Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia

Cease and desist orders should have been issued long ago against use of “wicked problems” in the practice of policy analysis and management. As for academics, they too know that more nuanced sets of terms for complex policy problems are required than the originating “wicked” and “tame” dichotomy.

Fair enough, but good enough? Differentiation and nuance may actually reinforce a “there” that still isn’t there.

–How so?

My own answer is that wicked problems are best understood as part of a genre in literature, which enables very different statements and competing positions to be held without them being inconsistent at the same time. Literary and cultural critic, Michael McKeon (1987/2002), helps us here:

Genre provides a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not the “solution”) of intractable problems, a method for rendering such problems intelligible. The ideological status of genre, like that of all conceptual categories, lies in its explanatory and problem-“solving” capacities.

In McKeon’s formal terms, “the genre of the novel is a technique to engage epistemological and socio-ethical problems simultaneously, but with no particular commitment than that.”

Intractability appeared not only as the novel’s subject matter but also in the intermixed conventions of how these matters can be raised. This was the way nostalgia for a simpler past was categorized and talked about at the time.

–My view is that the literature on wicked problems is part and parcel of this longstanding genre. This literature’s content is not only about the intractable, but also its governing context is as historically tangled and conventionalized as that of the English novel. Masses of complexities take center place in wicked problems both by virtue of context and content (or force and field, if you prefer).

I am not saying wicked problems are fictitious (even so, there is the well-known truth in fiction). Rather, I am arguing that pinning wicked problems exclusively to their substance (e.g., wicked problems are defined by the lack of agreed-upon rules to solve them) misses the fact that the analytic category of wicked problems as such is highly rule-bound (e.g., by the historical conventions to articulate and to discuss such matters).

Again, how so? Return to the scholarly literature’s attempt to differentiate “wicked” and “tame” problems into more nuanced categories. Doing so is like disaggregating the English novel into romance, historical, gothic and other types. Such differentiation need not problematize the genre’s conventions. In fact, the governing conventions may become more complex for distinguishing the more complex content, thus reinforcing the genre as a vesselled intractability.

–So what? If wicked problems are to better addressed, altogether different conventions and rules—what Wittgenstein famously called “language games”—will have to be found under which to recast these. . . . well, whatever they are to be called they wouldn’t be termed “intractable,” would they?

Wicked policy problem are complex problems that have yet to be recast in light of their very complexity. As with so much in contemporary policy and management, wicked problems end up as exaggerations: Even where they may be true as far as they go, the truth of the matter needs to be pushed further. Problems aren’t wicked when they are hard problems that profit from being left open.

Principal sources

McKeon, M. (1987/2002). The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. 15th Anniversary Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.

On complexity enabling recasting, see blog entries: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Incompletenesses,” and “Poverty and war”

Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development

Comes a time they have decided who you are. 
But you have not decided who you are. 
                  Jane Hirshfield ("They have decided")

I dislike being herded into certainty.
                  Louise Glück, Nobel poet

My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists (and farmers, for that matter) were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how short of a fuller picture is equating their real time to the chronic crises of inequality, market failure, precarity and such.

To ignore disasters-averted has an analogy with other reliability professionals. It is to act as if the lives, assets and millions in wealth saved each day doesn’t matter when real-time control room operators of critical infrastructures prevent disasters from happening that would have happened otherwise. Why? Because we are told that ultimately what matters far more are the disasters of modernization, late capitalism, and environmental collapse destructive of everything in their path.

Even where the latter is true, that truth must be pushed further to incorporate the importance of disasters-averted-now. Disaster averted matters to herders precisely because herders actively dread specific disasters, whatever the root causes.

The implications for pastoralist development end up being major—not least when it comes to “pastoralist elites”—but let’s start closer to the beginning.


–A young researcher had just written up a case study of traditional irrigation in one of the districts that fell under the Government of Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) Programme. (We’re in the early 1980s.) I remember reading the report and getting excited. Here was detailed information about really-existing irrigation practices and constraints sufficient to pinpoint opportunities for improvement. That was, until I turned the page to the conclusions: What was really needed was a country-wide land reform.

Huh? Where did that come from? Not from the details and findings in the report!

This was my introduction to solutions in search of “problems” they would “solve.” Only later did I appreciate the default strategy for those who ridicule any such solutionism: Appeals to wider sociopolitical phenomena and structural processes have also been in search of fresh field examples to recast as broad problems unamenable to “solution.”

