Sometimes command and control is exactly what makes it all work

Andrea writes: Last weekend I attended The Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia with my Mom and some close friends.
Other than the trees, the beautiful azaleas, and of course the golf, at The Masters you can’t help but notice the fluidity and order that ensures everything gets done in a certain way.
No one runs. No one shouts, “Get in the hole!” There is no autograph-seeking. If you place your chair at the 18th hole, it will be there, untouched, when you return. When you line up in a very long queue to buy lunch, it all works incredibly smoothly.

It’s estimated about 35,000 people attend on each of the 4 days, and it is ever so orderly. Observing the thousands of attendees –it struck me that sometimes Command and Control, and its orders of hierarchy, can really work. As I watched what is arguably the most prestigious golf tournament in the world I asked myself: So how does it all work?


The Masters, like golf itself, is heavy with rules, etiquette, and expected decorum, most of it in place for decades. For instance, there are only certain places you can walk, times you can move, strict rules about when silence is required, and when and how you are allowed to cheer.
Occurrences such as cheering at the wrong time, are rare at The Masters “but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.” This 1967 quote is from Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Junior, President in Perpetuity of the Augusta National Golf Club. Little has changed since then and the expectations for certain behaviours carry over generation after generation.


There are clear and unwritten yet well-understood agreements among all the stakeholders in the world of golf. Although Augusta National is arguably among the strictest arbiter of rules and decorum, all private clubs (and many public ones) expect a certain level of customized behaviour that is agreed on culture in the sport. Agreements among the stakeholders uphold the expected customs, etiquette and decorum.


As well as unwritten agreements to follow the rules, and the many polite and cheerful staff moving everyone along (even through the restrooms), there are carrots and sticks to ensure compliance.
Tickets to The Masters are won, through a carefully managed lottery. If you follow the rules you can attend the most celebrated golf tournament in the world, at one of the very best clubs in the world, and take your friends and family as guests, for life. Extremely prestigious as a public sporting event, tickets are much sought after.

If you don’t follow the agreed upon rules and etiquettes, your tickets are forfeited forever.
When at Augusta for The Masters, without your prohibited cell phone, eating your egg salad sandwich on soft white bread with a cup of pink lemonade, you can’t help but feel you have been transported back in time. Certainly no one would suggest that there is a modern or “moving with the times” feel to Augusta and The Masters – which is both remarkable and somehow quite lovely.


The benefit is that thousands of people, circulating in a coordinated and orderly fashion, navigating fast food lines, and quick restroom breaks, enjoy for a brief time a revered and time-honoured institution that has managed to resist most calls for change – at least for now.

What is the cost for such order? The need for incredible manpower – a very large number of staff members monitoring and controlling patrons and ensuring compliance – is evident. Strict adherence to rules, and immediate consequences for rule breakers is mandatory. Emergence and creativity is left to the golfers.

In a complex and dynamic world, a VUCA world (see previous post) golf clubs still have the luxury of control that few organizations, try as they might, can afford to keep.

Why Wicked Problems Need a Complexity Lens

Andrea responds: Wicked problems are like complexity. They have interdependent agents that interact in unpredictable ways and produce a pattern or emergent trend. They are non-linear, their “cause” and “effect” can be simultaneous (does eating too much cause you to be obese? OR does being obese cause you to eat too much?). The solutions can therefore have unintended consequences (does forcing kids to exercise make you more stressed? and more likely to eat? less likely to exercise?).
Each linear solution is wrapped up in contradicting forces and opposing perspectives that keep the current status in place. Some of the solutions to a Wicked Problem can emerge from seeing it through a complexity lens, and using lessons learned from complex adaptive systems.
I first ran into the term “wicked problems” at an Art of Hosting seminar in Pembroke in 2009. The Art of Hosting brought together professionals who wanted to tackle Wicked Problems in the world by hosting conversations that matter.
The people at Art of Hosting and other groups using whole system semi-structured conversations believe that there is no simple solution to a Wicked Problem. They hope that getting as much of the system – and as many stakeholders as possible – in one space, and asking “Wicked Questions” may provide the beginnings of a solution. Wicked Problems can involve many stakeholders with competing and complementing information, values and perspectives. The solution involves unlocking as much new and diverse information as possible in order to find new and generative patterns in the system.
This is not to say there is no solution to Wicked Problems. For example, childhood obesity has begun to drop in the last couple of years.
Viewing the Wicked Problem as a whole system issue, and inviting as many stakeholders as possible to the table, can bring greater clarity to system mapping, and enhance the possibility of enabling potential solutions to emerge.

Complexity and Wicked Problems

We hear people talking about “wicked problems”. We’re thinking that global warming is a wicked problem but is the conflict in Syria and the Ukraine? Is the missing Malaysian airliner? Is the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada a wicked problem? Is the extreme poverty in developing countries positioned alongside extreme wealth and waste in the developed world a wicked problem? Is traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto a wicked problem? So we asked ourselves – what exactly is a wicked problem anyway?

Horst Rittel, Professor of the Science of Design, and his colleague Melvin Webber, Professor of City Planning at Berkley are said to have coined the term in a 1973 paper titled Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

A wicked problem, they wrote, is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in the traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. They are said to be stubborn, intransigent and even hard to describe. It is difficult to actually define “the problem” because there are so many factors to consider.

Lawrence J. Peter (a Canadian scholar famous for describing the Peter Principle) once said, “Some problems are so complex you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them”.

Wicked problems are said to be tough or even impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, dynamic and interlocking factors that are often hard to recognize and describe. Wicked problems resist being de-constructed or de-layered (people refer to the analogy of peeling an onion). Solutions are rarely right or wrong but better, worse, good enough or not good enough, say many social complexity theorists.

So it’s likely that global warming can be considered a wicked problem and maybe the conflict in Syria. The situation in Ukraine seems more straightforward as does the missing Malaysian airliner? The growing gap between rich and poor in Canada is solvable with social policy so maybe not a wicked problem? The global equivalent probably fits the criteria because the solutions are less obvious and more diverse people, cultures, governments and societies are involved and must be engaged to care. Traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto probably not, since solutions are quite clear – more transit and bike lanes, with incentives not to travel alone by car.

We’ll be watching for more on “wicked problems” and likely revisiting this topic again. We’d love to hear what you think?