Nothing is Intractable? Right!

“Nothing is Intractable.” That’s the tagline on the HSD website. It’s the footer in our stationery. It’s on the first slide of every PowerPoint deck we create. We believe it’s true. And we continue to get questions about how that’s possible when life is so complex.  

A journey of 1000 miles begins with just one step —Lao Tzu

So, let’s talk about what the phrase means in the context of HSD and why we feel so confident in making such a surprising claim.

First we need to talk about wicked issues. Those are the big challenges in life that feel like you can’t do anything about them. They feel intractable. No matter what you do, they are still there. There are so many threads and connections you can’t shift one thing without shifting others—and you cannot predict what that shift might be. Wicked Issues are so pervasive, you often feel like you can’t get your head wrapped about them. You do your best and may even see an improvement in your situation, but soon the issue pops up somewhere else.

In the early 1970s two researchers[i] described the concept of “wicked problems,” using characteristics of the problems that fir their definition. Here are some of those characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive definition or description.
  2. Wicked problems just keep running, even when you think they are settled.
  3. Solutions can only be judged as better or worse because there is no right or wrong.
  4. There are multiple possible approaches to any wicked problem.
  5. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  6. Each wicked problem seems to be a symptom of multiple problems.

​Examples of wicked issues / wicked problems include climate challenges, world hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, and social injustice. These are huge challenges that exist across time, across the globe, across social status, or political stance.

If those characteristics are true, and if those are true examples of wicked issues or wicked problems, how can we say they are not intractable?

Now that we have a picture of what a wicked issue is, it’s also important to understand what shapes those kinds of issues to make them so wicked. These challenges are complex, and it’s the complexity that makes them so wicked. They emerge in open systems where there are too many differences to count, and where the parts of the system are interdependent with each other. And every wicked issue is unique because its context is unique. Additionally, wicked issues continue across time, changing continuously as the systemic conditions that shape them change. You are always one step behind and dealing with forces and interdependencies you can’t see or influence. That’s why wicked problems or wicked issues feel so intractable.

In HSD we use Pattern Logic to see, understand, and influence wicked issues. This means that we invite you and others to:

  • Recognize when you feel stuck dealing with one of these complex, wicked issues; step back; and take a deep breath.
  • Know that you are not really dealing with a “problem” you are dealing with complex patterns that you do have efficacy to shift—even when you can’t find one final solution.
  • Stand in inquiry to bring the wicked issue to clearer focus:
    • Turn judgment into curiosity
    • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
    • Turn defensiveness into shared reflection
    • Turn assumptions into questions
  • Use cycles of Adaptive Action as you ask:​​
    • What?
      See patterns clearly, exploring what shapes the challenge, as you perceive it:
      What patterns of interaction, connections, conversations, decisions, behavior, expectations, etc., contribute to the stickiness of the issue? What is its pertinent history? What do people want? Who’s affected? Who’s not? What’s the impact on the system, as a whole? What other questions might you ask to understand what’s in front of you?
    • So What?
      Seek to understand those patterns in ways that increase your awareness, inform your understandings, push you to look at new opportunities and perspectives, and offer potential opportunities for action.
      What do my observations tell me about the challenge? What do those same observations mean to other people? What is the worst/best scenario that might happen? What if . . .? What’s possible? What would my next wise action be to shift one pattern toward the impact/outcome I want?
    • Now What?
      Act with courage to shift that one pattern.
      Who needs to know what? Who will feel this impact? Who can help me? How will I know when to measure the impact? How will I assess its success?
    • Next What?
      Step into the next What?
      Adaptive Action is an iterative cycle that sets conditions for you to learn through the actions you take to inform your next wise action. After taking your Now What? step, you move into the next What? step to see what you can learn. That action then sets you into the next cycle . . . and the next . . . and the next . . . . With each next round, you continue to make small shifts, respond to new conditions, and bring yourself closer to the outcomes you want.

      Your wicked issue may not be solved, but you have moved forward. The issue has not stopped you altogether. You have gained traction to move forward into your challenge. You have proven that your wicked issue is not intractable—it is not hopeless.

We have Associates and colleagues around the globe who are using HSD-informed models and approaches that serve Pattern Logic, Inquiry, and Adaptive Action. They are moving the needle on some of their most intractable issues. So can you. Visit our website, join us at our daily Inquiry is the Answer event, log on to one of our monthly Live Virtual Workshops, sign up for an Adaptive Action Lab, or register to become an HSD Professional. Or try Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic on your own. Recognize you are not stuck—that wicked issue that seems to hold you back is, in fact, not intractable!

Be in touch!



[i] Rittel, Horst W.J.; Webber, Melvin M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" (PDF). Policy Sciences. 4 (2): 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730. S2CID 18634229. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 September 2007. [Reprinted in Cross, N., ed. (1984). Developments in Design Methodology. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 135–144.]

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