–Reference to the pernicious, when not totalizing effects of marketization, privatization, commodification, financialization, globalization, and like (e.g., monetization, mechanization, marginalization. . .racism, colonialism, militarism, imperialism. . .) appear from beginning to end in development publications, and never more so—it seems to me—than in paragraphs that detail case-specific complexities one would have thought worked against generalizing processes across cases.

Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other inter-related processes matter. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction. BUT they matter when detailed and differentiated in terms of “with respect to.”

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case at hand? Smallstock? Mechanized deliveries? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or environmental conditions? For that matter, how do the broader processes summarized as “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

“What kind of land reform for whom and under what conditions at your research site?,” I should have asked.

–If I remember correctly, the research also claimed that that traditional irrigators were risk averse, thus requiring a land reform that would change their having to be so. I’d like to believe it’s more common now to accept that many complaints about the risk averse herder (or farmer) are underspecified narratives.

Yes, that specific farmer at this specific site could be risk averse under these conditions rather than those. (Details, please!) Without specifics in their with-respect-to scenarios, the underspecification reduces to thinking more in stereotypes. I view appeals to the aforementioned socio-structural phenomena and processes as reduced-form narratives in the same underspecified way, i.e., as explanations, they don’t go far enough when absent differentiated with-respect-to scenarios.

–This leads to the primary point: Claiming over-arching explanations are in fact empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the case-specific diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management.

Appeals to processes or state conditions generalized as “marketization,” “commodification,” “precarity” and the like run the risk of diminishing the centrality of disasters averted through diverse actions of diverse herders. This diminishment leaves us assuming that marketization, commodification, precarity. . .are the chronic crises of real time for herder or farmer. They, we are to assume, take up most of the time that really matters to pastoralists.

But the latter is the case only if the with-respect-to scenarios show how these broad processes are chronic and how they preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether.

–Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” a research finding from his work in Georgia:

A community liaison officer, working for an oil company, introduced me to a villager who had managed to stop the movement of pipeline construction vehicles near her mountain village in the lesser Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline, she told us in conversation, would prevent her moving livestock between two areas of pastureland. Her protest, which was the first she had ever been involved in, was not recorded in any official or public documents.

Barry found this to be a surprising research event (his terms) and went on to explain at length (internal citations deleted) that

my conversation with the villager pointed to the importance of a localized problem, the impact of the pipeline on her livelihood and that of other villagers, and her consequent direct action, none of which is recorded or made public. This was one of many small, fragmentary indicators that alerted me to the prevalence and significance of direct action by villagers across Georgia in the period of pipeline construction, actions that were generally not accorded significance in published documents, and that were certainly not traceable on the internet. . .At the same time, the mediation of the Georgian company liaison officer who introduced me to the villager was one indicator of the complexity of the relations between the local population, the oil company, and the company’s subcontractors. . .

I believe the phrases, “managed to stop,” “would prevent her moving livestock,” “a localized problem,” “consequent direct action,” “generally not accorded significance,” and “the complexity of the relations” are the core of my argument here.

Should it need saying, some scenarios do specify how such phrases result from an ongoing interaction and dialectic between the wider processes and local particularities. But, again, I’d hope you’d want to see details behind any such assertion.


–So what?

How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? I have space for one major implication: a priority to recast “the growth of pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya, which, I confess, made me smile. When I was there in the early 1980s, they were neither elderly nor elites all. I’m also pretty sure had I interviewed some of them at that time I’d have considered them “poor pastoralists.”

So my question: What happens when some of the poor pastoralists of then are better off now? Is there a point at which better-off pastoralists are no longer poor enough for the researcher’s concern?

To rephrase more formally: “Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to criticism of elites?” This is important because an over-arching development aim of the first-generation ASAL programs was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My answer now to the preceding questions would focus on the disasters averted over time by the now-elites compared to those who remained poor throughout the same period. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed or coped the ways they did. Practices underlying their intentions, choices and actions are what interest me.

Now, of course, some of the poor pastoralists I met in the early 1980s may have been more advantaged than I realized. Of course, I could have been incorrect in identifying them as “poor pastoralists.” Even so, my focus on disasters-averted holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

–Which leads me full circle back to that research report: Since when are researchers to decide that time stops sufficiently in a study period to certify who among herders (or farmers) are advantaged going forward, let alone what are the metrics for determining such? When did the development narrative become “poor herders and farmers must advance at the same rate or even faster than advantaged ones?”


