets of wickedness as outlined by Rittel and Webber, and then an exhortation around how the problem they were describing had been ‘solved’ – an all too easy lapse into a too simplistic framing at odds with the wickedness posited just minutes before.

I was reminded of this, and prompted to write this piece, as Collective Intelligence 2017 wrapped up a couple of weeks ago … we weren’t able to attend, although we did have a poster accepted which can you take a look at here:

Building organizations to ‘cope’ is critical. We think it’s the only way organizations can tackle their most pressing issues in a sustainable way, and it’s the reason it’s one of our core founding principles of being.

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