Friday, January 17, 2014

On the Planning Crisis: System Analysis of the 'First and Second Generations'

What follows below are the notes from reading the paper On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the 'First and second Generations' * by Professor H Rittel published in  Bedriftsokonomen No 8 pages 390 to 396.


Systems approach is defined as attacking problems of planning in a rational, straightforward, systematic way, characterized by a number of attitudes which a systems analyst should have. Systems analyst should try to be rational, objective and scientific in attacking his problems. He should have an approach that is interdisciplinary as solutions involve multi-faceted systems.

System approach as it was originally practiced involved following a certain sequence or steps or phases for attacking a planning project.

#1 Understand the problem
#2 Gather information to understand the context from the view point of the problem
#3 Analyze the information
#4 Generate solutions
#5 Assess the solutions and choose the best one
#6 Implement the chosen solution
#7 Test
#8 Modify the solution, if necessary, and  learn for the next time.

The above mentioned approach was successful as long as the steps could be followed in a sequence. for e.g. where the problem definition is not clear, it is not possible to apply this approach to solve a problem.

Shortcoming of the First Generation of System Analysis (FGSA):
  • The systems approach is based on a certain naïve belief that the ideals and principles of scientific work, in the planning context, can be carried over to problems in other domain
  • This type of approach  has been found to work in the context of a strong autocratic decision structure ( for eg. Military domain) but not in problems with respect to corporate and community planning
  • It expects the systems analyst to  be Rational, understand the problem as a whole and   anticipate the consequences of the decisions he/she makes.  where these characteristics are not possible, this approach fails.

Wicked problems and Tame problems contrasted

Tame Problem
Wicked Problem
Problem Formulation
This can be exhaustively formulated so that it can be written on a piece of paper and shared it with a person who will then solve it. You can tell a person in the know, to solve a quadratic equation and not expect any further queries
Exhaustive formulation of a problem is not possible since the solution chosen defines the problem. for e.g, you can  not tell a person to develop a software solution to a retail banking system without expecting any further queries.  The interactions are important for proper formulation of the problem.
Stopping rule
For a tame problem, for e.g. chess problem, once the combination of moves or steps are found, the problem is solved and that is the end
For a wicked problem, there is no such stopping rule. For e.g. when developing  a software product, there is no way for us to know when the problem is solved
Testing the solution
Given a solution to a tame problem, it can be tested and we can conclude the solution as correct or wrong.
For wicked problems, correct or wrong is not applicable.
List of permissible operators
There is an exhaustive list of permissible operations for a tame problem. for e.g chess rules or steps involved in solving a quadratic equation
For a wicked problem, there is no way a enumerable list of permissible operations can be found, as these depend on the person solving the problem
Problem as a discrepancy – aka the difference between the current state and desired state
With tame problems, there is a single explanation for discrepancy
With wicked problems, there are many explanations for the same discrepancy and we don’t know which one is the best
Scope of a problem
It is very easy to define the scope of a tame problem
With wicked problems, it is very difficult to establish the scope of a problem
Testing the solution
With tame problems, it is easy to test the solution
With wicked problems, there is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution
Number of attempts
There can be repeated attempts for a tame problem.
A wicked problem is a one-shot operation. Each attempt matters and is consequential
Tame problems are not unique. Lessons learnt from solving a problem can be carried over to solving another problem. e.g. quadratic equation or chess problems
Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Lessons learnt from the solution to  problem can’t be implemented as such for another solution
Right to make a mistake
The tame problem solver may be wrong and this doesn't mean any major consequences
The wicked problem solver has no right to be wrong, he is responsible for his acts and the consequences

The various contradictions that are inherent in the definition of   a wicked problem makes first generation Systems analysis  useless.. for e.g. first step in FGSA, 'understand the problem' is not possible for wicked problems as explained in #1 and #2 in the table above. Moreover, generation of solution(s) is not a single step for wicked problems.  With wicked problems, the solution definition goes on all the  time, till we say the  problem is solved.  Hence we look at Second Generation Systems Approach .

Principles of SGSA (Second Generation Systems Approach)
  • The knowledge needed to solve a problem is concentrated in many heads and not in a few.
  • The people who have the best expertise and most knowledgeable are those who are likely to be affected by the solution
  • Ask those who become affected and not the experts
  • SGSA rests on the insight that nobody wants a solution forced on them.  People who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the solution want to be actively involved in the planning process
  • Planning is more deontic in nature ( based on general political, moral and ethical attitudes)
  • Planning is a political process
  • Some of the steps/decisions needed to develop a solution need not necessarily be scientific
  • The choices for a solution or a step depends on who make the decision and the final solution depends on the judge
  • Communicating the basis of judgments is crucial for a successful solution, since decisions arrived at are more intuitive and less scientific
  • The planner/designer plays the role of a facilitator and not that of an expert/one who offers solutions to problems faced
  • Casting doubt on the choices made is an virtue
  • Moderate activism and optimism are a part of the facilitator's attitude
  • Every solution is treated as a venture and the people who are part of the solution should share the risk
  • Planning process is an argumentative process (one of raising questions and issues towards which the facilitator can assume different positions and argue for or against the positions. The options available are deliberated and a decision taken to move towards the next step)
Why the paper is important: 

  • It introduced the concept that planning is an argumentative process
  • It redefined the role of a planner to that of a facilitator from that of an expert
  • This paper written in 1972, as per my understanding, sowed the thought process needed to move away from the waterfall methodology (first generation system analysis) to iterative methodologies (second generation system analysis) 
  • This along with the concept of wicked vs tame problems give a very clear indication of the shortcoming of the traditional way of software development
  • Reading this paper in 2014, it provides the reader a better insight into responding to queries on 'why agile and why not waterfall'
  • The discerning reader may also see that the principles mentioned for second generation system analysis applies to all enterprise class projects

Further reading: Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catolog of Modern Engineering Paradigms

* People interested in reading the complete paper can easily find it by googling

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