Postscript. I may have left the impression of singling out those who revert to wider forces as the key explanatory variables. A different entry would focus on other underspecified narratives. There are those, by way of example, who continue to assert that pastoralists by and large have special knowledge and skills in sustainable management of the arid and semi-arid lands. While certainly true in some cases, pastoralist households are too differentiated—fortunately!—to be the dryland’s elite overseer, full stop.

Principal sources

Barry, A. (2020). What is an environmental problem? In the special issue, “Problematizing the Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society: 1 – 25.

Roe, E. (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure. STEPS Working Paper 113, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Related Blog Entries: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” and “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications.”

Four macro-design principles that matter for risk managers and policymakers—and why the Precautionary Principle doesn’t

–When I’m told that macro-principle must govern micro-operation (think: universal human rights applying equally to each and every individual across the planet), I’m left wondering just how this works. It puts me in mind of those Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation that leave viewers guessing about just how close to the Virgin Mary did God’s dove have to get in order to inseminate her.

Nothing, though, stops some principles being grounded explicitly in and around how things work. In my field, policy analysis, I can think of four.

–First—as a matter of principle—context and time matter: System knowledge has to accommodate local knowledge in order for management to occur. Second—as a matter of principle—every design proposal must pass the ‘‘reliability matters’’ test. Would the proposal, when implemented, reduce the task volatility that managers face? Does it increase their options to respond to volatility? Does it increase their maneuverability in responding to different, often unpredictable or uncontrollable, performance conditions?

The test of efficacy here is not ‘‘Have we designed a system that can be managed?,’’ but rather ‘‘Is this a system we can manage to redesign when needed?’’

Third—as a matter of principle—any macro-design that compels professionals to work for an extended or indefinite period of time in a task environment outside their domain of competence cannot be expected to produce reliable services. True, a crisis pushes real-time professionals to work beyond the limits of the known, and even of the knowable—but management professionalism alone cannot keep that coping underway sine die.

Fourth, as a matter of principle, management alternatives exist precisely because the vital questions of society and economy are complex, and complexity is the enemy of the intractable, i.e., complex problems are complex enough to recast differently.

–The social and legal critic Roberto Mangabeira Unger wrote that the dilemma people face is ‘‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’’: ‘‘All over the world, people complain that their national politics fail to deliver real alternatives’’. But if we actually looked all over the world, we’d find much by way of alternative practices useful for our own management.

You cannot complain that, on one hand the planet is overpopulated with 7-plus billion people, while in the same breadth, complain that too few really-existing practices are available for improving matters.

The four principles insist that system designers learn about contingencies that cannot be planned for, but which must be managed by managers in real time, and then often case by case. This means that the responsibility and duty of real-time veto over design and technology moves from the designers/planners to the operators/managers—when high reliability is the mandate.

–An example of other principles that run against the four? For one, the Precautionary Principle in risk management. That principle insists on avoiding altogether positions that may have extreme consequences in favor of a more cautious approach.

But that word, “altogether,” is the stinker. Surely it can’t be true that the Precautionary Principle holds everywhere, or even most everywhere, or even when the issue concerned is everywhere important. For that matter, where does the control come from to achieve the avoidance necessitated by the Precautionary Principle? You can of course legislate the Principle, but you can’t control its execution.[1]

More, we know from the literature on society’s critical infrastructures that it takes their variable management, not control, to avoid extreme events, if only because differences in context are unavoidable. And aren’t critical infrastructures the only real-time mechanism we have to manage, not control, for avoidance of extreme events we know that matter?

And are there other avoidance strategies better than the Precautionary Principle? Obviously! They’ve emerged and been modified as different practices for different situations—again, what else can you expect from manifold billions on this planet?

[1] An illustration of a control-oriented application of the Precautionary Principle to pandemics, like that of COVID-19, is provided by well-known economic geographer, Bent Flyvbjerg. He recently recommended mitigation measures that (with his bolding)

(a) cut the tail [i.e., fat-tailed risk of a pandemic] (by breaking the chain of transmission through, e.g., lockdowns, personal protection equipment like face masks, testing, development of vaccines, etc.) and (b) the precautionary principle (rather a lockdown too many than one too few)–rolled out immediately, at speed, and at scale, worldwide.

