Risk and Safety as a Wicked Problem

Originally posted on October 11, 2019 @ 1:11 PM


imageIt is nearly ten years since the outstanding research by Wagner and Associates ‘Safety – A Wicked Problem’ was published (http://www.peterwagner.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Safety-A-Wicked-Problem2.pdf). The project examined responses by prominent CEOs to common problems associated in tackling risk and safety at work. The recommendations in the Executive Summary alone provide critical directions should anyone in the safety industry be seeking vision. The findings (p. 3) can be summarised as follows:

· The need for greater collaborative conversations on OHS issues. (Indeed, what is regarded as an OHS issue itself lacks any definition across the industry and so what Safety speaks most about is objects.)

· The irrelevance of LTI and TRIFR as any indicator or help in understanding safety.

· The narrowness of safety managers in understanding business, change and influencing skills.

· A complete lack of skills by safety managers in engaging the workforces in conversation.

· The ineffectiveness of the legislative framework. It was seen as complex, burdensome and ineffective.

· That efforts towards harmonisation provided no positive impact on OHS outcomes.

· The community and public were complacent about OHS and disconnected.

· Sub-contractor engagement and responsibilities were a huge issue.

· OHS issues and IR should be separated and that union officials required better skills in engaging in conversations.

Unfortunately not much has eventuated since the publication of the Wagner paper and many of the findings of the research have clearly remained off limits to the safety industry. It seems none of the peak bodies have any sense sense of vision in this regard. Instead, it seems the industry has chosen to directly contradict some of the critical findings of the report??? The recent Boland review is an example of such a contradiction. The fixation of the industry on regulation is a psychosis that cannot lead to the improvements in safety suggested by Wagner’s research.

So, if safety is indeed a Wicked Problem as the research proposes, surely it is advisable to understand what a Wicked Problem is before we discuss further any sense of vision or trajectory for the safety industry.

After we explore the nature of Wicked Problems then the discussion will move on to transcoherence, the centrality of metaphor, wickedity and vision for the future.

What is a Wicked Problem?

The idea of a ‘wicked problem’ first emerged from Churchman (1967) in the context of management theory but was later developed by Rittel and Webber (1973) into ten clearly definable characteristics, these being (http://www.sympoetic.net/Managing_Complexity/complexity_files/1973%20Rittel%20and%20Webber%20Wicked%20Problems.pdf) that:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  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.
  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.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  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.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

And later Conklin (https://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf) shortened this list to six defining characteristics, being:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

The most important thing to glean from these early definitions is that definition eludes the construct of Wicked Problems that is, the quest to control and define wickedity is beyond orthodox analytical thinking. This is why the name ‘wicked problem’ is critical. Wicked problems are so named because they are beyond a STEM-only (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) paradigm in thinking. This is why the current discussion in safety about complicated and complexity (https://www.safetydifferently.com/complicated-complex-systems-in-safety-management/) cannot capture the nuances of ‘wickedity’. Wickedity is not complexity and doesn’t fit the language of complexity. One can’t put new wine into old wineskins.

I had an interesting in-depth discussion recently with someone about the differences between complexity and wickedity but it was like speaking two languages. The person concerned had an extensive background and studies in STEM but claimed that he didn’t think in STEM-like terms, this was not the case. One can’t simply just step outside of the STEM worldview by reading a few books or suspending a few STEM concepts. I liken this to trying to do the reverse; talking to someone who is committed to a certain religion or faith and trying to make them understand a STEM worldview. When one is dealing with worldviews, philosophies, ideologies, mentalities and methodologies, any tinkering about the edges of an idea is not the same as shifting worldviews.

The shifting of worldviews is conditional on the painful experience of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, L., (1957) ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’. Stanford University Press. Stanford) and as such requires a religious-like conversion. All shifting of worldviews involve quite a painful exchange and are much more than some vague feeling of psychological discomfort. However, what one gains from shifting worldviews is extraordinary insight into another world, hence Ashhurst’s title of his PhD Thesis.


The only way to tackle the mysterious intractable problems of being human is via metaphor. When paradox is the tension of choice and mystery the determinate of the unconscious, only metaphor can serve to create meaning and purpose. When faced with a Wicked Problem, where boundaries are boundless, only metaphor can serve understanding and the development of ‘Collective Coherence’ (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327280969_Making_Collective_Learning_Coherent_An_Adaptive_Approach_to_the_Practice_of_Transdisciplinary_Pedagogy_The_Art_of_Collaborative_Research_and_Collective_Learning ). The idea of ‘collective coherence’ and ‘transcoherence’ comes from Ashhurst (2019. PhD waiting examination).

