Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Flames are a Wicked Problem

I came across something the other day that had to do with coming to consensus on fighting global warming, and the more I read it, the more I felt it applied directly to the current issues (and ongoing management) of our dearest Flames. The team is a "wicked" problem. That is,
"...a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize." (wikipedia)

Read on for the nerdiest blog item ever...

The term "wicked problem" was developed back in the 70's by some operations management eggheads (Rittel & Webber), and it has since been employed to describe a multitude of complex social problems. Where it gets really interesting, is that it intuitively reveals some of the Flames problems and suggests methods of making decisions that are somewhat contrary to the classical approach (i.e. gather data, analyze, forumlate solution, implement, exit playoffs in the first round, repeat).

First, I think I can establish that the Flames are in fact, a wicked problem. Some of the characteristics are a little airy, (e.g. "every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem"), but I have a list I "appropriated" from this article by Jeff Conklin:

1. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution (or, why no one saw the Red Mile coming). The more we debate overpaid blue liners, underperforming veterans, trade prospects, coaches, managers, blah, blah, blah, it becomes obvious that all we have is a sea of opinions and no one really knows what the "perfect team" looks like. Any attempt at describing the problem (my fave: "The team effin sucks"), is full of holes and provides no direction. Even more so when trying to lay blame at the feet of a particular player.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule (or, what have you done for me lately). Sure, you can say the goal is to, "Bring home the cup," but is that true? Do you mean this year, next year, or always and forever? How does that goal apply to the Toronto Maple Leafs going into game number 55 with no prospects of a playoff berth? The problem will never be solved. Even if you manage to accomplish some sort of temporary goal (ahem... end a 7 game losing streak), there is always another problem over the horizon.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, (or, why some people still like Todd Bertuzzi). Any decision in hockey is full of shades of grey. We may not like Jokinen paired with Iginla, but its not really "wrong". Its just potentially "worse" than playing Langkow with Iginla, and probably "better" than playing Iggy along side a well trained monkey. Probably.

4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique or novel (or, why the Flames really aren't the Maple Leafs). Sorry WI, had to take the shot. Our problems may be similar, but they're not really the same. This is at the heart of why trades make sense; different guys work better or worse in different settings.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation" (or, could you please stop whining and start winning already). No matter what we think about hockey managers, its tough to fix a plane while its still in the air. You have to play the games and we need the wins, like now (or more correctly, like yesterday).

6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions (or, why Kovalchuk is probably not the answer). In our current situation, there may actually be no solution, but more likely there are a thousand different solutions of varying quality. Picking up another overpaid player who can score in the Southeast Division is only one possibility, and probably not a great one for this season or the long term health of the team. From what we've seen, the authors and peanut gallery at M&G could make up a team in the SE and finish 2nd to Ovie's boys.

So does this suggest a way to get the team fired up and winning? Who should we hire/fire/trade/waive? A lot of the wicked problem theory around "solutions" is at a very high level, involving corporate retreats, facilitators, management consultants, sharing feelings, sweat lodges, and all kinds of charts. Aside from the sweats, none of it really works for hockey people. Also, I'm the last one to be able to make any inroads on hockey details, but I think some conclusions can be made.

To some extent I think we are fortunate that we have a team where the ownership doesn't seem to meddle and there a couple of guys running things who aren't afraid to make a risky decision. Also, the Sutters have awesome hockey pedigrees which should give them a fair amount of traction with the locker room, both in terms of motivation and education. Still, there are a few things that are obviously not happening, and fixing them could provide benefits. Seriously, this stuff is straight out of the management literature:

Buy-in and cohesion - This is probably the most obvious problem plaguing the Flames, it formed a big part of their success in '04, and is the #1 recommendation that falls out of this vein of management theory. When the guys come back from getting spanked 9-1, then put up a lackluster effort against Chicago and lose to St. Louis (!?!), you know their hearts aren't in it. At this level of skill, motivation (and some luck) makes up the last 6 inches that makes a goal FOR instead of AGAINST. I think the first step is to eliminate the bad energy (I'm looking at you, Dion Cuthbert). Second would be to find out what the individual players actually want, since most of them already have money and still play like crap. After that, its a case of building confidence and setting guys up to succeed, which is exceptionally difficult, but its been done before.

Feedback loops - Right now we have two brothers at the top of the pyramid. Although they might have the odd argument between them, the way they keep going back to the same failed tactics suggests to me that there is an element of group think between them. Considering the short number of games remaining, we need someone in the loop who can say, "That didn't work the last time coach," and actually be respected. Who is this person? I think the list is pretty short, but could involve Gilly, Iggy, or maybe even Connie (mostly because his nickname fits the rhyme scheme). Daz and Butter need an ego check.

