Sunday, September 8, 2013

Prof. Karl Ulrich’s classification of problem types

I watched the Hindi movie Satyagraha last night whose story revolves around a grass-root level anti-corruption movement in India. As I was watching the movie, following questions came to mind, “Is corruption as a problem similar to any other problem like e.g. fixing a car or a mobile phone? Or is it different? And can such a problem be solved in any systematic approach?” The first question reminded me of a lecture by Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton in the coursera course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society”. In this lecture Ulrich presents a classification of problems which I find simple and useful. Here is a summary.

Design vs system-improvement problems: Problems can be divided into two broad categories: Design and System-improvement. Design creates new artifacts from nothing and system improvement problems begin with an existing operating system. For example when Ulrich built a sleeping shack in Montana (mock-up shown in the picture) he was building it where nothing existed other than a patch of ground and hence solving a design problem. On the other hand, if you are trying to reduce infection in hospitals due to increased hand washing (picture on top right) you are starting with an existing practice in a hospital and trying to improve it. Hence, it is a system improvement problem.

Selection and tuning problems: If you are selecting a new accounting system for your organization, you typically don’t build it from scratch (picture bottom left). You select one from a list of a few well-known alternatives. So there is a special class of design problems like the selection of account system which Ulrich calls “selection problems”. Similarly when you at the problem of attracting more traffic to your website, tools such a Google Analytics help you with specific parameters such as placement of words, graphics, search terms etc. It is like setting a bunch of knobs in order to identify the best performance. Landscape is known and parameters are understood and your job is to fine the combination of parameters resulting in high performance. Ulrich calls such system-improvement problems “tuning problems”.

Crises and wicked problems: Ulrich presents two more categories of problems which cut across both design & system improvement problems. The first one is – crises problems – a set of problems where time is very critical. For example, when Apollo 13 crew had to build a system to get oxygen from carbon dioxide, it was indeed a design problem. However, it had to be solved under sever time pressure and hence some solution quickly weighs much more than a great solution slowly (picture middle right). Wicked problems are problems where stakeholders have conflicting interest i.e. they disagree on the criteria of a good solution. For example, problems such as India-Pakistan conflict, improving public education or healthcare, reducing poverty and of course, corruption are wicked problems. Unlike a “fixing a car” problem, a solution to a corruption problem will dissatisfy at least one party (say the politicians who benefit from corruption).

Now that we have looked at what kind of a problem corruption is, let’s come back to the second question: Can wicked problems be solved in a systematic way? Or are there at least some good practices in solving / making progress on wicked problems? We will explore this in a separate article.

Lecture 8.2a – “Problem solving and Design” by Prof. Karl Ulrich in the coursera course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society”. This is based on chapter 2 of Ulrich’s book with the same title.

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