Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for the ‘Wicked Problems’ Category

Two ways of knowing

with 2 comments

I usually don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers but that day, for some reason, I did.

“It’s Raj,” he said, “from your decision-making class.”

As we exchanged pleasantries, I wondered what he was calling about.

“I’m sorry to call out of the blue, but I wanted to tell you about something that happened at work. It relates to what you talked about in last week’s class – using sensemaking techniques to help surface and resolve diverse perspectives on wicked problems.”

[Note: wicked problems are problems that are difficult to solve because stakeholders disagree on what the problem is. A good example of contemporary importance is climate change]

Naturally, I asked Raj to tell me more.

It turned out that he worked for a large IT consulting firm where his main role was to design customised solutions for businesses.  The incident he related had occurred at a pre-sales meeting with a potential customer. During the meeting it had become clear that the different stakeholders from the customer side had differing views on what they wanted from the consulting firm. 

On the spur of the moment, Raj decided to jump in and help them find common ground.

To do so, he adapted a technique I had discussed at length in class – and I’ll say more about the technique later. It worked a treat – he helped stakeholders resolve their differences and thereby reframe their problem in a more productive way. Ironically, this led to the customer realising that they did not need the solution Raj’s company was selling. However, a senior manager on the customer’s side was so impressed with Raj’s problem framing and facilitation skills that he was keen to continue the dialogue with Raj’s company.

“We think we know our customers through the data we have about them,” said Raj, “but understanding them is something else altogether.”


In his book, Ways of Attending, Iain McGilchrist draws attention to the asymmetry in the human brain and its consequences for the ways in which we understand the world. His main claim is that the two hemispheres of the brain perceive reality very differently: the left hemisphere sees objects and events through the lens of theories, models and abstractions whereas the right sees them as embedded in and thus related to a larger world.  As he puts it:

The left hemisphere tends to see things more in the abstract, the right hemisphere sees them more embedded in the real-world context in which they occur. As a corollary, the right hemisphere seems better able to appreciate actually existing things in all their uniqueness, while the left hemisphere schematises and generalises things into categories.”

McGilchrist emphasises that both hemispheres are involved in reasoning and emotion, but in very different ways. 

In the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. In the other, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected.”

It struck me that Raj’s epiphany was deeply connected with McGilchrist’s distinction between the ways in which the two hemispheres of our brains attend to the world.


The data we collect on our customers (or anything else for that matter) focuses on facts, attributes that are easy to classify or measure.  However, such data has its limitations. As McGilchrist notes in his magnum opus, The Master and His Emissary:

…there is [a] kind of knowledge that comes from putting things together from bits. It is a knowledge of what we call facts. This is not usually well-applied to knowing people. We could have a go – for example, ‘born on 16 September 1964’, ‘lives in New York’, ‘5ft 4inches tall’, ‘red hair’ …, and so on. Immediately you get a sense of somebody who you don’t actually know….What’s more, it sounds as though you’re describing an inanimate object…

Facts by themselves do not lead to understanding.


Understanding something requires one to connect the dots between facts, to build a mental model of what is going on. This is a creative act that requires a blend of imaginative and logical thinking.

Since mental models we build are necessarily influenced our beliefs and past experiences, it is unreasonable to expect any two individuals will understand a given situation in exactly the same way. Understanding is a mental process, not a thing, and knowledge (as in knowing something) is an ever-evolving byproduct of the process. Education is not about conveying knowledge, rather it is about helping students expand and refine their individual processes of understanding.

As Heinz von Foerster put it:

No wonder that an educational system that confuses the process of creating new processes with the dispensing of goods called ‘knowledge’ may cause some disappointment in the hypothetical receivers, for the goods are just not forthcoming: there are no goods.

Historically, I believe, the confusion by which knowledge is taken as substance comes from a witty broadsheet printed in Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century. It shows a seated student with a hole on top of his head into which a funnel is inserted. Next to him stands the teacher who pours into this funnel a bucket full of “knowledge,” that is, letters of the alphabet, numbers and simple equations.”