But if we could control all this (including that wonderful “etc.”), we’d never have a pandemic in the first place, right?

Principal source

Flyvbjerg, B. (2020). The law of regression to the tail: How to survive Covid-19, the climate crisis, and other disasters. Environmental Science and Policy 114 (December): 614 – 618.

Distracted anti-utopians

Even anti-utopians have their utopian distractions. Here’s one of the 20th century’s greatest writers of anti-utopias from his diary entry known as Commune of Workers Without Private Property:

OBLIGATIONS: to possess no money, no valuables, and not to accept any. Only the following possessions are permitted: the most simple dress (to be defined in detail), whatever is necessary for work, books, food for one’s own consumption. Everything else belongs to the poor.

      To get one’s living only by working for it. Not to shrink from any work that one’s strength suffices to perform without damaging one’s health. Either to choose the work oneself or, in the event of this not being possible, to fall in with the arrangements made by the Labor Council, which is responsible to the Government.

      To work for no wages other than what is necessary to support life (to be defined in detail according to various districts) for two days.

      Life to be of the utmost moderation. To eat only what is absolutely necessary, for instance as a minimum wage, which is in a certain sense also a maximum wage: bread, water, dates. Food as eaten by the poorest of the poor, shelter like that of the poorest of the poor.

      The relationship to the employer to be treated as a relation of mutual trust. The intervention of the courts never to be invoked. Each job taken on to be completed, in all circumstances, except for grave reasons of health.

RIGHTS: maximum working time six hours, for manual work four to five hours.

      In sickness and in the incapacity of old age reception into institutions for the aged and into hospitals, these run by the State.

      Working life as a matter of conscience and a matter of one’s faith in one’s fellow men…

Author? Franz Kafka (it’s reported that the diary entries before and after the fragment do not give a clue to his intentions).

Economic consequences of having no must-never-happen events in the financial sector

–Water flows from the tap, the lights turn on, and the natural gas supply is there—even during (especially during) bad times.

The same cannot be said for the financial services sector. Liquidity, defined as being there when needed, proves not to be. In fact, that’s the definition of unreliable. There are no agreed-upon must-never-happen events in financial services as there in other critical infrastructures.

In electricity, reliability is driven by dread associated with loss of containment at a nuclear generator or islanding of the entire electric transmission grid. In large water supplies, there must never be overtopping of irreplaceable dams and water reservoirs. Nuclear explosions occur, dams are overtopped, and grids do separate and island, but these events are rare—rare because of their management beyond technology and design—and when they do happen they serve to reinforce their must-never-happen dread.

–In contrast, financial services have “should-never-happen events”—bank runs should be avoided and financial crises shouldn’t happen when they too could be avoided. The standard of operating reliability is not one of precluding financial crises from ever happening, but rather of treating these crises (1) as avoidable though not always, or (2) as inevitable (“busts are part of market capitalism”) or at least (3) compensable after the fact (as in the pre-2008 assurance that it’s better to clean up after a financial bubble bursts than trying to manage it beforehand).

Not having reliability of financial services based on a (set of) must-never-happen event(s) has major consequences for economic stability and growth.

–There are two orthogonally different standards of reliability when it comes to the economy: the retrospective standard or the prospective standard of economic stability/growth.

The retrospective standard holds the economy is performing reliably when there have been no major shocks or disruptions from one point up through now. The prospective standard holds the economy is only reliable until the next major shock.

Why does the difference matter? The retrospective standard favors design approaches—that economic stability/growth can be established on the basis of the past record. In contrast, the prospective standard favors actual practice in the present and real-time performance forward. From the prospective approach, the past is like a lantern on the stern, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words: It tells you where we’ve been, not where we are going.

In practical terms, the economy is prospectively only as reliable as its foundational critical infrastructures are reliable, right now when it matters for economic productivity. In fact, if economy and productivity were equated only with recognizing and capitalizing on retrospective patterns and trends, economic policymakers and managers could never be reliable prospectively.

–Global financial crises illustrate how the different standards for economic stability/growth work. A retrospective orientation to where we are today (December 2020) is to examine economic and financial patterns and trends since 2008; a prospective standard would be to ensure that—at a minimum—the 2008 financial recovery could be replicated, if not bettered, for the next global financial crisis. (Careful here: I am not saying we compare only today’s average values with yesterday’s best.)

