This blog item was originally published as a LinkedIn article.
Early in my schooling I was presented with the problem “2 + 2 = ?”. With the aid of various fingers, I solved that one, and in due course went on to complete an engineering degree, where I solved some much more complicated problems than that. Had I continued in engineering, I might have contributed to the mathematics which lands spaceships on Mars: even more complicated, but given equations, speeds and trajectories we can confidently work out how to get this job done. It is just rocket science, after all, with clear processes to follow … and solutions.
It is a bit different on the days when I am planning what to do when I look after my two-year old grandson. I have an idea about what we will do and know what he is allowed to eat and not eat. But he has his own ideas, and what actually happens on those days emerges out of the interactions of these different perspectives. Our relationship is beyond complicated: it is complex, a heady, undefinable and unpredictable mix of human behaviours. Quadratic equations and Laplace transforms do not help, and there are no solutions giving a plan for a perfect day.
This will not be new to many readers. But, actually what we do when we design training programmes is to pretend that human behaviour is predictable and treat the whole issue of performance improvement as if it were rocket science. We do this because we have been seduced by the charms of the Enlightenment, that period in history when rational thought started to replace mysticism. It was thought that we could understand anything by breaking it down into its constituent parts, seeing what each part did and adding it all back together. This does work well for rockets, but not for my grandson and I, nor for people working in organisations.
The starting point for training design is to work out what we would like people to be doing, define performance objectives and then explicitly or implicitly, deconstruct these to identify the specific aspects of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are needed. We then have the bones of the training programme. This might be a good way to start the process of designing something to improve performance, but it has serious weaknesses if we start to use these same objectives to make judgements about how effective the programme is after it has been implemented. After all, as soon we start training people, these simple pieces of knowledge, skill and attitude interact with human behaviour issues and start to take everyone involved in directions we may not expect.
Let’s think about these behaviour issues more closely. People interact with each other, interactions have consequences and create feedback loops, information comes in from outside the group, and there is a history which has moulded the group into what it is at any particular moment. As such, workplace groups can be regarded as complex adaptive systems, systems which are constantly changing in response to internal and external dynamics. Of particular importance is the reality that human interactions are what is described as non-linear, that there is no direct, consistent connection between cause and effect. Of significance here is that this means that when we train someone to do something better they may not actually do it better, or doing it better may cause negative feedback within the system (resentments, jealousies, infringing implicit performance norms, leaving the organisation and so on).
We also know that when we look at problems in the workplace we can find it very difficult to describe exactly what the problem is: everyone will describe it in different ways, depending on their own view of what is happening. Because explanations of the problem are different, definitions of success will be different. Anything we do to change things within a problem situation changes the conditions, so the nature of the problem changes. We also find that the problems we are exploring are actually to some degree caused by other problems. So, as we saw before, because everything is connected we have a network of complex adaptive systems, all constantly evolving to generate situations which we cannot possibly predict in advance.
Given this complete mess how do we start to make things better? The key is to try and stop thinking of finding ‘solutions’. Complex, wicked problems never come to an end, they just keep changing, and all we can do is to try and make things better: we will never be able to ‘solve’ them. This has big implications for training design.
Firstly, training programmes are usually based around sets of static performance objectives or learning outcomes, defined at a specific point in time. But by the time a programme has been designed the problem is different, so the objectives may have become irrelevant. We should therefore think more about trends: is the situation developing in a desirable direction? This also means that instead of an evaluation carried out some time after the event we need to do more ongoing monitoring. This helps to get around the problem of deciding when to carry out an evaluation: this is always difficult, too soon and any initial enthusiasm colours the results, and too late, causality becomes far too indistinct to give evaluation any meaning.
Objectives are usually expressed in the form “The learner will be able to: …” This focuses training on individuals and overlooks the fact that everyone works within a complex adaptive system. It means that the content of training tends to focus on individual knowledge and skills rather than collaborative or cooperative activities. Training initiatives should be more team-oriented, involving staff and supervisors, along with other teams with which they interact. Objectives should focus on positive change rather than being about achieving an end state.
Thirdly, the constantly changing landscape within complex adaptive systems means that top-down didactic training can never hope to give people the knowledge and skill they need to be able to deal with all the evolving operational variety they face. So performance improvement strategies must create structures and space where people can exchange information and learn from each other.
So training can be a sort of solution, as long as we do not see it as providing a definitive result. Solution-oriented thinking also tends to create responses which are structured as projects, i.e., with a beginning, middle and an end. If we escape from that particular thinking box, we can conceive more easily of learning interventions which are ongoing strategies, constantly adapting and being adapted to help people continue to move in a desired direction.
 The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined in the article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Rittel, H.W. & Webber, M.M., 1973.. Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155–169.