Why Large System Change? A “Wicked Problems” Perspective

Posted by Steve Waddell in Blog, Change on October 10, 2013

By:  Domenico Dentoni University of Wageningen

This is part of a series on the topic of “Large Systems Change”.  Dentoni

One of the key questions relative to Large System Change (LSC) as a potential new subject of study is whether it is needed or not, and why. We believe that development of LSC is needed because individuals and organizations increasingly perceive LSC as a necessary response to the systemic nature of the problems at hand. This arises with the systemic nature of problems that require an LSC approach to address them. Individuals and organizations are today more aware of the nature of these problems relative to twenty years ago.

LSC field development is needed because the most pressing systemic problems faced by individuals and organizations are scientifically uncertain, dynamically complex, and involve value conflict among multiple societal actors (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013). Problems with these three characteristics are sometimes referred to as “wicked” in policy planning and natural resource management theories (Rittel and Webber 1973; Conklin 2005; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Examples are deforestation and climate change, food security and violation of human rights (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013).

Three key characteristics of this class of systemic problems requiring LSC are (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013):

  1. Scientific uncertainty. There is a lack of scientific knowledge on the cause-effect relationships of the problem and its possible solutions (Dietz et al. 2003; Hajer 2003; Batie 2008; Head and Alford 2013). Hence, the outcomes of organizational actions aiming to tackle wicked problems cannot be measured from just one perspective or disentangled from other actions.
  2. Value conflict among stakeholders. Stakeholders influenced by, or influencing, wicked problems have conflicting expectations, beliefs, frames, goals and values regarding wicked problems (Batie, 2008; Weber and Khademian, 2008). Particularly conflicting values are hard to reconcile, because trade-offs in organizational actions are likely to occur and win-win-win solutions are hard if not impossible to find.
  3. Dynamic complexity. Wicked problems are volatile and evolve over time, sometimes linearly but frequently unpredictably and unexpectedly (Rittel and Webber 1973; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Thus, there are no definite and objective solutions to the problem, which needs to be permanently monitored in its evolution over time.

These three characteristics of systemic problems differ from the notions of complex and uncertain environments (Brown and Eisenhardt 1997, Scherer and Palazzo 2013) and of inter-organizational conflict (Pache and Santos 2010, Greenwood et al. 2011, Smith and Lewis 2011) discussed in recent management literature. Given their nature, these systemic problems cannot be understood and tackled in isolation by actors or restricted groups of actors in society without wide collaboration with the rest of society (Conklin 2006). Moreover, they cannot be resolved by finding “right answers” or “solutions” through science (Batie 2008; Peterson 2011), but they must be managed through dialogue, engagement and decision-making among actors across sectors and across disciplines (Yarime et al. 2012). Thus, these problems are less about technological innovations, but primarily require a transformation of organizations and systems (Weber and Khademian, 2008; Waddell et al. 2013), along with a profound change of the knowledge, attitude and competencies of individuals (Waddock 1998). Thus, a collaborative and coherent approach among societal groups to generate LSC is necessary to make sense, discuss, learn and address them.

Today individuals and organizations are increasingly aware of wicked problems (?), because the world becomes more interconnected and organizations are held accountable by the general public to maintain legitimacy in society. In such a “risk”, “audit” and “network” society (Beck 1999; Power 1999; Castells 2011), individuals and organizations not only have more opportunities, but also more responsibilities to make sense, discuss, learn and address the most pressing systemic problems that they face (Argyres and Mayer 2007; Scherer and Palazzo 2013).


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Comment on this item
  • Jim Armstrong October 15, 2013 at 08:59

    Lovely and thoughtful piece on wicked problems. Thank you.

    I agree that more people (particularly researchers) are demonstrating an understanding of the wicked nature of LSC. However, I am not so sure that large systems are adapting their approaches to LSC.

    International capacity development is a case in point, especially when it comes to government capacity development on a national scale. With few exceptions, the development industry is continuing to address this wicked problem with technical solutions. Of course, the high failure rate continues also.

    I address this problem in my new book Improving International Capacity Development: Bright Spots (Palgrave MacMillan 2013). After exploring the nature of wicked problems and demonstrating that capacity development at a national level is a wicked LSC problem, it is shown that technical solutions to “wicked” problems invariably fail. We then explore “bright spots” of successful international capacity development and observe a very clear emerging pattern of an approach that works. This emerging pattern includes: co-diagnosis, co-design, co-acting; and co-learning.

    The book argues that more attention needs to be paid to emerging approaches. As Peter Buffet argued in his Op-Ed piece in the New York times a couple of weeks ago: in light of our failure prone approaches to international development “It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”

    That’s where we should focus if we want to improve LSC.

    Jim Armstrong
    October 15 2013

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