Wicked Problems: Pattern Experience

Ability Two: Pattern Experience

(Continuing my discussion about wicked problems, using the sports analogy I employed for the About With and For Conference, where the theme was Work & Play.)

chesspiece.jpgIn addition to having wide peripheral vision to spot nascent opportunities and threats at the edges, understanding wicked problems also requires deep experience with patterns, and with the consequences of those patterns. Wicked problems at the beginning are sensed only vaguely, so having an innate sense of patterns built up over years of experience helps shortcut you to a more precise definition.

Chess grand masters are great examples of this. They have built up the ability to understand where patterns of pieces on a board are going to lead. This is how they can play dozens of other players of lesser skill level simultaneously. They don’t need to memorize every piece, only the broad pattern for each game. This is the antithesis of the brute force computation model typically used by less experienced players (and computers), who think through individually about each move and piece.

Most chess moves on a professional level are decided upon in under a minute - the rest of time is spent thinking and confirming the soundness of the decision. This happens with wicked problems too: you want people on the job who can get that almost instinctual feel for the problem and where it’s leading, even if they can’t consciously articulate it right away. This is the realm of hunches and hypotheses, an area where quantitative analysis does not play well (or at least is insufficient).

But because each wicked problem is different, you can’t apply past patterns by rote. You have to be open to learning new things which further illuminate the pattern but which also may move things in a new direction. Chess grand masters have deep catalogs of gambits, but they don’t follow them blindly. Likewise, you should do as much as possible to leverage past experience, but allow current conditions and new knowledge to alter course.

Next up: Understanding Through Practice