Ashhurst (‘Transcoherence, Labels and Wicked Problems’ in Brown, V., Harris, J., and Waltner-Toews.,D., (eds.) (2019) ‘Independent Thinking in an Uncertain World’ Earthscan, London.) names the process to tackle wicked problems as ‘transcoherence’ that is, a form of coherence that transcends normalised constructs of epistemology named by the scientific paradigm. (Further see Kuhn, T., (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Uni of Chicago Press, Chicago. And Kuhn, T., (2000) The Road Since Structure. University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

What this means is that one cannot simply extricate oneself from the language of science because it is so deeply entwined in the methodology of science. Similarly, one can’t speak the language of faith by using STEM constructs or discourse. Language is the medium for science and so, an understanding of language, semantics and semiotics is essential for understanding how science understands itself. Therefore, STEM can only really understand itself by stepping beyond the constraints of the limits of its own epistemology, language and discourse. The language and semiotics of poetics is completely ‘other’ than STEM and enables a gateway into non-STEM thinking. Therefore, the foundational beliefs in empiricism, positivism and behaviourism need to be suspended if one seeks to understand wickedity. Similarly, the language of wicked problems requires a new language in order to understand it.

In Ashhurst’s thesis (2019) we observe that the language of STEM lacks the capacity to dialogue about Wicked Problems. One can’t take a STEM discourse (the power embedded in language) to a problem that is beyond it. This is because all language is ethically, socially and politically loaded and conforms to its own paradigm, therefore even its own language constrains its limitation of what is beyond it. This is why I suggested that Poetics is distinctly ‘other’ than STEM (https://safetyrisk.net/a-poetic-worldview/).

The challenge is that the STEM-only worldview indoctrinates itself into believing that all epistemology (knowledge) is understandable using a STEM-only lens, as if STEM methodology doesn’t create its own bias or epistemological blindness. Unfortunately, such conditioning constrains any chance of engaging in transdisciplinarity or transcoherence.

The nature of transcoherence and transdisciplinarity is a Catch 22 (Heller https://antilogicalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/catch-22.pdf ), a metaphor for the cyclic nature of intractable paradoxical unsolvable problems. One can’t analyse Catch 22 in scientific way but rather must ‘feel’ a Catch 22 because it is beyond analysis. Ashhurst (2012, Taming to tackling: Addressing numeracy achievement in low SES schools as a wicked problem. Master’s Thesis ANU, https://researchbank.acu.edu.au/theses/413/ ) captures the nature of circular reasoning in his icon/symbol for Wicked Problems. For an overview look here: http://www.nichethinking.net.au/Home_files/Wicked_Problems.pdf . Ashhurst uses the Gordian knot as a construct in his workshops to assist understanding wickedity and transcoherence. Such a semiotic is essential to understanding wickedity, similarly his PhD is infused with over 15 key metaphors that anchor his research to understanding.

The things beyond STEM cannot be understood by STEM, this is why the safety industry cannot understand its own religious nature or identify its ‘faith’ in zero. One would need to know a great deal from the likes of Douglas (‘Purity and Danger’, ‘Risk and Blame’, ‘Risk and Culture’) and Eliade (‘The Sacred and Profane’) to unravel the absurd contradictions in a STEM-infused industry like risk and safety to understand its soteriology. One can’t enter into a discussion of fallibility, suffering and ‘being saved’ without suspending STEM constructs and engaging in the language of faith (Long, 2018). The paradox is that the more religious the safety industry becomes the less it is equipped to understand itself.

To understand the existentialist or phenomenological nature of faith (and culture) requires stepping outside of STEM. It’s like saying one can understand the nature of paradox by analysing paradox as a system. Paradox is the contradiction of systemic thinking. The best way to understand paradox is to feel it. There is perhaps nothing more paradoxical in human experience than love. The best way to understand love is not to analyse it but to sing it, live it and feel it. The matters of the heart are not comprehended by the brain or cognition, just as the human mind is not served well by the computer metaphor.

Understanding the Centrality of Metaphor

How curious that humans create meaning out of indirect language in describing something obscurely via something else? This is what we do in metaphor. Humans express themselves and speak to each other in a constant flow of metaphor which is strangely pictorial, graphic and indirect. A clear metaphor in this last sentence is the word ‘flow’. The word ‘flow’ is descriptive but allows for interpretation that is, it cannot be controlled like language that is purely definitional. Think of the number the number of ways you could use the word ‘flow’ and that will give you an idea of its metaphorical power.

Whilst STEM wishes to control even language, Poetics does not. The mind of poetics knows that metaphor cannot be controlled but is rich in existential being. The best way to understand the difference is to tackle the following question: What is love? I’ll let St Paul answer the question:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Just as love has no technical definition so too Wicked Problems.

