Time, Competition and Wicked Problems

Mark Ury just alerted me to a post he did on his blog, springboarding off my notion that “the system is the product”. He makes the point that time is an important factor in how systems come to be:

Time determines the success of systems more than any other factor. This can be maddening for strategists and designers slaving away at product, service, hardware, and software ecosystems.

He argues that systems are not so much designed as evolved. This may be a matter of semantics, but I’d argue that while systems do indeed change over time, and there are unexpected mutations caused by hapenstance and the “environment” (the surrounding customers, competitors, culture…), that does not mean design has no role. We have some control of our own destiny, even with complex systems (though perhaps not as much as we like or think). All is not left up to the divine, as it were, and fortune rewards the prepared mind.

Semantics aside, I definitely agree that time is a key factor in system success. I’ve used the phrase “high panic threshold” when it comes to thinking about complex systems problems - you must resist the temptation to prematurely state that you have defined the problem fully. Doing so means you will likely miss out on a key insight into your customers, your competitors or your business, thus losing potential competitive advantage. You must have a high threshold for ambiguity, patience to wait it out.

In the past I’ve written quite a bit about wicked problems. I’m still percolating on that idea, but moving in a somewhat different direction. Why? Because wicked problems are incomplete when applied to the business world because in their classic definition they lack the notion of competition. Wicked problems emerged out of public policy and planning. In that arena there is not competition in the same way there is in business. So you do not have the time pressures to the same degree, and the fear that someone else is going to crack the problem ahead of you and thus gain an advantage.

Competition: The Go-Fast Force 

Competition is fundamental to business. You might think of it as the “go-faster” force that propels the world of business and individual companies forward. This instills a sense of impatience in companies, particularly when dealing with complex, rather abstract systems. Mark hits it on the head:

Most companies don’t have the patience (or the time) for the system to reveal itself. Public companies are focused on three month cycles. Their CEO’s have three-year tenures. Their middle-management has 50% churn. At the other end, startups have no resources. Two-thirds have the wrong-market strategy. Ninety-percent of them fail in three years.

Systems are so rarely produced because they take time and time is one resource companies don’t have. Most die long before the system is revealed.

This is the market equivalent of natural selection.

In this context, time to market comes to the fore. First mover advantage is key. Decisions are made quickly, partial understanding is the rule.

Emergence: The Go-Slow Force

However, as Mark points out, systems take time to understand, to refine. As the wicked problems definition would have it, you have to start making solutions in order to even understand the problem, and the problem definition emerges slowly over time. In other words, wicked problems resist the classic waterfall process of research > synthesize > define > recommend > act . In fact they turn it on its head: It is only by starting to act that you can illuminate the less obvious aspects of the problem, but its those aspects that deliver the competitive advantage for the very reason that they are non-obvious. If you can crack the wicked problem you gain a competitive advantage just because it is so difficult to understand.

So we have a “go-slow” force that is in polar opposition to the go-fast force of competition. I call this force emergence. Instead of time-to-market, time-to-right is the priority in emergence. Having that high panic threshold really comes in handy here, because this can take several years.

Obviously having large monetary resources helps a lot here, as you can afford to make mistakes (up to a point - shareholders and investors often have low panic thresholds). Having said that, start-ups tend to be good sources of illumination of wicked problems as they are laser focused on differentiation from the big-boy incumbents. Rather than complacently thinking they’ve got the problem well bounded, they actively seek out new aspects of it. The resource-constrained nature of start-ups often makes them more efficient at the rapid, iterative prototyping that is at the heart of using solutions to understand the problem (note that “solution” does not have to mean full-blown product on the market).

The Never-Ending Tension

We’ve all experienced the clashing forces of competition and emergence, the tension between going fast and going slow. For many people it sets the daily context of their work life, myself included. All the tools, processes and frameworks that we bring to bear on design challenges (user research, competitive analysis, trend spotting, market analytics, etc.) are fundamentally about trying to resolve this tension, or at least to make it managable.