Questions - In this theory, questions are important in themselves, and don't necessarily need to have answers. What would happen if we somehow got Ponikarovsky? Who is the best centerman for Iggy (on the team/in the league/of all time)? What is going to happen when Kipper smokes his last butt as a Calgary Flame? The questions are meant to illustrate strengths and weaknesses and help to split up issues that are otherwise mixed together. For example, the question on who's Iginla's best center? If its Lanks, maybe that means he needs talent; Connie-motivation; O.J.-comic relief; Chris Simon-pure goalie distraction. I don't know the answer, but the question helps to suggest what factors make Iginla successful. Lucky for us, we have a big blog community that is more than willing to ask (and attempt to answer) questions ad infinitum. I sure hope Darryl and Brent are reading some of them.

Hitting rock bottom - There's no getting around it, one of the best ways to "tame" a wicked problem is to have the problem get WORSE. This tends to close out most of the solution space and force action, and when you're really bad, almost any action is good. Sad to say, but if we're not going to make an effort to go all the way, its time to start rebuilding for next season. If you want a signal that the boys are moving this direction, his name is Mikael Backlund. (Unfortunately, this probably also applies to WI and myself drinking at the games. Until some usher actually punts us, we're going to continue making asses of ourselves.)

There you go, a whole bunch of management spew to come down to a few ideas on how to think about the hockey team from now through to the summer. Definitely a lot of BS in the conclusions, but its a fun way to analyze the issues and the closest I've seen to a theory on how to deal with a problem that you can't actually describe.

In the meantime, can I get a, "Go Flames!"?


awildermode said...

nice write up. there are thousands of opinions on how to 'fix' this team. and we both know that the only solution is to retire Theo's number...okay, I just had to put that in.

This team is good, like you said, just needs that extra 6 inches..and a lot of luck.

oh, and GO FLAMES!!!

mikeH said...

Based on how wide Iggy's shots are lately, he might actually need a foot or two worth of confidence and motivation to start sinking them.

I was getting super long winded, but part of this "wicked" concept is that when you move one piece, everything else responds, and causes unforeseen issues crop up. What you need isn't a "solution", but a process that allows you to manage the issues knowing that they are coming, and part of that is teamwork.

And Theo's number will be in the rafters one day, no doubt about that... I guess that assumes he doesn't do something titanically stupid in the meantime. :)

awildermode said...

MikeH- I think it is time to embrace Avatar, rather than Titanic. With that, I hope Theo does not do something avatarlly stupid...again.

walkinvisible said...

1. the question left unasked is this: is this post REALLY good ? or really REALLY effin'good ?

2. if "gilly" is not ryan mcgill, then i'm not sure who he is.

3.i'm pretty sure now that our wicked problem is made up of pints of cool, amber heroin. it makes us difficult to recognize and occasionally contradictory.

4.dion cuthbert, for some reason, made me laugh out loud. not as much as the dwight quote from the office tonight, though, "R is among the most threatening of sounds. That's why they call it 'murder' instead of 'mukduk'."

5.this team is in a boatload of trouble.

Arik said...

Great post. However..."Any decision in hockey is full of shades of grey. We may not like Jokinen paired with Iginla, but its not really "wrong". Its just potentially "worse" than playing Langkow with Iginla, and probably "better" than playing Iggy along side a well trained monkey. Probably."
I'm pretty sure Jokinen IS a well trained monkey.

PS- thanks for the shout out on Monday WI, but I'll believe I'm on the blogroll when I see it.

mikeH said...

This team is in effin trouble, I've almost given up. At least I should get to hear Beasley at GM Place in February.

awildermode: I actually haven't seen either Titanic or Avatar (which I still plan on getting to). Its more a direct reference to the idea of sinking a massive, steaming pile of slag to the bottom of the ocean.

wi: I did mean Ryan McGill. And the problem with wicked problems is this: Are the mass quantities of alcoholic beverages that we consume the problem, or only a symptom? :) Myself, I prefer to think of them as a SOLUTION.

Arik: No doubt. Although I subscribe to the theory that Joker is a space alien, banished to earth because he has no talent. Congo could have kicked his butt.

walkinvisible said...


of course, i TOTALLY put you on the blogroll the other day but i forgot to hit "save." this is 100% true and i would pass a test (and gladly participate) if you knew a reliable, free polygraph guy.

let me know if this becomes an option.

Arik said...

Well, I AM US military...

Also, I appreciate the effort, but I'm definitely not "the 4th Line Pass" ;-)

walkinvisible said...

*sigh* that was me trying to make things right with little-to-no time to do it....
it's better now. forgive me ?

stationned where ? i MUST know. :)

Arik said...

In the lovely city of Boston, hopefully I'll be there for my Coast Guard career.

By the way, I love the **BLOG**. Made my otherwise very depressing night a little brighter.

walkinvisible said...

wicked smaht !!!

i'm glad for the smile, dude. i do what i can... :)

Arik said...

Oh god, I refuse to ever go native and staht drahping my ahs. Or dropping my r's.

awildermode said...

problem is still wicked