The entire business of education is predicated on the assumption that knowledge is transferable and is assimilated by different individuals in exactly the same way. But this cannot be so. As von Foerster so eloquently noted, “the processes [of assimilating knowledge] cannot be passed on… for your nervous activity is just your nervous activity and, alas, not mine

Since assimilating knowledge (understanding, by another name) is a highly individual activity, it should not be surprising that individuals perceive and understand situations in very different ways. This is precisely the problem that Raj ran into: two stakeholders on the client’s side had different understandings of the problem.

Raj adapted a sensemaking technique called dialogue mapping to help the two stakeholders arrive at a shared understanding of the problem. The technique itself is not as important as the rationale behind it. And that is best conveyed through another story.


Many years ago, when I worked as a data architect at a large multinational, I was invited to participate in a regional project aimed at building a data warehouse for subsidiaries across Asia. The initiative was driven by the corporate IT office located in Europe. Corporate’s interest in sponsoring this was to harmonize a data landscape that was – to put it mildly – messy. On the other hand, the subsidiaries thought their local systems were just fine. They were suspicious of corporate motives which they saw as a power play that would result in loss of autonomy over data and reporting.

The two parties had diametrically opposite understandings of the problem.

Around that time, I stumbled on the notion of a wicked problem and was researching ways to manage such problems in work contexts. It was clear that the solution lay in getting the two parties on the same page. The question was how.

The trick is to find a way to surface and reconcile diverse viewpoints in a way that takes the heat out of the discussion.  One therefore needs a means to make multiple perspectives explicit in a manner that separates opinions from individuals and thus enables a group to develop a shared understanding of contentious issues. There is a visual notation called Issue Based Information System or IBIS that can help facilitators do this.  Among other things, IBIS enables one to capture the informal logic of a conversation using a visual notation that has just four node types (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: IBIS node types

In brief: questions (also called issues) capture the problem being discussed; ideas are responses offered to questions; pros and cons are arguments for and against ideas. The claim is that the informal logic of conversations can be captured using just these four node types.

After playing around a bit with the notation, I was convinced it would be of great value in the discussion about the corporate data warehouse.  A day prior to the meeting, I met the project lead to canvass the possibility of using IBIS to map the discussion. After seeing a brief demo, he was quite taken by the idea and was happy to have me use it, providing the other participants had no objections.

The discussion took place over the course of a day, with participants drawn from three groups of stakeholders: corporate IT, local IT and business reps from the subsidiaries.

Mapping the conversation using IBIS enabled the group to:

  1. Agree on the root (key) question – what approach should we take?
  2. Surface different ideas (options) in response to the question.
  3. Capture arguments for and against ideas.

As the conversation progressed, I noticed that IBIS took the heat out of the discussion by objectifying discussion points. It did this by separating opinions from their holders.   This made it possible for participants to understand (if not quite accept) the rationale behind opposing perspectives. This led them to a more nuanced appreciation of the problem and the proposed solutions.

As the morning wore on, the group gradually converged to a shared understanding of the problem.

By the end of the discussion, it was clear to everyone in the meeting that a subsidiary-focused design that enabled a consistent roll up of data for corporate would be the best option. 

Those interested in the details of what I did and how I did it may want to have a look at this paper. However, I should emphasise that the technique is not the point. What happened is that the parties involved changed their minds even though the facts of the matter remained unchanged, and the point is to create the conditions for that to happen.


The event occurred over a decade ago but has gained significance for me over the years. As we drown in an ever increasing deluge of facts, we are fast losing the capacity to understand. The most pressing problems of today will not be solved by knowing facts, they will be solved by knowing of the other kind.


Conversations and commitments: an encounter with emergent design 

leave a comment »

Many years ago, I was tasked with setting up an Asia-based IT development hub for a large multinational.   I knew nothing about setting up a new organisation from scratch. It therefore seemed prudent to take the conventional route – i.e., engage experts to help.