The problem with the latter is that such a benchmark—do no worse in the financial services sector than what happened in the 2008 crisis—means that benchmark would have to reflect a must-never-happen event for the sector going forward.

What are the chances it would be the first-ever must-never-happen event among all of that sectors’ should-never-happen ones?

Principal source

This is an updated and edited section from Emery Roe and Paul Schulman (2017). “Analysis. When Critical Infrastructures Are Interconnected: Lessons for Financial Services.” European Financial Review (December – January): 33-37.

Humanism, by default

But, you insist, what’s happening today are global crises for which we do not have deep knowledge or skills or better practices. Quite the opposite, you press: Exceptional circumstances give rise to extraordinary threats and thus to emergency measures which necessarily end up as precedents for first-ever policies.

–I suggest you might want to think more about the italicized terms, as each puts you (and us) at the very limits of human comprehension, infrastructure reliability and risk management, and the societal values driving policy, management and their regulation. To insist as many are doing that climate change is, for example, uniquely global, uniquely long-term and uniquely irreversible is to assert it is uniquely ununderstandable.

For any conclusion that these are unprecedented times in altogether uncharted waters is itself the artefact and by-product of having no default option when at the limits of thinking and comprehending the way we do. Existential threats call for all manner of response, some of which are well beyond those confined to analysis and management.

–One under-acknowledged response is appealing to the background condition for taking action when analysis and management are confronted by the incomprehensible or unpredictable. Humans have always been many-sided, and so must our responses be, where that background condition of having many sides inherently frames the action we take. The challenge is to disclose those other sides with which to make the issue more tractable to analysis and management (no guarantees here).

How would this appeal to the background condition of many-sidedness work? Take the crises around those massive migrations of people that have been occurring. Bad policy mess: a reported 11 million people are in the U.S. illegally. Good policy mess: If that huge number is anywhere close to accurate, then there must be thousands—hundreds of thousands? a million? more? —who are already acting, not as objects of exclusion, but as if they were good U.S. citizens.

In other words, labeling something a wicked intractable problem creates The Ultimate One-Sided Problem—it’s, well, intractable—for humans who are everything but one-sided. The one-siders of intractability took the generous, enriched notion of intractably human and scalped it.

–Conventional risk analysts and crisis managers are quick to counter: “What do you mean we are one-sided? Good managers and analysts are always looking at the many sides of an issue and, in fact, we pride ourselves in seeking to bridge incompatible positions—and never more so than when the prospect of disaster raises the stakes!”

But there is no “middle” to bridge or compromise over when you and we are at or beyond the limits of comprehension; you have to default to something other than analysis or management as usually understood, if only to recast the intractable into something more tractable so as to re-engage analyzing and managing.

Principal source: This is a revised section from my “Licking the sharp edge of the sword,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2018) 27(1): 1–7.

Triangulating complexity for policy and management


–A key lesson to take away from a system being highly complex—i.e., having a high number of elements, different functions for those elements, and interconnections between elements and functions—is the centrality of triangulation in decisionmaking.

You need as many different approaches to analysis and strategy as you can—qualitative, quantitative, reductionistic, holistic, positivist, post-positivist, more (computational, bargaining, judgment, inspiration, more)—in the hope that you converge from diametrically different directions on a common factor to consider. Such triangulation is most successful when “Whatever the direction you look at this issue, you get to this same point. . .” Familiar examples are the importance in development of women and of the middle class(es).

–Triangulation here is the use of multiple methods, databases, theories, disciplines and/or analysts to converge on what to do about the complex issue. The goal is for analysts to increase their confidence–and that of their policy audiences–that no matter what position they take, they are led to the same problem definition, alternative, recommendation, or other desideratum.

In doing so, the analyst accommodates unexpected changes in positions later on. If your analysis leads you to the same conclusion regardless of initial positions already highly divergent, then the fact you must adjust that position later on matters less because you have sought to take into account utterly different views from the get-go.

–Everyone triangulates, ranging from the everyday cross-checking of sources to more formal use of varied methods, strategies and theories for convergence on a shared point of departure or conclusion. A popular form of triangulation is the use of multiple—the “tri” doesn’t mean three only—methods. Methodological triangulation figures prominently in applied fields (though not all!), e.g., practicing policy analysis, marketing, investigative journalism, and participatory rural appraisal, to name several.

