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Risk Management, within the field of Project Management, provides a useful paradigm to understand, categorize and develop approaches to solve complex situations. This paradigm can be applied to institutional goals, such as the development and acquisition of superior technical capabilities. I believe it can be applied to National goals such as determining the right strategy for Afghanistan, and look forward to readers’ thoughts on this.
The article briefly introduces the paradigm using examples from the world of engineering and acquisition, then brings it to topic of Afghanistan. The paradigms come from the work of David Hancock in his book Tame, Messy, and Wicked Risk Leadership. The reason behind the article is to expand the way we look at problems. Gerald Weinberg, an early thinker on systems engineering, once opined that finding the right analogy (in this case, the paradigm from risk management) can open doors to new and improved ways of approaching a situation.
Risks on a project represent unknowns. By analogy, this can be applied to the uncertainty in a system. Meaning, risks are those events or interactions for which we do not have a defined, known outcome. It is this uncertainty that makes deciding upon a solution challenging.
Risks can be classified into three categories, based on where the complexity, and therefore uncertainty, comes from in the system.
Tame risks are found in systems with relatively low levels of system complexity. Consider building a new bathroom. There are a number of things that can go wrong, but we have a pretty clear handle on what they are and how they can be handled should they come up. The potential outcomes of building the bathroom are not known at the start, we don’t know what will go wrong. But, we can derive the range of outcomes and plan potential responses. Picking a solution and preparing for unknowns is a matter of getting people with the right skills, applying experience, and doing the work.
Messy risks are found in systems with relatively high levels of system complexity. These are systems where there is interdependency and a relationship among many elements, such as systems of systems, numerous sub-systems or multiple components that must all interoperate. Consider the challenge of designing a new airplane. We understand all the parts. We have an understanding of how all the parts should work together. But, we are not sure of all the things that good go wrong. Luckily, engineering, mathematics and physics offer an extensive tool set for determining the range of potential outcomes and potential solutions. Risk can be reduced by “working the problem.” Picking a solution is a matter of getting people with highly specific skills and tools, applying experience and doing the work. Even though risks may be higher (and costlier), there is still a single set of solutions that analysts can determine and that rational decision makers can converge upon and agree to.
Wicked risks are found in systems with high levels of behavioral complexity. Wickedness introduces people into the equation. People do not act in predictable ways. There are countless motivations behind, and influences on human action, particularly in situations where the goals of various stakeholders are not aligned. Consider the challenges of contracting out salt supplies for a national military. The people who cook the food may have one opinion on which salt to use. The people who eat the food may have another opinion. The scientists who study soldier nutrition another. The acquisition folks yet another opinion and the legislatures who apportion the money to buy the salt (and who may have a salt producer in their constituency) yet another. This is called a wicked problem.
The risks are difficult to quantify and a range of “right” solutions even harder to predict beforehand. With Wicked risks, the range of solutions that could be selected may be divergent. That is, what works for one set of stakeholders may not work for others. The challenging part is, that in these kinds of situations, there’s got to be some level of buy-in from everyone for a solution to work. The chef has to cook with the salt and the soldier’s going to eat that salt, and so on. How that buy-in comes about, then, becomes the determining factor in predicting which solution gets implemented and likewise is the determining factor in reducing risk. With Wicked risks, picking a solution and reducing risks is about leadership and using available power. It is about deciding who gets a seat at the table, finding out their top priorities and satisficing—finding what’s good enough for everyone, even if it is not optimal.
With wickedness, it is impossible to see everything that could go wrong and prepare for it using a model-based approach (using tools from engineering, mathematics or physics) and “working the problem.” Since the complexity comes from people, we need to rely on, communicate with, and influence people to arrive at a stable solution.
We are often faced with, Wicked Messes, a combination of messy and wicked risks. These are systems that have both a high degree of system complexity and behavioral complexity. Most significant policy challenges can be categorized as Wicked Messes. Take, for example, design, then production, procurement and fielding of a new airplane. Or, perhaps, picking the right strategy for Afghanistan.
Applying it to Afghanistan, the following questions are raised: Who should get a seat at the table when deciding strategy, what are their top priorities, can we satisfice the right people, what communication mechanisms are in place and are the communication mechanisms effective?
The power of using this paradigm is that it expands our view on the variables that influence and affect a stable solution. It also gives us a better understanding of which tools will work best, how they work and their limits. With wickedness, stakeholder determination, communication and the exercise of available forms of authority are the most powerful tools. Understanding their interconnectedness can help enhance our ability to resolve wicked problems.