I had conversations with several well-known consulting firms. They exuded an aura of confidence-inspiring competence and presented detailed plans about how they would go about it. Moreover, they quoted costs that sounded very reasonable.  

It was very tempting to outsource the problem.


Expert-centric approaches to building new technical capabilities are liable to fail because such initiatives often display characteristics of wicked problems,  problems that are so complex and multifaceted that they are difficult to formulate clearly, let alone solve. This is because different stakeholder groups have different perspectives on what needs to be done and how it should be done.

The most important feature of such initiatives is that they cannot be tackled using rational methods of planning, design and implementation that are taught in schools, propagated in books, and evangelized by standards authorities and snake oil salespeople big consulting firms.

This points to a broader truth that technical initiatives are never purely technical; they invariably have a social dimension. It is therefore more appropriate to refer to them as sociotechnical problems.


One day, not long after my conversations with the consulting firms, I came across an article on Oliver Williamson’s Nobel prize winning work on transaction costs. The arguments presented therein drew my attention to the hidden costs of outsourcing.

The consultants I’d spoken with had included only upfront costs, neglecting the costs of coordination, communication, and rework. The outsourcing option would be cost effective only if the scale was large enough. The catch was that setting up a large development centre from scratch would be risky, both politically and financially. There was too much that could go wrong.


Building a new sociotechnical capability is a process of organisational learning. But learning itself is a process of trial and error, which is why planned approaches to building such capabilities tend to fail. 

All such initiatives are riddled with internal tensions that must be resolved before any progress can be made. To resolve these tensions successfully one needs to use an approach that respects the existing state of the organisation and introduces changes in an evolutionary manner that enables learning while involving those who will be affected by the change.  Following David Cavallo, who used such an approach in creating innovative educational interventions in Thailand, I call this process emergent design.


The mistake in my thinking was related to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. I had been thinking about the development hub as a well-defined entity rather than an idea that needed to fleshed out through a process of trial and error. This process would take time; it had to unfold in small steps, through many interactions and conversations.

It became clear to me that it would be safest to start quietly, without drawing much attention to what I was doing. That would enable me to test assumptions, gauge the organisation’s appetite for the change and, most importantly, learn by trial and error.

I felt an opportunity would present itself sooner than later.


In their book, Disclosing New Worlds, which I have discussed at length in this post, Spinosa et. al. note that:

“[organisational] work [is] a matter of coordinating human activity – opening up conversations about one thing or another to produce a binding promise to perform an act … Work never appears in isolation but always in a context created by conversation.”

John Shotter and Ann Cunliffe flesh out the importance of conversations via their notion of managers as authors [of organisational reality].  Literally, managers create (or author) realities through conversations that help people make sense of ambiguous situations and / or open up new possibilities.

Indeed, conversations are the lifeblood of organisations. It is through conversations that the myriad interactions in organisational life are transformed into commitments and thence into actions.


A few weeks later, a work colleague located in Europe called to catch up. We knew each other well from a project we had worked on a few years earlier. During the conversation, he complained about how hard it was to find database skills at a reasonable cost.

My antennae went up. I asked him what he considered to be a “reasonable cost.” The number he quoted was considerably more than one would pay for those skills at my location.  

“I think I can help you,” I said, “I can find you a developer for at most two thirds that cost here. Would you like to try that out for six months and see how it works?” 

“That’s very tempting,” he replied after a pause, “but it won’t work. What about equipment, workspace etc.? More important, what about approvals.” 

“I’ll sort out the workspace and equipment,” I replied, “and I’ll charge it back to your cost centre. As for the approval, let’s just keep this to ourselves for now. I’ll take the rap if there’s trouble later.” 

He laughed over the line. “I don’t think anyone will complain if this works. Let’s do it!” 


