Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking in a management context, wrote about problems in complex social systems (1974):
“We have also come to realize that no problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems… I choose to call such a system a mess.” (p21)
Robert Horn expanded on Ackoff’s notion of ‘mess’, combined it with Rittel’s and Webber’s notion of ‘wicked problem‘, and situated it explicitly in the context of difficult social problems:
“A social mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity – systems of systems – is among the factors that makes social messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” (p6)
The characteristics of a social mess are:
- There is no unique ‘correct’ view of the problem.
- There are different views of the problem and contradictory solutions.
- Most problems are connected to other problems.
- Data are often uncertain or missing.
- There are multiple value conflicts.
- There are ideological and cultural constraints.
- There are political constraints.
- There are economic constraints.
- They often involve a-logical, illogical, or multi-valued thinking.
- There are many possible intervention points.
- The consequences of an intervention are difficult to imagine.
- There is considerable uncertainty and ambiguity: in the system and in the problem definition.
- There is great resistance to change.
- Problem solvers are often out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.
Ackoff, R.L. 1974. Redesigning the future: A systems approach to societal problems. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Horn, R. and Weber, R.P. 2007. New tools for resolving wicked problems. White paper. MacroVU, Inc. and Strategy Kinetics, LLC. 34pp.