Types of situation, types of partnership, types of thinking

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Okay, after all my talk of ‘deductive’ analysis – the first thing I have ‘learned’ from my data – that emerged out of it, was something that I didn’t think to look for at all!!  Now it has, I feel the need to get it down on paper – and of course immediately, I have connected it up with some literature I have read.

As the main ‘helping agenda’ of the work I am doing involves appreciating partnership practices, the ‘Discovery’ interviews ask people to talk about a time when they had a great experience of partnership working.  We emphasised that this had to be an experience that they thought was great at the time – regardless of whether it was an ‘official’ success story.  People could answer from anytime in their history – not necessarily recently.

So I found myself noticing a bit of a pattern in the type of situations people were ‘engaging’ with when they had their ‘great experience’.

To talk about this, I want to draw on the ‘types of problem’ that Alban-Metcalfe and Alimo-Metcalfe (2010) use to structure their paper on integrative leadership.  They use the familiar distinction between ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ – although they attribute this to Churchman (1967), rather than the usual Rittel and Webber (1973) (mmm interesting).  I’ll repeat the way they explain that distinction here:

wicked or adaptive problems are those that exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: complex; often intractable; novel, and without an apparent solution.  They involve a high level of uncertainty, and are polycentric, multi-causal, dynamic and inter-active.  They do not necessarily lead to ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, only better or worse outcomes; and the ‘solutions’ that emerge often generate more problems.

tame or technical problems are typically: simple or, if complicated, are still resolvable; and likely to have occurred before.  They involve a limited degree of uncertainty, and are structured, uni-causal, and involve ‘mechanical’ cause-effect relationships.  They usually lead to an identifiable solution.

wicked and tame problems can be thought of as being along a continuum.

Alban-Metcalfe and Alimo-Metcalfe (2010, 7)

They also add in a third kind of problem – the ‘crisis’ problem:

characteristically requires an urgent response to an actually or potentially serious consequence; has limited time for decision-making and action; and in which uncertainty is managed through clear decisions

(ibid, 8 )

The paper then discusses how these different ‘types of problem’ will need different partnership leadership styles.  It also notes that different leadership ‘roles’ take place at different ‘levels’ in an organisation – as a rough guideline – the more senior/strategic, the more you engage with ‘wicked’ and the more operational, the more you engage with ‘tame’.

Gordon et al developed a ‘Landscape Framework‘ where they also used the ‘wicked’-‘tame’ continuum.  Their interest was in how different styles or flavour of partnership working is needed for different types of ‘problem’.  At the tame end of the continuum, they use the image of a jigsaw puzzle, where organisations slot their different contributions together to get  to a ‘shared objective’.  At the wicked end of the continuum they use the idea of a shifting ice-flow, where partners are working with and supporting each other to understand and get through an unknown and changing environment.

As I understand from my studies, this ‘wicked’-‘tame’ continuum also affects the appropriateness of different types of thinking.  The more uncertain, the more complex, the more contested etc the situation, then the more appropriate it is to use systemic thinking (and tools that enable systemic thinking and purposeful action).  Also, I have learned that the ‘positioning’ of a situation on the ‘wicked’-‘tame’ continuum is not an inherent property of the situation but is often the result of how the practitioner chooses to engage with it (E-ball juggling).

So, with all that said – when people have been asked to talk of their greatest experiences of partnership working – what do they pick?  One person chose a ‘crisis’ situation, the remainder described situations towards the ‘tamer’ end – none at all went full on ‘wicked’!  And, what’s more, people went back in their careers to draw on this situation.  It is noteworthy that this is not to say that people can’t operate at the ‘wicked’ end – just that their best experiences are at the ‘tamer’ end. People used words like ‘tangible’; ‘defined’; ‘clarity’; ‘clear’ – people like it when they feel they can reach the end of ‘a jigsaw’, feel that they have achieved something and then can move on.