As Shotter and Cunliffe put it, management is about acting in relationally responsive ways. Seen in that light, conversations are more than just talk; they are about creating shared realities that lead to action.

How can one behave in a relationally responsive way? As in all situations involving human beings, there are no formulas, but there are some guiding principles that I have found useful in my own work as a manager and consultant:

Be a midwife rather than an expert:  The first guideline is to realize that no one is an expert – not you nor your Big $$$ consultant. True expertise comes from collaborative action.  The role of the midwife is to create and foster the conditions for collaborative action to occur.  

Act first, seek permission later (but exercise common sense): Many organisations have a long list of dos and don’ts. A useful guideline to keep in mind is that it is usually OK to launch exploratory actions as long as they are done in good faith, the benefits are demonstrable and, most importantly, the actions do not violate ethical principles. The dictum that it is easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission has a good deal of truth to it. However, you will need to think about the downsides of acting without permission in the context of your organisation, its tolerance for risk and the relationships you have with management.

Do not penalize people for learning:  when setting up new capabilities, it is inevitable that things will go wrong.  If you’re at the coalface, you will need to think about how you will deal with the fallout. A useful approach is to offer to take the rap if things go wrong. On the other hand, if you’re a senior manager overseeing an initiative that has failed, look for learnings, not scapegoats.

Distinguish between wicked and tame elements of your initiative: some aspects of sociotechnical problems are wicked, others are straightforward (or tame). For example, in the case of the development centre, the wicked element was how to get started in a way that demonstrated value both to management and staff. The tame elements were the administrative issues: equipment, salary recharging etc (though, as it turned out, some of these had longer term wicked elements – a story to be told later perhaps).

Actively seek other points of view: Initially, I thought of the development centre in terms of a large monolithic affair. After talking to consultants and doing my own research, I realised there was another way.

Understand the need for different types of thinking: related to the above, it is helpful to surround yourself with people who think differently from you.

Consider long term consequences:  Although it is important to act (the second point made above), it is also important to think through the consequences of one’s actions, the possible scenarios that might result and how one will deal with them.

Act so as to increase your future choices: This principle is from my intellectual hero, Heinz von Foerster, who called it the ethical imperative (see the last line of this paper). Given that one is acting in a situation that is inherently uncertain (certainly the case when one is setting up a new sociotechnical capability), one should be careful to ensure that one’s actions do not inadvertently constrain future choices.


With some trepidation, we decided to go ahead with the first hire.

A few months later, my colleague was more than happy with how things were going and started telling others about it. Word got around the organisation; one developer became three, then five, then more. Soon I was receiving more enquiries and requests than our small makeshift arrangement could handle. We had to rent dedicated office space, fit it out etc, but that was no longer a problem because management saw that it made good business sense.


This was my first encounter with emergent design. There have been many others since – some successful, others less so.   However, the approach has never failed me outright because a) the cost of failure is small and b) learnings gained from failures inform future attempts.

Although there are no set formulas for emergent design, there are principles.  My aim in this piece was to describe a few that I have found useful across different domains and contexts. The key takeaway is that emergent design increases one’s chances of success because it eschews expert-driven approaches in favour of practices tailored to the culture of the organisation.

 As David Cavallo noted, “rather than having the one best way there can now be many possible ways. Rather than adapting one’s culture to the approach, one can adapt the approach to one’s culture.


Written by K

September 14, 2021 at 4:43 am

The pathologies of information – a tale of two systems

with 2 comments


California, Jan 2000

“We tend to see the world in terms of entities rather than relationships,” said the professor, “and in doing so, we make a grave error.”

He paused, as though expecting disagreement.

“But relationships are between entities, without entities there can be no relationships,” she countered.

“And that is precisely upside down,” replied the professor. “It is the relationships that define entities and thus dictate how the entire system evolves.   “In evolution it is the relationship between species and environment that is primary, not the species or environment in isolation.”

“But what defines the relationship?” she asked.

