WICKED PROBLEMS:The Limits of Win-Win Negotiation?

My good friend Bryan Lee at Privatus Consulting recently introduced me to the world of “Wicked Problems”, a fascinating discipline in the public policy realm with applications in economics, politics, sociology, and privacy, to name just a few. Building on the seminal work of Rittel and Weber in 1973, these thinkers go deep into the challenges of Wicked Problems (WP), applying them to thorny issues like climate change and now the COVID pandemic.

A Wicked Problem is one that at least seems insoluble. Despite the best efforts of first-class analytical minds, Win-Win remains an unrealistic dream. Typically WPs defy structure, are cross-cutting, and, as the experts say, are also relentless:

Unstructured: There is no clear problem definition, and causes merge confusingly with effects. Where does it start and where does it end?

Cross-cutting: Each WP is connected to others and attempted solutions to each ramify throughout the system. Pull any string and the web falls apart.

Relentless: No WP is ever completely solved, and there is no stopping rule to determine that. All solutions are one-shot, with no room for trial and error. No design thinking here!

All of this is daunting indeed. But what interests me is the potential application to negotiation. Here it seems to me that WP offers several insights and challenges:

First, it challenges us to think systemically. I have long said that all negotiation is systemic:  everything depends on everything else.  But with difficult multilateral discussions between multiple stakeholders, that complexity increases exponentially.  We can only be grateful there are now computer-supported tools to help us make sense of that.

Second, the tool of mapping becomes even more important. Who are these stakeholders, what are the relationships between them, where are the friction points, the possible common interests? Drawing a picture of all of this (not a text) can be illuminating.

And finally, I think WP does serve as a reminder of humility. Smart negotiators that we are, some problems really are too daunting to be dealt with in a sustainably satisfying way. There are reasons why Mideast Peace still eludes even the expert skills of Fisher and Ury. Win-win is still the goal, but there are indeed situations where it is difficult to imagine, let alone realize. Let’s accept that without giving up the effort.

Comments welcome!