–Triangulation is thought to be especially helpful in identifying and compensating for biases and limitations in any single approach. Obtaining a second (and third. . .) opinion or soliciting the input of the range of stakeholders or ensuring you interview key informants with divergent backgrounds are three common examples. Detecting bias is fundamental, because reducing, or correcting and adjusting for bias is one thing analysts—better yet, human beings—can actually do.

Triangulating on a common point is in no way guaranteed a priori just as canceling out biases—be they cognitive, statistical, cultural, other—cannot be assumed to have occurred as a result of triangulation. (Anyway, it remains an open question which biases are most important–material interests, cultural beliefs or built-in cognitive biases, among many other candidates.) To the extent that bias remains an open question for the case at hand, it must not be assumed that increasing one’s confidence automatically increases certainty, reduces complexity, or gets one closer to the truth of the matter.

–That said, failure to triangulate also provides useful information. When findings do not converge across multiple orthogonal metrics or measures (populations, landscapes, times and scales…), the search by the analysts becomes one of identifying specific, localized or idiographic factors at work. What you are studying may in reality be non-generalizable—that is, it may be a case it its own right—and failing to triangulate is one way to help confirm that.

Triangulation is consuming and expensive. Limitations on time, money and other resources make it infeasible to employ multiple interviewers, multiple methods, and/or multiple databases as much as one would like. A second problem is that inexpungible bias. No matter how many cross-checking questions in the survey, they cannot correct for the fact that the interviewer is white, male, middle-class and asks questions in English only. On the other hand, while triangulation is time consuming and expensive, so too taking positions in its absence can prove costly.


–Much of the above should not be news. What is new, I think, is the importance of mixed methods and approaches for better honing bias.

To return to our starting point: The approaches in triangulation are chosen because they are, in a formal sense, orthogonal. The aim is not to select the “best” from each approach and then combine these elements into a composite that you think better fits or explains the case at hand.

Why? Because the arguments, policies and narratives for complex policy and management already come to us as composites. Current issue understandings have been overwritten, obscured, effaced and reassembled over time by myriad interventions. To my mind, a great virtue of triangulation is to make their “composite/palimpsest” nature clearer from the outset.

–Not only is triangulation not about assembling a “seamless” explanation from parts of the pre-existing frameworks or methods you value; it in fact asks you to undertake a kind of analysis that runs against the grain of assuming coherence and seamlessness. To triangulate asks what, if anything, has persisted or survived in the multiple interpretations and reinterpretations that the issue has undergone over time up to the point of analysis. As we just saw, finding fewer and fewer resemblances across the family portraits in a complex policy is a very important point for more and more case-by-case analysis.

–There is irony in this. It turns out that another way to build up the policy audiences’ confidence that you do know what you’re talking about—at least, compared to them—is to undertake a policy analysis as moments of further questioning and reflection: Just what is the problem or problems, just what constitutes the evidence we need to consider, just what are criteria to evaluate options, and so on. (Just what is “development,” if not case by case?) Increasing the sense of social construction of these matters turns out to lay the basis for triangulating as well—though it should go without saying there are no guarantees in this.

The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but positive ones as well

Setback management: handling a sudden or unanticipated check on organizational or institutional behavior that would likely lead to a worse mess unless managed. This means trying to pull the good mess out of one that could go bad by treating the setback as: a design probe, a test-bed for something better, an interruption from which the organization learns, or an obstacle to overcome so that the organization moves to a new stage of its life cycle.

–Setbacks—unanticipated, unwanted, and often sudden interruptions and checks on moving forward—are typically treated as negative and fairly common in complex policymaking, implementation, and operations.

Less discussed are positive setbacks. Best known is when a complex organization transitions from one stage of a life cycle to another by overcoming the obstacles characteristic of the stage in which the organization finds itself. Moving from implementation to management and operations is one such transition.

Other positive setbacks serve as a test bed for developing better practices, whatever the stage the complex organization finds itself. Some setbacks are better thought of as design probes for whether that organization is on the “right track,” or if not, what track it could/should be on. In yet other circumstances, setbacks serve to point managers in the direction of things about which they had been unaware but which still matter.