Metaphor is much more than just some semantic or linguistic technique indeed, to really understand metaphor one needs to step away from the STEM-only paradigm and enter a new way of knowing that engages with semiotics, semantics, semiosis, poetics and the semiosphere (Lotman 1990, https://monoskop.org/images/5/5e/Lotman_Yuri_M_Universe_of_the_Mind_A_Semiotic_Theory_of_Culture_1990.pdf). Metaphor itself is mysterious. In metaphor we experience a ‘sleight of hand’ in language that cannot be ‘unpacked’. The language of metaphor ads colour to experience just like semiotics ads value to a dream.

There are several helpful texts that tackle to nature of metaphor that are worth reading, these are:

Gibbs, R (ed.) (2008) ‘The Cambridge Handbook on Metaphor and Thought’. Cambridge University Press. London.

Lakoff, G., and Johson, M., (1980) ‘Metaphors We Live By’. University of Chicago Press. London. (http://www.cabrillo.edu/~ewagner/WOK%20Eng%202/Lakoff%20&%20Johnson%20-%20Metaphors%20We%20Live%20By.pdf)

Punter, D., (2007) ‘Metaphor’. Routledge. London.

Ricoeur, P., (1975) ‘The Rule of Metaphor, The Creation of Meaning in Language’. Routledge. London.

Trim, R., (2008) ‘Metaphor and The Historical Evolution of Conceptual Mapping’. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

Try reading one of the books listed above and see how you go.

If You Think It’s Just Semantics, You Don’t Understand

To some, this discussion of semantics-semiotics may seem a digression from the issue of wickedity. Those who claim that something is ‘just semantics’, clearly don’t understand semantics or semiosis. One can’t understand semantics from the STEM worldview. One can’t understand semiotics from such a worldview and a smattering of sociology or psychology doesn’t necessarily give such a view. Many of the social sciences have taken on the STEM paradigm in order to justify their existence to the dominant STEM worldview that exists in our education system.

If one doesn’t understand the dynamics of metaphor, it is not likely that one will understand wickedity. It was shown by Kuhn and associates that STEM doesn’t understand its own language nor the dynamics of language.

The risk and safety world is immersed so deeply in the STEM-only worldview that it is unlikely that it can understand wickedity. Instead, it will dismiss such language and support its own paradigm by using language like ‘complexity’. The use of language of ‘complexity’ is descriptive, technical and systemic, whilst the language of ‘wickedity’ is metaphorical, messy and poetic. A wicked problem cannot be served well by technical or systemic language because its very nature is beyond order, rules and method. Wickedity demands a new philosophy unconstrained by the methodology and language of STEM.

Again let us return to the language of love. Danesi (2019, ‘The Semiotics of Love’. Palgrave Macmillan, Toronto) shows that the most important matter for life and living – love, cannot be understood by STEM. Moreso, the moment one seeks some reductionist analysis of love, one kills it.

Love is lived though poetics, song, music, poetry, art, drama and literature. Love is lived through myth-symbol, rituals, faith, hope and poetics (Mascetti, D., 1994, ‘The Songs of Eve, Mythology and Symbols of the Goddess. Aurum Press. London). Even if one goes searching through neuroscience for the source of love, one won’t find it. Love is a mystery and in STEM doesn’t make sense indeed, STEM declares love irrational. From a STEM perspective love doesn’t make sense and based on archetypes and mythologies is irrational and dangerous. So too, with wickedity.

Taking a yardstick to wickedity is like taking the scientific method to love. The assumptions of STEM cannot be applied. Indeed, if they are applied will only lead to frustration and more mystery. Love is a wicked problem.

Vision for the Future

Where does this leave us with the paper ‘Safety – A Wicked Problem?’

