“If you work with long term social, commercial, or organizational planning - or any type of policy planning that impacts on people - then you’ve got wicked problems.” (1) And that has to be most of us in the security business. Wicked problems are hard to define, involve incomplete and contradictory information and perceptions, and feed-back loops that link the evolving problem to every effort to solve it.
Tom Ritchey has worked on wicked social problems for 20 years in the Swedish Defence Research Agency, beginning in the Cold War and grappling with increasingly complex issues as the world began to change. The techniques described in this book centre on General Morphological Analysis (GMA), which originates with extended typology analysis, developed by Fritz Zwicky in the 1940s, but the big advances have come from both computer software that is better at managing the permutations and combinations that are conceivable in wicked problems, but also workshop practices and facilitation that permits better use of expertise.
In chapter 2 Ritchey introduces GMA and the extreme non-linearity of social systems, driven partly by the need for internal consistency. GMA “is a method for structuring and investigating the total set of relationships contained in multi-dimensional, non-quantifiable problem complexes.” (8) He provides a succinct history of morphological mechanisms, noting that typology analysis has become an academic field in its own right. He is precise about the nature of models and the process of modelling, which can involve logical contradictions, empirical constraints, and normative constraints. As the chapter develops, the typologies begin to look like increasingly complex and detailed two-dimensional tables.
Chapter 3 addresses the problem of genuine uncertainty. Pure study of a [wicked] problem amounts to procrastination, because little can be learned about it by data-gathering and observation, if any intervention changes it. (21) The chapter concludes with ten characteristics of wicked problems, and illustrates how GMA can address these characteristics.
Chapter 4 delves into the application of GMA, beginning with a distinction between simplex models (e.g. a stakeholder analysis) and duplex models (e.g. stakeholders vs strategies). He describes a standard way of modelling contextual, environmental, and strategy space. The models presented in Chapter 4 are developed using computer software, but can be shown in simple two-dimensional tables.
Chapters 5 begins with strengths and weaknesses of GMA, including combination with Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP) and Bayesian networks, but many readers may find the advanced topics a bit harder to grasp, as they are dealt with quite superficially: multi-part internal evaluations; AND-lists; stakeholder or position analysis, etc. Chapter 6 on the formal properties of Morphological models is definitely for the professional user (I hesitate to say, “math geeks”)
Chapter 7 provides a detailed and useful guide to facilitating GMA workshops. Like other techniques such as red teaming, AHP, or facilitated problem-solving, GMA conducted in isolation from policy-makers or decision-makers is a largely masturbatory activity. Bringing the tools into the policy environment, however, takes more than technical mastery--it demands good people skills and effective management. Ritchey clearly had all the necessary ingredients to get this far, and shares the basic requirements.
In the final chapters, he provides case studies, and a detailed description of some of the pioneering work of Fritz Zwicky, on whose early work he has built.
David Last, 13 January 2014