To summarize, setbacks are positive in terms of their degree of importance and of the time horizon over which they are important:

–Not only can setbacks be positive in different ways, but to characterize them as positive means an organization or its managers are able to establish, in part, the expectations with respect to the setback events.

This means that changing expectations is key to managing setbacks. If you change present expectations about setbacks, you change the future of setbacks and their consequences. Easier said than done, however.

–There is more. While organizational or institutional setbacks unsettle what had been settled knowledge, what renders them positive is when they do so in ways that expectations do not undermine the assumption of organizational continuity.

By way of example, did the 2008 financial crisis served as a timely interruption to remind us how central regulators are to the continuity of the financial and credit systems? Did the crisis end up as a much-needed probe of how well the financial and credit institutions are keeping their sectors on track and under mandate? Was the 2008 crisis a test bed for more resilient or anticipatory strategies in credit lending and investing? Did the crisis in effect served as an obstacle, whose surmounting has been necessary to promote the operational redesign of the financial and credit sectors in more reliable ways?

Note the obviously mixed answers to any such questions do not necessarily reflect negative setbacks.

–With that as background, I now suggest that what is often called “the new normal” is much better described as a setback management that embraces the positive setbacks just mentioned.

If so, it seems to me three other “Normals” stand in the way of accepting a “new normal” as the management of setbacks, negative and positive:

• There is Normal Accidents Theory, which insists major accidents and system failures are an inevitable part of the tight coupling and complex interactivity of critical infrastructures. This however assumes setbacks cannot be managed, setbacks function primarily as precursors to disasters, and that operational redesigns cannot compensate for the effects of toxic design and technology.

• There is what the development scholar, Robert Chambers, calls “Normal Professionalism,” which points to a constellation of blind-spots to inter-unit cooperation. Blind-spots, however, are not just a source of weakness, but also of strength that comes with recognizing systemwide patterns and formulating localized contingency scenarios.

• There is also what sociologist, Diane Vaughan, identified as “Normalization of Deviance” in critical infrastructures. This social psychological phenomenon occurs, for our purposes, when anomalies that deviate from high reliability performance expectations are not interpreted as warning signs but become acceptable, routine and taken-for-granted aspects of performance for decisionmakering.

But Setbacks Are Normal; they are going on all the time in critical service provision and have to be operationally worked around and upon. Setbacks are ways we manage to take the world seriously when it comes to critical services that we cannot lose in real time.

Principal source: Part of this is an updated and revised section from my (2009), “Preventing Transboundary Crises: The Management and Regulation of Setbacks.” Review of Policy Research 26(4): 457-471.

Global Climate Sprawl

What should not have been so surprising: 
my error after error, recognized when appearing on the faces of others. 
                          Jane Hirshfield (from “I wanted to be surprised”)

–In her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein writes about the “painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring [greenhouse] emissions”. She is not alone. Professor David Campbell writes: “The trillions which the developed countries have spent and plan to spend on mitigation have been and will be wasted. . .The failure of the collective brain of environmentalism to look this in the face will erode the goodwill which is its principal resource when its role in causing the immense waste becomes indisputable.”

To argue that the environmental movement—environmentalism writ large—has failed is a significant proposition, even if true only as far as it goes. After all, it was the environmental movement that helped articulate the crisis narratives for GCC. To label this, “failure,” is to argue that climate change is occurring because the recommendations of the environmental movement have not been implemented.

This “conclusion” has same ring of certainty that environmental movement recommendations have had. “The climate for the next several decades is set in concrete. . . .[T]here is nothing now to prevent those disastrous events,” an expert already told us a decade ago. Such certainty takes its force from being both determinism–“set in concrete”—and fatalism—disaster is unavoidable—at the same time.

–Surprise, in other words, has been exiled to another planet. This is not new. Go back to the 1990s to see “no surprise clauses” in habitat conservation plans. Here binding restrictions were sought that would leave the landowner or developer immune from further restrictions, should a threatened or endangered species be unexpectedly found on the property. But the unexpected is to be expected, notwithstanding no-surprise clauses. Why? Because to behave as if surprise can be eliminated is itself behavior that produces surprise.

–On the more positive side, then, to take such surprise seriously means, at a minimum, acknowledging and protecting those in and around the ecosystems of concern who, in managing already-existing surprises, also manage to improve ecosystem services and functions in the face of GCC.  That such efforts necessarily occur along case-by-case trajectories of fits and starts, some abandoned, others sustained for longer, is also to be acknowledged and understood.

–Which takes us back to that colossal waste of time and effort that Klein and like believers see in the efforts with respect to combatting GCC.

“Waste” is ambiguous, though. It’s just not that we often differ over what is “waste.” We can actually agree that the waste associated with GCC has been colossal, but differ over what its epic proportions entail.

By way of illustrating, I want to suggest GCC isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful bad mess, and with implications not fully recognized.

–Let’s agree: GCC and its drivers are remaking a first-class Nature into world-class garbage truck. But why stop there in our description? Consider what many others have to say about the stunningly profligate human nature involved. You see the sheer excess of it all in Philip Roth’s rant about human nature from American Pastoral:

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

This mind-boggling rush and excess of getting it wrong again and again and again—note too the “so” in the epigraph’s first line from Jane Hirshfield—has been neatly captured by many others. The elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

The missing comma between “many many”—no surprise, right?—says it all, in my view: At the limits of cognition, we cannot pause, with words and thoughts sprawling over each other and piling up against a puzzled unknowability. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess this is.)

That word, sprawl, is like that word, waste: full of yeasty ambiguity. Here is Les Murray’s more magnanimous view from his “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy are not ornery contrarianism solely. “[W]aste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage,” poet Robert Frost wrote.

To my mind, Global Climate Change is the hot mess—both senses of the term—now sprawled all over place and across time. GCC is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.” If I had my druthers, I’d rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

Error and Safety

–A key virtue of operating within the shared comfort zone of team situation awareness in the infrastructure control room is knowing when it is an error to comply with a regulated task or technical protocol that, in the case at hand, would work against system reliability and safety. Correcting for errors is a key function of high reliability management in real time.

When operators are, however, pushed out of their comfort zone into unstudied conditions (say, by defective technology, policies or regulations), they find themselves unable to perform reliably there. Operators then perform under conditions where the identification of what is or not “error” defaults, ironically, to whether or not compliance mandated by the regulator of record takes place. “Sticking to procedure” ends in where there is no reliability followed then by “operator error,” which sets into play a perverse cycle.

Ritualized calls arise for foolproof technology, systemwide redesign, policies or regulations to correct for the mistakes. The effort becomes one of trying to macro-design micro-errors away, as if there were no middle domain of reliability professionals in real time. Macro-micro leaps of faith are lethal to systemwide reliability, we have repeatedly seen; they are, however, a permanent feature of calls for more regulation and policy.

–One upshot of the perverse cycle is that it’s a mistake to think all errors are mistakes. What needs to be distinguished is whether the errors/mistakes occur within or outside the control operators’ comfort zone. Tracking and responding to the differences are invaluable.

Why? Because many complex infrastructures we study treat uncertainty with respect to different types of errors as useful information. As Paul Schulman puts it, uncertainty isn’t the lack of information; it is itself a kind of information about where the socio-technical systems is in real time as a system:

In nuclear power plants, commercial aviation (including air traffic control systems), as well as other critical infrastructures, a distinctive form of error management has been a framework for high reliability. For these organizations the inverse of knowledge is not ignorance or uncertainty – it’s error. They identify and categorize uncertainty in relation to specific errors in decisions and actions they seek to avoid in order to preclude outcomes that are surrounded by not only organizational but societal dread.

–Yet for all these nuances, “error” continues to be treated as Bad in much of the literature on Safety Culture.

An analogy helps. The Roman Catholic Church had the early problem of how to treat Islam. It couldn’t be paganism, because Islam also held there to be one God and indeed shared notables, like Jesus and Noah. To make things fit, the Holy See declared Islam was not paganism but a Christian heresy, along the lines of Arianism or Socinianism, which questioned the Trinity or Jesus’ divinity.

So too today for that one great religion, Safety, with its one great heresy, “Operator Error.” Yea, though we all be fallible, operator error is bad, bad, bad. Even when operators don’t see it so; even when operators correct for forced errors all the time; even when they manage for error in their comfort zone. In other words, when really-existing error is not defined by dogma, matters become more usefully complex. People make mistakes and, yes, you can’t unring the bell once rung, but it’s always been more complex than that.

Principal source.

P.R. Schulman (undated). “Reliability, uncertainty and the management of error: New perspectives in the Covid-19 Era.” Unpublished manuscript.