Saturday, March 13, 2010

Complexity Everywhere

Complexity theory is spreading through every possible discipline in social science, even, believe it or not, social work.

As faculty for the Social Work program at St. Thomas Univ., I was asked to attend a workshop on housing for the homeless, presented by the Mainstay Program of Toronto. Among other things, the program booklet, called "Beyond the Key to the Front Door," featured a theory by author Brenda Zimmerman called "Simple Rules, Complex People." It broke down social service problems to three categories: simple, complicated, and complex. To quote:

Simple tasks are achieved by following a recipe for success: "The recipe has been tested to ensure that even someone with no particular expertise can succeed. The results are known, predictable and can be produced every time the recipe is followed exactly."

Complicated tasks, such as sending a rocket to the moon, require many experts to work together. "The formulae may be very elaborate, and must be broken down into separate parts. Nonetheless, if the formula is followed, the results are highly predictable."

Complex tasks, like raising a child, do not depend on a recipe or formula. "Expertise can help, but is not enough: relationships are the real key to success. It is impossible to break down the work into separate parts. And the results are uncertain and unknowable."

Getting chronically homeless people to accept living in a supported apartment program is indeed, a complicated task with very complex people. Coping with homeless people's aversion to social living, addiction and mental illness requires constant inventiveness, adaptability and relational skills. The outcome is never certain. A tenant may stay in the housing or choose to return to the street. They may be forced out of housing because of maladaptive behaviour. The Mainstay Program chooses a "complex approach" to housing the homeless by committing to a long-term relationship with the tenant and adapting the housing situation to meet their unique needs.

But there is one more level beyond "complex." In my study of complexity theory, I discovered the Wicked. I recently encountered the concept of “the wicked” in a short article by Deborah Curran in Alternatives, a Canadian environmental magazine. It was entitled “Wicked: If you feel like community sustainability is a moving target, that’s because it is.” (Oct. 09). She lifted the idea from John C. Camillus of the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote in the May 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review: “Strategy is a Wicked Problem.” Curran quotes Camillus:

“Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. . . A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer. . . . Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems.” (Curran, Alternatives, p. 9).

As a sociologist, I try to use and devise theories that work on all four levels: simple, complicated, complex, and wicked.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of 'wicked problems' and, like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the words are just fun to say. But, it seems to me, 'wickedness' isn't a fourth 'level' of problem in the way you suggest. Instead, I'd argue that you are conflating two distinct dimensions: 1) simple to complex and 2) non-wicked/wicked. The first dimension refers to characteristics of the problem, the second to characteristics of the solution. Stated another way, I'd suggest that there are really six combinations (think 2 x 3 table) rather than four. Thus, for example, it is possible to have a simple problem that is also wicked. The concept comes out of operations research, where they were attempting to come up with algorithms for optimal solutions to specific problems.