“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.”
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
In warfare, business, and life in general we suffer from the same problem: we walk backwards into the future. Not knowing what is ahead of us we can only rely on our biased and imperfect memories of the past to guide us. Strategy and planning therefore are about using flawed knowledge to guess what’s on the other side of the hill and then preparing ourselves to meet it.
This article does not offer a simple panacea to this problem (sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t one), but it does offer an approach that takes into account real world imperfections that allow us to design strategies that compensate for the limitations of not knowing. In short, success must incorporate imperfection.
The counterinsurgency operations undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which I played an extremely small part, both followed sound military doctrine born of hard won experience: underlining the importance of legitimate government; security for the populace; shared understanding; unity of effort; and long term commitment. Yet they proved inadequate to achieve generally agreed success.
The reasons for this are still debated, but include unarticulated assumptions, deviation from established doctrine, poor intelligence, and significant gaps in international capacity. More fundamentally, however, from the outset the problem was too narrowly defined, with the motivations of critical stakeholders poorly understood and the network of complex interdependencies grossly oversimplified. In dealing too narrowly with the problem, we always ran the risk of neglecting what was really important and instead addressing sub-problems that we could solve.
It was, in problem parlance, a wicked problem. While complex problems are those in which the problem solvers agree on what the problem is but can find no consensus on how to solve it, wicked problems have no agreed problem or solution. As such, they often involve the following key elements:
• Difficult to clearly define
• Socially complex and involve multiple stakeholders
• Many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
• Hardly ever the responsibility of one organisation
• Unstable and the problem keeps evolving
• Attempts to address them often lead to unforeseen consequences
• No clear solution and they may never be solved
• Solutions are not right or wrong, but rather better, worse or good enough
Wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional linear approach in which problems are defined, analysed and solved in sequential steps. It is easy to say what might be a highly desirable outcome, including which specific elements of the outcome are most sought after, but the more important questions are what will work when the desirable is not obtainable, and which elements are mutually supportive and which may actually undercut one another.
One of the key assumptions of traditional linear thinking is that if we can identify the problem, the problem will be solvable. In other words, there is an “assumption of implementation”: if we understand the problem and therefore identify the ‘right solution’ then successful implementation will happen naturally. This of course ignores problems of practice, the messy reality of what is actually on the other side of the hill.
Problems of practice require holistic rather than linear thinking: grasping the big picture and attempting to identify the full range of interrelationships between causal factors and policy objectives. But for those who work in large organisations it also requires an understanding of their structural limitations. For reasons of history and efficiency bureaucracies tend to be stove piped. Going ‘outside your lane’ is frowned upon and protecting the boundaries is often deemed a success. Importantly, resources follow bureaucratic lanes, and even when the need for a holistic solution is recognised, it is often the case that resources cannot be easily transferred to where they would have greatest impact.
Resolution of such problems therefore means devising a strategy that copes reasonably with the issue (the wicked problem itself) and halts enough of the antagonistic and destructive behaviours (bureaucracy and politics), in order to create a solution that is ‘good enough’. Nancy Roberts has identified three such approaches: authoritative, competitive, and collaborative.
Authoritative strategies involve putting problem solving into the hands of a few stakeholders who have the authority to define the problem and come up with the solution. This has the advantage of reducing problem complexity, as it eliminates many of the competing points of view, but has the disadvantage that those charged with solving the problem may not have an appreciation of all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.
Competitive strategies attempt to solve wicked problems by pitting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with their preferred solutions. The advantage of this approach is that different solutions can be weighed up against each other and the best one chosen. The disadvantage is that this adversarial approach creates a confrontational environment in which knowledge sharing is discouraged. Consequently, the parties involved may not have an incentive to come up with the best possible solution.
Collaborative approaches are based on the assumption of win-win, aiming to engage all stakeholders in order to find the best possible solution for all. Typically this will involve meetings in which issues and ideas are discussed and a common approach is formulated. Alliances, partnerships and joint ventures are all variations of this theme.
The difficulties are that adding stakeholders increases transactional costs (more meetings, more people and more time to communicate and get agreement). As numbers grow so does the difficulty of achieving synergy. Skills of collaboration are often limited, especially in hierarchical organisations and systems, and they also take time and resources to acquire. Critically, dialogue can turn into debate and positions can harden, turning it into a protracted competitive conflict, and there is no guarantee that the outcome will be satisfactory for everyone.
The key to success is to blend authoritative, competitive and collaborative strategies, allowing greater flexibility and more effective approaches to achieving ‘good enough’ solutions (i.e. more good than bad practices). But it also requires problem solvers to understand:
• The full scale of the problem, without artificially limiting it.
• That while the ideal may be easy enough to understand, real world constraints make such resolutions highly improbable.
• The multifactor nature of wicked problems means that important stakeholders will have conflicting goals.
• That sensible goals are still required to give definition to the strategy. Without this, operations will have little strategic direction and guidance will be lacking for the employment of necessarily limited resources.
• That changes in approach can be as much a sign of success as of failure.
All this means there will be a critical role for leaders. Leaders who can elicit different solutions (competitive approach), get everyone around the table to agree a ‘good enough’ solution (collaborative approach), and then enforce it if necessary (authoritative approach). In every case, the ‘solutions’ should be adaptive but enduring, recognising the very different interests of the relevant stakeholders and expecting that the nature of the problem will change over time.
Even Wellington, a pre-eminent military leader, was not exempt. At a critical point in the battle of Waterloo, he observed that either night would have to fall, so he could safely withdraw, or the Prussian reinforcements had to arrive to save him from defeat. It was, he later admitted, “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”