  1. The first recommendation by CEOs in the report was to develop greater collaborative conversations on OHS issues. Unfortunately with the global mantra and ideology for safety set to zero (http://visionzero.global/) this simply cannot happen. One doesn’t enter into compromise for conversation from an absolute position. Zero is the ideology of no tolerance, zero is an ideology that doesn’t accept ‘the other’. As an absolute it can never converse because its binary methodology excludes and demonises non-compliant positions. There is no debate when the starting point is zero. This is demonstrated in the way Zero asks questions: ‘how many injuries do you want today?’ or in fallibility denying beliefs such as ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is a choice you make’. So the first recommendation of the Wagner paper can never get off the ground.
  2. The second recommendation to abandon deficit injury rate numbers is hardly making way against the headwind of safety mythology that now dominates the sector. The sacred cows of TRIFR and LTI have now been so cemented into the discourse of safety that any suggestion of their removal is feared and creates anxiety, even though the data in such is completely meaningless.
  3. The narrowness of the safety industry and the CEO desire in the report for greater breadth in understanding and influencing skills is smashed by a rigid WHS curriculum and Body of Knowledge (BoK) that places a priority on objects not subjects. With 75% of the industry focused on regulation it is not likely soon than any curriculum will be delivered to develop influencing skills or people skills.
  4. Coupled with a narrow WHS curriculum and BoK is a complete lack of interest in the risk and safety sector to broaden its knowledge and focus. This means that groups outside of risk and safety orthodoxy tend to carry a different approach to engaging the workforce and this simply creates more division, schism and discord. The demand by CEOs in the Wagner report for greater skills in engaging the workforce in conversation can only occur if other meaningless content that clutters the curriculum can be jettisoned.
  5. Since the Wagner report there has been no headway in the area of legislative framework. There is no harmony in WHS law and, there is an even greater focus on regulation as the defining nature of the industry. This was demonstrated clearly by the Boland Review. Surprise surprise, choose and ex-regulator to examine and review the Act and Regulation and the result is the development of more regulations. The problem is that the culture of the safety industry is toxified by this continued focus on safety bureaucracy and simply staves off any chance of reform. Safety should be about what happens on the ‘front line’ just as much about what happens in the boardroom.

There is much more that could be discussed about the Wagner paper with regard to a divided and disjointed industry consumed with zero and completely unable to tackle the realities of human fallibility. So, the policing mindset continues in the industry even further alienating the workplace from the real purpose of the safety industry – helping humans at work tackle risk effectively. What the industry needs more than ever is a sense of vision that can imagine improvements in safety not just the bureaucracy of safety.

It seems over the past 10 years since the Wagner report that the safety industry is less able to tackle risk and safety as a wicked problem. It seems less able to discuss, debate and engage in differing views about risk and the delusions of zero absolutism. Unless there is some interest and energy to step away from STEM ever so slightly, it is not likely that there will be either acknowledgement or skill development in tackling risk and safety as a wicked problem. Then in 10 years time the industry will have yet another look at itself and wonder why everything is the same.



Ashhurst (2012) Taming to tackling: Addressing numeracy achievement in low SES schools as a wicked problem. Master’s Thesis ANU, https://researchbank.acu.edu.au/theses/413

Ashhurst, C., (2019) One Team: Where Worlds Collide, The Development of Transcoherence for Tackling Wicked Problems. (PhD under examination. ANU)

Brown, V., Harris, J., and Waltner-Toews.,D., (eds.) (2019) Independent Thinking in an Uncertain World’ Earthscan, London.)

Churchman, C. West (December 1967). Wicked Problems. Management Science. 14 (4): B-141–B-146.

Conklin, J., (2006) Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. CogNexus Institute. In: Conklin, Jeffrey (2006). Dialogue mapping : building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England:

Click to access wickedproblems.pdf

Danesi (2019) The Semiotics of Love. Palgrave Macmillan, Toronto.

Douglas, M., (1966) Purity and Danger, an Analysis of the Concepts of Poluution and Taboo. Ark. London.

Douglas, M,. and Wildavsky, A., (1982) Risk and Culture. University of California Press. Berkley.

Douglas, M., (1992) Risk and Blame, Essays in Cultural Theory. Routledge. London. https://monoskop.org/images/1/1d/Douglas_Mary_Risk_and_Blame_Essays_in_Cultural_Theory_1994.pdf

Eliade, M., The Sacred and Profane. The Nature of Religion. Harvest Books. Orlando.

Festinger, L., (1957) A Theory of Cognitve Dissonance. Stanford University Press. Stanford

Gibbs, R (ed.) (2008) The Cambridge Handbook on Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press. London.

Kuhn, T., (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Uni of Chicago Press, Chicago. And Kuhn, T., (2000) The Road Since Structure. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.).

Lakoff, G., and Johson, M., (1980) Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. London. (http://www.cabrillo.edu/~ewagner/WOK%20Eng%202/Lakoff%20&%20Johnson%20-%20Metaphors%20We%20Live%20By.pdf)

Long, R., (2018) Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty. Scotoma Press. Kambah. https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/

Mascetti, D., (1994) The Songs of Eve, Mythology and Symbols of the Goddess. Aurum Press. London

Punter, D., (2007) Metaphor. Routledge. London.

Ricoeur, P., (1975) The Rule of Metaphor, The Creation of Meaning in Language. Routledge. London.

Rittel, Horst, J., and Webber, M., (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning Policy Sciences. 4 (2): 155–169.

Trim, R., (2008) Metaphor and The Historical Evolution of Conceptual Mapping. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

Wagner, P., (2010) Safety – A Wicked problem, Leading CEOs discuss their views on OHS Transformation. Peter Wagner and Associates.


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