“The information exchanged by the entities,” replied the prof. “As Gregory Bateson told us over a quarter century ago, information is a difference which makes a difference; a signal that provokes a response from another entity.   The stream of information between entities defines the relationships between them. It is the entire network of these relationships that determines the overall behaviour of a system, be it a person or a planet. If information turns pathological in some way, the system will show signs of sickness.”

“I’m not sure I understand…”

“You will in time,” he said cryptically.

Sydney, Sep 2020

It started with a general sense of malaise:  tiredness, occasional cramps, and a few other symptoms, each innocuous individually, but when taken together suggested that a visit to the doctor would be in order.

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” said the doctor, after a brief examination, “but let’s do a few tests and a scan just to make sure.”

A few days later, a call from the doctor’s office. “The doctor would like to see you today,” said the receptionist, “can you come in at 3 pm?”  There was a hint of urgency in her voice.

The doctor got to the point immediately. “I’m sorry, I don’t have good news. There is a mass in your abdomen and the blood tests indicate that it might be malignant. There is also a hint that the disease may have spread to adjacent organs. You must see a surgeon urgently.   I’ve already arranged for you to see one tomorrow.”

Wuhan, Nov 2019

Rumours of a severe “pneumonia of unknown origin” started to circulate in the city in late November.  In a few weeks there were a couple of dozen hospitalized cases, some of them in intensive care.

Despite official assertions that things were “under control”, the proverbial person on the street could sense they were not.

Doctors on the frontline knew this was no ordinary flu, but the authorities held off on making an announcement, ostensibly to avoid panic.

Sydney, Oct 2020

“The operation went well,” said the surgeon, “I removed the primary tumour and a few secondaries that weren’t clearly visible on the scan.”

That was good news, but it also sounded like there was a caveat…

“Given the presence of secondary tumours, there is a high likelihood there are microscopic cancer cells in and around the abdominal cavity,” he continued, “I have taken some biopsies and sent them for microscopic examination.”

“Does that mean the cancer has spread?” she asked.

“It is possible,” he replied, “but let’s wait for the results before jumping to conclusions.”

Wuhan, Dec 2019

As the infection count mounted, it became increasingly obvious, even to the authorities, that this was more than an ordinary flu.  Moreover, as it always does, information (and the sickness) had started to find its way out of Wuhan to the hinterland and beyond.

On the last day of 2019, the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) about a pneumonia-like flu.

Controls on movements were duly imposed.

Sydney, Nov 2020

The test results confirmed the disease had spread.  The surgeon explained that chemotherapy was the likely next step and referred her to a medical oncologist for further treatment.

The oncologist confirmed the diagnosis and started her on a series of chemotherapy sessions to tackle the microscopic malignancies that had spread to areas distant from the original site.

WHO Head Office, Jan 2020

Following the notification from the Chinese authorities, WHO issued a disease outbreak announcement on 5th January.  The announcement advised travellers to be watchful for symptoms of respiratory distress but did not recommend any restrictions on travel.

Barely a week later, a case was confirmed in Thailand. It was a visitor from Wuhan.

Three weeks on from the Thailand case, there were over 7500 cases worldwide.  Although the vast majority were in China, there were over 80 cases confirmed in 18 other countries.

The virus had bolted.

Sydney, Nov 2020

As her treatment progressed, she often wondered if there was anything she could have done differently.

There wasn’t. The story, though not entirely foretold, had been cast in probabilities that could be traced back to an information pathology that occurred generations ago.

Life is sustained by metabolic processes:  complex chemical reactions that occur at the level of individual cells. An example of a metabolic process is the breakdown of complex food molecules (such as carbohydrates) into simple sugars that the body can use to power various activities (such as your daily swim or run). At the most basic level, metabolic processes are governed by genes, segments of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that serve as templates for proteins which form the raw materials for metabolic processes. Transmitted from parents to children, these biological blueprints are our original inheritance: they carry biologically significant information across generations.

