Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That wicked thing

In the project game, it's usually said: "it all comes back to requirements"


But, there's a thing called 'wicked', invented more or less to explain requirements--or lack thereof--in the political and policy domain. Unlike the domains most of us work in, projects that are motivated by, or subject to, political and policy influences as dominate influences often can not really formulate requirements, even requirements in the agile sense.

The wicked idea is this: the requirements are not knowable until the solution is knowable. From a project perspective, as conventionally governed, such an idea is a really perverse feedback loop.

In Excel terms, it's what the 'resolver' does: it tries a solution on the source to see if it fits. That's pretty much the wicked situation. You talk about the requirements, then you talk about the solution, and then on the basis of yet another solution that might actually be doable, you back fit the requirements.

I fell upon a paper, one of the source documents for this line of thinking ("Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning"  by Rittel and Webber) , that outlines 10 'wicked issues'.
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one's idea for solving it.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. With wicked problems, on the other hand, any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended--virtually an unbounded--period of time.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. With wicked planning problems, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves "traces" that cannot be undone

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate

Maybe the arguments about agile methods and requirements are not so bad after all!

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