Posted on September 30, 2016
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sherlock Holmes
You will not find a more agonized fan than the one who awaits Season 4 of the popular BBC show, “Sherlock”. Diehards have been waiting for more than two years for the next installment of Benedict Cumberbatch running around the streets of London and solving crimes with the likes of Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Adapted from the 1892 classic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the storyline in its modernized form still captivates audiences today as much as it did back in 19th century Britain.
Why? Humans are natural problem-solvers – goal-oriented, adaptive, and curious. We are very good at assessing our surroundings and deducing information from our experience. We are always looking for that one conclusion we can draw from our observations. In fact, the scientific method was one of the earliest creations of human society, passed down from the Ancient Greeks through Aristotle.
Eliminating the Impossible
Fortunately for progress, the reach of the scientific method of deduction has not been limited to ancient Greek culture or the fictional parameters of 121B Baker Street. In the medical world, it’s veritable equivalent is known as Occam’s razor. Translated from the original Latin, it posits: “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Simply put, a simple explanation is preferred to a complex one.
This is also known as that moment in each episode of House, where Dr. Gregory House has that moment of clarity about the one obvious and perfect diagnosis that explains all the symptoms and solves the mysterious disease of his patient before (and sometimes after) they expire. Hint: it’s not lupus.
The theory of Occam’s razor was challenged centuries later by a man named John Hickam, MD. Hickam found the established process of eliminating causes and exhaustively speculating on rare diseases to explain all the strange symptoms in a patient ineffective. He thought it was far more likely for patients in these cases to have a set of common diseases, rather than a perfect cause that explained all symptoms. This led to the blunt conclusion: “Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please”.
Double, Double Toil and Trouble
In the public affairs world, the world that Navigator maps out on a daily basis, the same theories take on similar applications. Clients run to the experts and expect there will be one, all-encompassing solution to the issue, or set of issues, they face. Most of the time, the solution may be simple. For the rest, a more layered approach is required.
In a 1973 treatise, two German design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term “wicked problem” to aptly describe problems of such scope that could not be solved like the more “tame” problems found in mathematics and puzzle games. “Wicked problems” were much more complex – social, political, environmental – and required strategies that included more collaborative, unconventional approaches and “outside-the-box” thinking.
We are living in a world where our collective problems are becoming increasingly “wicked” and difficult to solve in a narrow sense. Whether you’re talking about climate change, armed conflict and terrorism, or democratization, these are not problems that can be solved in isolation or independent from the efforts of other global players.
Smart, Honest Counsel
Wicked problems are not confined to the international sphere, but are increasingly entering the world of public affairs. Few experts have decided to abandon the approach of Occam’s razor and turn to the Hickum’s dictum equivalent of diagnosing these problems and propose collaborative strategies. What they fail to realize is that some of these challenges are simply too complex and unique, essentially uncharted territory for many clients, and clients themselves will need someone who understands this new environment.
Gone are the days when you can simply knock on government’s door, make your case, and get an answer. To increase your chances of success, you may need to work with third parties with aligned interests. You may need to mobilize your online and offline supporters. You may need to get public opinion among Canadians onside with your proposal before coming to the table.
At Navigator, the solution will not always be the simple one for your company. Whether you’re seeking social licence for a massive cross-country infrastructure project, or engaging a major financial transaction affecting national interests, or activating a public advocacy campaign – you will need the smart, honest counsel that will get your public affairs goals to the finish line.