Wickedness, undecidability and the metaphysics of decision-making in organisations
A central myth about decision making in organisations is that it is (or ought to be) a rational and objective process. Although this myth persists, there is a growing realisation that many organisational issues are wicked – i.e. they are hard to define, let alone solve. The difficulty in defining such problems arises from the fact that they are multifaceted, which in turn gives rise to a diversity of viewpoints about them. So it is that people involved in a wicked decision problem will have different opinions on what the problem is and how it should be tackled. This makes it impossible to decide on wicked issues on logical grounds alone , and hence the ineffectiveness of rational decision making processes for such problems.
Often times the wickedness of a problem is a consequence of the way in which it is framed. I’ll have more to say about frames later in this post, for now I’ll just note that the term frame refers to the perceived assumptions and context regarding a problem, and I say perceived because these are often matters of opinion and belief . For example, depending on ones background and beliefs, the issue of crime may be seen as a law and order problem (lack of policing) or an economic one (poverty or lack of opportunity).
Although organisational issues are not as complex and multifaceted as social ones such as crime, most managers would have experienced situations in which they simply did not know what to do because the problem was not decidable based on their preconceptions regarding the facts and assumptions surrounding the problem, and the organisational situation in which it lives (the context).
My use of the word decidable in the previous sentence may raise some eyebrows because the term has a very precise meaning in mathematics. The notion of undecidability (or decidability) comes from the work of Kurt Goedel who proved that any system based on a set of axioms (premises) will necessarily contain statements that can neither be proven nor disproven within that system.
Now an axiomatic system is nothing but a framework consisting of a set of premises plus some logical rules using which one can derive statements that are true within the system (these true statements are theorems). One can thus make an analogy between axiomatic systems in mathematics and (for the want of a better term) decision systems in organisations: decisions in organisations are outcomes of a set of premises plus some rules (not necessarily logical ones!) using which one can make arguments supporting one or the other viewpoint. In terms of the analogy, it is clear that wicked problems in organisations are akin to undecidable problems in mathematics in that they are not solvable within the frame in which they are posed.
The interesting thing about undecidable problems in mathematics is that although statements may be undecidable within a particular system of axioms, they can sometimes be rendered be decidable within another, broader system. Put simply, a proposition that is undecidable may be rendered decidable by modifying or expanding the underlying premises or assumptions. In even simpler terms, the decidability of a statement depends on one’s frame or viewpoint. In terms of the analogy this amounts to saying that wickedness (or the lack of it) depends on how the problem is framed.
Wicked (or undecidable) decision problems can sometimes be managed (or rendered decidable) by an appropriate choice of frame.
The metaphysics of organisational decision-making
I should hasten to add that the foregoing cannot be used as a justification for making a decision based on a convenient frame that is aligned to one’s own interests and opinions. Indeed, an appropriate choice of frame is one that takes into account the entire spectrum of interests and opinions relating to the decision problem. So much so that the choice of a correct frame is a metaphysical issue because it forces the decision-maker(s) to choose how they view themselves in social and ethical terms – in short, as socially responsible human beings!
I realise this statement may sound over the top to many readers so I’ll try to argue for its plausibility, if not its truth, by drawing on a brilliant paper entitled, Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics, by the eloquent cybernetician and polymath, Heinz von Foerster.
Noting that just about everything about metaphysics is controversial, von Foerster tells us:
When I invoke Metaphysics, I do not seek agreement with anybody else about her nature. This is because I want to say precisely what it is when we become metaphysicians, whether or not we call ourselves metaphysicians. I say we become metaphysicians whenever we decide upon in principle undecidable questions.
Why does our deciding on undecidable questions make us metaphysicians?
The answer lies in the difference between decidable and undecidable questions. The former are unambiguously decided by the framework within which they are posed whereas the latter are not. Therefore we are forced to make a choice (of framework and consequent decision) based on our interests and opinions. The point is, our interests and opinions tell us something about who we are, so the choices we make when deciding on undecidable questions define our individual human qualities.
As von Foerster states:
Decidable questions are already decided by the framework in which they are asked, and by the rules of how to connect what we call “the question” with what we may take for an “answer.” In some cases it may go fast, in others it may take a long, long time, but ultimately we will arrive, after a sequence of compelling logical steps, at an irrefutable answer: a definite Yes, or a definite No. But we are under no compulsion, not even under that of logic, when we decide upon in principle undecidable questions. There is no external necessity that forces us to answer such questions one way or another. We are free! The complement to necessity is not chance, it is choice! We can choose who we wish to become when we decide on in principle undecidable questions.
The claim that we choose who we wish to become becomes evident when one notes that organisational decisions often put decision makers into situations in which they have to make ethical choices. For example, cost cutting measures may lead to job losses, changes in work policies may affect employee well being, wrong choices of technologies may pollute the environment and so on. The point is that most undecidable (or wicked!) problems in organisational life have ethical dimensions, and we define ourselves as human beings when we make decisions regarding them.
No wonder then that we have so many devices by which people try to avoid the making decisions and the consequent responsibility that comes with it. As von Foerster states:
With much ingenuity and imagination, mechanisms were contrived by which one could bypass this awesome burden. With hierarchies, entire institutions have been built where it is impossible to localize responsibility. Everyone in such a system can say: “I was told to do X.”
On the political stage we hear more and more the phrase of Pontius Pilate: “I have no choice but X.” In other words “Don’t make me responsible for X, blame others.” This phrase apparently replaces: “Among the many choices I had, I decided on X.
Then, aiming squarely at rationality and objectivity, he writes:
I mentioned objectivity before and I mention it here again as another popular device of avoiding responsibility. Objectivity requires that the properties of the observer shall not enter the description of his observations. With the essence of observing, namely the processes of cognition, being removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine, and the notion of responsibility has been successfully juggled away.
..and I take it as given that none of us wish to be reduced to mere copying machines.
The mechanisms of decision making in organisations encourage decision makers to avoid the burden of responsibility rather than accept it – “Sorry, but it is business” or “I’m just following orders” are common phrases that flag such avoidance. From personal experience, I’m painfully aware of how easy it is sweep ethical issues out of one’s field of vision when dealing with wicked problems…and I now also understand that metaphysics is not a rarefied academic discipline, but one that holds practical lessons for us all – you, me, our peers, and those who sit on the floors below and above us.