Last time, I discussed the power of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis to cut through even complex decision-making problems. But as I hinted in the last paragraph of that article, the technique would break down if it becomes impossible to identify at least most of the Scenario variables, or if Outcomes resulted in a recursive feedback effect on those variables.
This is the root of so-called “wicked problems“. The linked article describes the nature of wicked problems in more detail, but the essence of them is that they are problems requiring a decision where the Scenario is unique, and difficult to quantify accurately, such that you cannot analyse all the potential Outcomes and where every time you make a decision you fundamentally alter the Scenario so you can’t try again but are instead potentially faced with a second, fresh, wicked problem.
A classic example is solving a complex social problem such as drug abuse or poverty, and a newer example would be climate change, where you have the added complication of a ticking clock, which incrementally cranks up the pressure of the need to find a solution.
But wicked problems also occur in individual everyday lives. For instance, and to use an example close to my heart, deciding to leave a job. If you try to use MCDA as outlined in my previous article, you will find that you can get close to an answer, but because you cannot identify all the potential variables and outcomes, you end up in a recursive roadblock, going round in circles. Essentially, the problem is that you cannot identify the problem and so cannot weight the variables accurately.
You will end up in analysis-paralysis, never make a decision and instead indulge in displacement activity or repress the problem and retreat into manic ego defences to occupy your conscious time while you brain “spools” subconsciously, trying to process all the data and being unable to.
The answer is to accept the possibility of being wrong.
Wicked problems remain wicked because of the self-imposed judgement that you cannot run the risk of being wrong. But sometimes, the correct choice is not to try make a right (or least-wrong) decision, but to make any decision at all. Because a wicked problem is inherently unquantifiable, you can only ever make a best guess.
Use MCDA to get close to whittle down the options and then trust your gut instinct to make a leap of faith. This is the problem-solving equivalent of rolling the dice, but at least you’ve narrowed down the choices. And if the only other option is doing absolutely nothing at all and that would result in the problem is never being solved, then making a reasonable stab at the right answer IS the right answer.
It turns the tables on the very nature of the wicked problem. Because every wicked problem is unique, any change that doesn’t result in a solution, results instead a fresh problem – and “fresh” is the key point – rather than a recreation of the original one. And if it’s a fresh problem, it may well be more solvable than the original one.
So next time you can’t make a decision, and MCDA fails to reach a decisive answer, don’t be afraid to take a chance and go with your instincts. In the long term, at the very least you’ll have fewer regrets.
Go on, roll those dice.