Machiavelli and Super-Wicked Innovation Problems in the DoD—NeoDeMarconian Thought.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.”  -Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli 

Leo_work_1-3566.pngMachiavelli was a political philosopher, plain and simple—yet it appears the philosopher’s thoughts apply quite well to today’s innovation dilemmas. 

When thinking about innovation its useful to appreciate the type of problem we’re dealing with. Drawing on a social science theory developed by Rittel and Webber (Rittel 1973) we find ‘tame‘ problems which are complicated but solvable and ‘wicked‘ problems which are complex and intractable, often transcending boundaries such as organizations, disciplines or geopolitics. From the wicked problem concept, a relatively new category emerged in 2012—‘super wicked‘ problems. Super wicked problems go a bit beyond simply wicked problems and add the following characteristics to the issue (Leven 2012):

  • Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.


Time is running out:  When we ponder the reasons the US Department of Defense is working so diligently on inspiring an innovative culture in its services—could it be time is running out?  When we look at the race for hypersonic technology, dominance in space, or attempting a coherent strategy in cyberspace time is of the essence.  Could it be the military dominance America enjoys is only an innovation away from being lost?

The central authority is weak or non-existent:  Who owns innovation?  Or can innovation even be owned?  Bureaucracies are not innovation friendly for all the reasons Machiavelli mentions in the quote above. Ground breaking innovations usually happen away from the governance, direction, and rules of a bureaucracy.  Ponder for a minute cyber currency which was developed for money laundering, streaming video from the porn industry, and emojis from terrorist networks.  This second defining element of super-wicked problems may indeed be a paradox—does innovation require a central authority? Can innovation have such a controlling entity?

Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it:  The United States Air Force was birthed from the innovation of manned flight and advanced through strategic bombardment, developed capabilities in space, supersonic flight, precision weapons, and stealth technology—the service has a proud heritage, but when and where did we lose the innovative edge? As much as the USAF senior leaders want to solve the problem—they are years or sometimes months from leaving the service, the next level of leaders are holding tight to what has worked in the past in hopes that it will work in the future.  These leaders have faith in the bureaucracy that they have been brought up in and usually feel safe in its confines.  Obviously this is nothing new, Machiavelli knew this to be true in the early 16th century 

Policies discount the future irrationally:  The USAF is proud to say the service is the greatest air force the world has ever known.  The fact is difficult to argue—today.  In the future will wars be decided in the same way, will we see fighter aircraft in dogfights, bombers over the enemies capital, or transports airdropping troops behind enemy lines?  It would be too simple to say yes or are we simply one technological breakthrough from these concepts becoming irrelevant?  Many of the policies the bureaucracy clings to slow innovation to a crawl and in many cases make innovation impossible or not worth the effort. Again, Machiavelli knew this to be true.  

Wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analyzed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems. In a paper published in 2000, Nancy Roberts identified the following strategies to cope with wicked problems:

The Authoritative Strategy:  These strategies seek to tame wicked problems by vesting the responsibility for solving the problems in the hands of a few people. The reduction in the number of stakeholders reduces problem complexity, as many competing points of view are eliminated at the start. The disadvantage is that authorities and experts charged with solving the problem may not have an appreciation of all the perspectives needed to tackle the problem.

The Competitive Strategy:   These strategies attempt to solve wicked problems by pitting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with their preferred solutions. The advantage of this approach is that different solutions can be weighed up against each other and the best one chosen. The disadvantage is that this adversarial approach creates a confrontational environment in which knowledge sharing is discouraged. Consequently, the parties involved may not have an incentive to come up with their best possible solution.

The Collaborative Strategy:  These strategies aim to engage all stakeholders in order to find the best possible solution for all stakeholders. Typically these approaches involve meetings in which issues and ideas are discussed and a common, agreed approach is formulated.

In his 1972 paper, Rittel hints at a collaborative approach; one which attempts “to make those people who are being affected into participants of the planning process. They are not merely asked but actively involved in the planning process”. A disadvantage of this approach is that achieving a shared understanding and commitment to solving a wicked problem is a time-consuming process. Research over the last two decades has shown the value of computer-assisted argumentation techniques in improving the effectiveness of cross-stakeholder communication. The technique of dialogue mapping has been used in tackling wicked problems in organizations using a collaborative approach. More recently, in a four-year study of interorganizational collaboration across public, private, and voluntary sectors, steering by government was found to perversely undermine a successful collaboration, producing an organizational crisis which led to the collapse of a national initiative.

The collaborative strategy appears to have the most potential for success, but the question is can the bureaucracy step to the side and allow an innovative culture to brew in the shadows?  Simply put the USAF must empower Machiavelli’s “armed prophets” to develop the culture of innovation ensuring a bright future for global freedom.  

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