Is DevOps adoption a 'wicked problem'?22 Feb 2021
Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term’ wicked problems’ in the article ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973).
Wicked problems are described as;
‘ill-defined, ambitious and associated with strong moral, political and professional issues. Since they are strongly stakeholder dependent, there is often little consensus about what the problem is, let alone how to resolve it. Furthermore, wicked problems won’t keep still: they are sets of complex, interacting issues evolving in a dynamic social context. Often, new forms of wicked problems emerge as a result of trying to understand and solve one of them.’
Rittel and Webber describe the following features of wicked problems in comparison to tame problems.
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
- The planner has no right to be wrong
When I look at the common problems associated with DevOps adoption in large organisations;
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
There isn’t a clear definition of the problem the organisation is trying to solve. DevOps adoption isn’t always tied to a goal or purpose of the organisation. However, sometimes and eventually, the organisation can define the problem they are trying to solve.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
DevOps adoption is an on-going change for large organisations. There rarely is an end-state. There is a failure to recognise that this is on-going continuous change (‘We have transformed’).
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad
Depending on the organisational context, approaches to DevOps adoption differ. What worked for Spotify might not work for a government organisation. However, it’s good enough and works in that context.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
Finding a solution to one aspect of adopting DevOps can have repercussions elsewhere. For example, using the Public Cloud creates challenges in the organisation’s approach to governance. Employees find that they need to learn new skills and change their behaviour.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly
The approach to DevOps adoption is unique to each organisation. I see organisations struggle when they blindly adopt an approach that worked somewhere else. Practitioners also fall into this trap of using a templated approach. The problem has to be solved within a limited timeframe to get a return on investment in DevOps. There is resistance to experimentation and making mistakes.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan
There is no single definitive playbook for DevOps adoption. However, there are specific solutions in the DevOps toolbox to each of the unique problems. The sequence of steps needed to apply the particular solutions in each organisation is unique.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
Each organisation’s approach to adopting DevOps is unique. It’s not repeatable across organisations (it’s not even repeatable within departments inside the same org). The adoption approach has to be reformulated each time. It can’t be planned up-front.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
The barriers to DevOps adoption are elsewhere. Recruitment, org structure, culture and lack of diversity, to name a few. The root causes lie outside of the immediate situation of adopting DevOps.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
It’s a multi-faceted problem, and people will have various explanations for the problem. Some may not even see it as a problem, and it’s hard to get a single view of the problem.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong
DevOps adoption defies structured planning, yet organisations demand plans. The planner is held to account when ‘DevOps’ still hasn’t been adopted after 6 months. There is no linear path to DevOps adoption.
A paper by the Australian Public Service Commission looking at the public policy challenges to tackling wicked problems (Australian Public Service Commission, 2018) expands on Rittel and Webber’s list of features by adding.
Wicked problems involve changing behaviour. The solutions to many wicked problems involve changing the behaviour and/or gaining the commitment of individual citizens. The range of traditional levers used to influence citizen behaviour—legislation, fines, taxes, other sanctions—is often part of the solution, but these may not be sufficient. More innovative, personalised approaches are likely to be necessary to motivate individuals to actively cooperate in achieving sustained behavioural change.
DevOps adoption, at its core, requires individuals to change their behaviour. For example, developers need to learn how to write tests first and make time for learning. Project managers need to learn how to deal with uncertainty. Senior leadership needs to find out what incentives can be used to motivate individuals to cooperate in achieving sustained behavioural change. Organisations that have previously relied on hierarchy to function have to find new ways to work in a collaborative manner.
Why do I ask?
The reason I ask; Is DevOps adoption a ‘wicked problem’ in large organisations?
If the answer is yes, we must contextualise our approach to DevOps adoption in large organisations. We should also avoid misclassifying the problem as simple or ‘tame’.
Correctly identifying the problem is half the battle, allowing us to use creative and holistic approaches to engage with the situation. It helps to set realistic expectations of change and not go into it blindly with a 14 sprint plan.
Australian Public Service Commission (2018) Tackling wicked problems : A public policy perspective, . Australian Government. Available at: https://www.apsc.gov.au/tackling-wicked-problems-public-policy-perspective (Accessed: 21 December 2020).
Rittel, H. W. J. and Webber, M. M. (1973) “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning,” Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155–169. doi: 10.1007/bf01405730.