What does this mean for my research? The situation people chose to talk about and the way they talked about them is likely to affect the extent to which they draw on ‘full-on’ systemic thinking, or practices that enable it.  So it could impact my ‘findings’/results.  Quite comfortable with this but it is a note worth bringing out in my report.

What does this mean for work? Not sure at the moment, but I feel the need to connect the ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’ more – perhaps a yin-yang, rather than an either-or.  I have this image in my head about a flow of exploratory strategic/policy conversations, and from that ‘flow’ more bounded pieces of work ‘crystallize’ (or are brought forth; or identified).  These crystals can offer the tangibility, the feeling of doing something (rather than just ‘talking’) but they are not separate from it.  How I translate that into something practical, I don’t know.

Oh, I’ve just realised, I’ve just re-invented the way that Ison (2010, 245) talks about how systemic inquiry can be “conceptualised as a meta-form of purposeful action that, with appropriate praxis and institutional arrangements, could provide a more conducive, systemic setting for programmes, and projects with a diversity of forms of practice”.  This conceptualisation was illustrated in fig 10.1, p244 shown below.

Now, I get what he meant! 🙂


Alban-Metcalfe, J. & Alimo-Metcalfe, B., 2010. Integrative leadership, partnership working and wicked problems: a conceptual analysis. International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, 6(3), pp.3–13.

Gordon, P., Plamping, D. & Pratt, J., Working in Systems: The Landscapes Framework, Leeds: Centre for Innovation in Health Management, University of Leeds.

Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

5 thoughts on “Types of situation, types of partnership, types of thinking

  1. Interesting thoughts for me, Helen, and very relevant for my work. Everything is done in partnerships and there are few problems more intractable and wicked than food security.

    for some reason, your musings put me in mind of the Cynefin framework. Do you remember that? I can’t remember when/where we saw it, but i recall it had different approaches to ‘managing’ situations depending if you saw them as complex, chaotic, complicated or simple. I don’t have my notes here with me now but I wonder if there is anything useful for you in there?

    • Hi Arwen

      Yes, I remember the CYNEFIN – it is amongst the discussions about the E-ball in Ison (2010, Chap 6, p132+). Thanks for alerting me to go and find it and scan it through again.

      I also have an article by Snowden and Boone about it:
      Snowden, D.F. & Boone, M.E., Nov. 2007. A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review.

      It feels to me as if in field of wellbeing and health – some work could be seen as ‘complicated’ e.g. work on integrating health and social care services. But other work is ‘complex’ requiring social change approaches e.g. issues of social justice, economic development. These require different sorts of partnership relationships, leadership roles and different ‘thinking’ and come to think of it different styles of citizen ‘engagement’. Players in a wellbeing and health partnership have then got to juggle their ‘E-ball’ to appropriately engage in different ‘types’ of problems, that crystallise out from the whole.

      I’ve now seen a read across to VSM and discussions on how to ‘unpack’ complexity. Wish my brain would stop doing that! Sometimes it is a little distracting!!


  2. Hi Helen
    Bit behind on reading your blogs, but once again thought provoking. The question in my head is were these ‘tame’ problems a chunk of a ‘wicked’ one? If so, is it about where we draw the mental boundaries around problems?

  3. Hi Bridget

    Hope you are well.

    I suppose what I am beginning to understand is the nature of a ‘continuum’ of situation types is really important. At one extreme you have ‘problems’ like covering for a home carer worker’s sick leave and at the other extreme you have issues like how to create a fair society. In the middle you’ve gone through service improvement; introducing a new protocol; service redesign; service systems redesign (multiple agencies). Every single part of the continuum needs a different way of working – leadership; partnership; tools/techniques.

    So yes, theoretically you could say that ‘improving alcohol services for adults’ is a situation distilled out of the issue of ‘alcohol use is a problem’ but then so is ‘changing the binge drinking culture’. Each aspect has different levels of complexity; uncertainty etc.

    I guess it is so much more varied that ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’. But people like the tangible; the feeling of achieving something – they seem drawn to the tamer end.

    Mmm lots to think about


  4. Pingback: Just Practicing − Returning to the ‘design turn’

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