From time to time, genes undergo mutations, unexpected changes in their composition.  These can range from errors in copying (transcription errors) to those caused by external factors such as exposure to radiation or harmful chemicals. Many mutations have no adverse effect because genes with minor differences in chemical composition often end up coding for the same protein (and thus have the same function as the originals). Such mutations do not change the information content of the genes.

 Sometimes, though, a mutation can change the information content (and hence the function) of a gene.  Some of these information errors will be caught and fixed up by corrective mechanisms that function like spellcheckers – i.e. they read the “words” encoded in the gene and compare them to a dictionary, fixing up minor information errors as they go along. Occasionally, however, an error will not be caught by these spellcheckers.  Some of these errors can end up being manifested as abnormal metabolic processes. One such abnormal process is uncontrolled cell division – aka cancer.

A family of well-studied mutations are associated with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which relate to a person’s chance of developing BReast CAncer.  These are tumour suppressor genes – i.e.  they help fix DNA errors that can lead to uncontrolled growth of breast and ovarian tumours.   It is therefore not surprising that certain mutations in these genes can lead to an increased lifetime risk of developing these cancers. Moreover, the loss of tumour suppression mechanisms in affected individuals implies that secondary cancer cells that migrate to other organs have a greater chance of proliferating unchecked.

Sydney, Apr 2020

A friend and I were talking about the virus over Zoom. “There’s the disease, which is a problem,” I said at one point, “and then there’s all the misinformation about it.” This was around the time #toiletpaperapocalypse and other collective insanities were doing the rounds.

“Yes,” he replied, “and it is hard to tell which of the two is a bigger problem: the former requires physical proximity for transmission, the latter can go viral the world over in a matter of minutes. Technology seems far more effective at amplifying stupidity over intelligence.”

Whatever else it may be remembered for, 2020 will undoubtedly go down in our collective memory as the time of COVID. Now, a year on from the first reports of a “pneumonia of unknown origin” from Wuhan, the origins of the disease remain unclear.    The lack of knowledge spawned several conspiracy theories, which seem to gain significantly more traction than reasoned arguments based on facts and evidence.

Why is this so? 

Peddlers of quack cures and those who downplay the dangers of the disease tend frame their messages as certainties; on the other hand, when scientists talk about their findings, they speak in tentative terms, emphasising the uncertainties.  It is the nature of science that findings are provisional and subject to revision. Unfortunately, in times of trouble, however, humans tend to prefer simplistic narratives that reinforce their beliefs over provisional facts based on evidence and reasoning. The latter are difficult for people to accept because they a) are complex and hard to understand, b) lack a compelling narrative, and c) may point to uncomfortable truths.

It is an irony of the human condition that when they matter most, facts and evidence tend to be trumped by beliefs.  This is not new; it has always been so. What is different now is the ease with which information can spread, aided by social media. Moreover, since these new technologies lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, information pathologies propagate at rates that were simply not possible before. The term information metastasis is an appropriate description of this process. It is indeed akin to a cancer.


Sydney, Dec 2020

The medications that coursed through her bloodstream were designed to stop cancer cells from multiplying.  Although the chemicals preferentially affected cancer cells, healthy ones were not entirely unaffected. Consequently, as the treatment progressed, she suffered a number of side effects, both physical and mental.

She saw the connection between her condition and the drama that was unfolding in the wider world. In particular, she understood that response to change provokes further change in a continuing dialogue of stimulus and response. Change, as the cliché goes, is the only constant, but differences between the purposes of the actors in the drama meant there would be no tidy resolution, only ongoing mutual adaptation.

In time she learned to read and respond to the signals from her body, resting when she sensed a wave of fatigue coming or talking to friends when a cloud of depression threatened. In doing so, imperceptibly yet inexorably, her relationship to the world around  her changed. It was neither better nor worse, it was simply different. She knew it had to be so.


Written by K

December 9, 2020 at 6:44 am

%d bloggers like this: