This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

More Thinking on Mastering Systems Practice, Dealing with Messes

In the last post, the idea of what Russell Ackoff called “messes” as contrasted with difficulties was introduced. The course promised more on Ackoff in week six but additional background was provided in that NCP post. More will also be offered here, including a paper in which the term “messes” is used, Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning - Modern Times Workplace.

The course quoted Ackoff regards to messes:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Russell Ackoff (1979, s. 93)

It has to be admitted that this is the first time being exposed to Ackoff’s idea of messes being more familiar with the concept of wicked problems. This raises the question though, are "messes" qualitatively different from"wicked problems”?

Judith A. Curry, American climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote about the differences between messes and wicked problems from which I borrow heavily here.

Russell L. Ackoff wrote about complex problems as messes:

“Every problem interacts with other problems and is, therefore, part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.”

Robert Horn extended the concept:

“a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.”

So a system of problems within a complex system of systems?

“Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Curry goes on to cite the executive summary of New Tools for Resolving Complex Problems, subtitled Mess Mapping and Resolution Mapping Processes.

Wicked Problems (equivalently, Social Messes) are seemingly intractable problems. They are composed of inter-related dilemmas, issues, and other problems at multiple levels society, economy, and governance. These interconnections—systems of systems—make Wicked Problems so resilient to analysis and to resolution.

Messes then seem to be Frankenstein problems while wicked problems are Godzilla. We will stick with just the course’s messes and difficulties from here on with the understanding we may need a bigger army.

The course seems to be breaking down its systematic approach by what I’ll call embedded bifurcations, difficulties with messes, emotional reactions with rational reactions, and systemic thinking with systematic thinking as part of understanding the “perceived complexity within situations”. The first dealt with being differences between difficulties and messes.

I am going to jump though and first consider problems, situations and systems. As suggested in the last post there are two types of problems, difficulties and messes. Problems, according to the course, are taken up by, not given to, decision makers and problems are extracted from unstructured states of confusion or complex situations.

These are my interpretations, so its necessary to take the course to see if one comes to the same conclusions. Problems, it seems are undesired situations. Situations are not systems but interactions between us and systems. I don’t see unstructured states of confusion and complex situations as being equivalent but a complex situation is different from a complex system. Can a complex situation, on its own be adaptive?

Back to the more basic and tangible ideas of difficulties and messes. Difficulties refer to simpler, more limited types of situations. A difficulty is fairly clear cut, easy to put a label on it and to explain to someone else what is the problem. With difficulty, the overall context and purpose of the activity can be taken for granted, determining how it can best be done is a relatively simple matter. A difficulty can be disentangled from the broader context of work and addressed in a more or less discrete matter. What a solution will look like is roughly known with a difficulty. Finally, one knows enough or knows what is needed to be known to be able to tackle a difficulty.

Messes aren’t seen as merely being ‘bigger’ than difficulties. They have a number of features that make them qualitatively different. A mess is harder to pin down or even to say what is the actual problem. Having no sure solutions, it usually doesn’t make much sense to talk about ‘an answer’ with a mess. It becomes more a matter of coping as best one can with the circumstances. The aspects of a mess are beyond one’s direct control and what factors are relevant to the situation and what aren’t isn't easily known. A mess is fuzzy. Because its different elements are closely tied to other areas of activity it’s hard to say who and what is involved in the problem and who and what isn’t. With a mess, one never knows enough and is uncertain even what is needed to be known.

Other attributes that distinguish between difficulties and messes concern their scale and the uncertainty associated with them.

The scale of the situation determines the ways in which messes tend to be ‘larger’ and have more serious implications than difficulties. More people are likely to be involved in a mess. Messes usually have a longer time-scale. They are more complicated making them more difficult to tackle. A mess calls into question how much weight to give to different considerations, assumptions and priorities as well as whether particular goals are realistic or not.

The second group of key features comes under the general heading of uncertainty. There is much more about which one is simply unsure with messes. Uncertainty that is inherent in the situation itself, most notably irreducible uncertainty, as suggested by Donella Meadows, or essentially complex stochastic output.

The next level idea best capturing the difference between difficulties and messes is the idea that difficulties are bounded while messes are unbounded in terms of both scale and uncertainty.

A bounded situation implies that it is fairly limited and that one roughly knows where are those limits. Although no single characteristic provides an essential criterion, to describe a situation as messy, rather than just a difficulty, it implies that in some important respects it is unbounded.

An unbounded situation is more extensive, though just how extensive can be hard to determine so it becomes a mess. Knowing that a messy situation may in some important respects be unbounded is useful. It is though ambiguous on an important point.

Elements of rational and emotional complexity must be considered, for practical purposes, as it is essential to remember that both are important in comprehending a messy situation.

What may be hard to pin down is whether this quality of being unbounded is a characteristic of a person’s experience of a particular situation, or is actually of the nature of the situation itself? Is a messy situation one that someone for their own particular reasons can’t see how to disentangle from everything else? Does it only appear to them to be unbounded or is it actually the situation that is unbounded meaning that the circumstances are such that the situation really has very extensive ramifications.

One of the properties of problems with which helpers have found it quite hard to grapple is the extent to which all problems are personal; different persons see different problems in what other people would take to be the same situation. This is an important point in our argument, and is fairly well accepted in everyday ‘common sense’. This point does not seem to raise much difficulty when it is expressed theoretically, but it is often rather more difficult to bear it in mind and act upon in practice.

In summary, difficulties and messes are general terms without clear-cut or categorical distinctions. Instead, they are on a continuum, with most problems lying somewhere in between.

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