Robert E. Horn

Robert E. Horn

Researcher at the Human Science and Technology Advanced Research Institute, Stanford University

Organisations that deal with long-term social, commercial or organisational policy planning, have to face complex, ever changing planning problems that cannot be successfully treated with traditional linear, analytical approaches. These issues, called “wicked problems” or “social messes” in the early ‘70s for their non-objectively assessable nature, causes, boundaries and solutions, are currently at the core of Robert Horn’s widely interdisciplinary studies in Visual Language. This political scientist, whose academic career in policy communication, social learning, and knowledge management encompasses Harvard, Columbia, Sheffield, and lately Stanford, has worked since the 60’s to provide methodologies to analyze and communicate any complex subject matter to public and private organizations including governments and several Global 1000 companies. At Falling Walls Robert Horn will explain how his methodology is enabling the use of highly visual cognitive maps and small group processes to aid the policy making process related to government social programs, bureaucracy, and strategic issues such as nuclear waste disposal.  

Breaking the Wall of Organisational Ignorance. How Visual Language Supports Decision Making about Wicked Problems and Social Messes


My talk is breaking the walls of organisational ignorance with visual language and dealing with, in particular, wicked problems and social messes. I am going to tell you three stories about social messes and wicked problems, but before I do that I have to say a few words – both about visual language and about social messes themselves. Now, what am I doing here? There aren’t any departments of visual language any place in any university that I know of. Certainly no university would have a department of social messes. Nevertheless, there are many of us who are working directly with this question. At least in the last ten years, business and government decision makers have come to recognise that some of the largest issues, the largest risks, the largest unknowns and uncertainties, fall into the domain of what we are now in some areas calling wicked problems or alternatively social messes.
We define social messes as an interrelated set of problems – and other messes. Perhaps the best way to describe it a bit is to give some of the characteristics of these kinds of social messes. They are complex; they are often ambiguous. There is no standard view of what is going on. They are highly constrained; they exist among great resistance to change and are tightly interconnected, have great uncertainty, many value conflicts, and are wrapped in major conflicts of interest.
Why is this important? Because messes represent the context in which business and government strategies are made. They are the underlying situations that produce what we call the uncertainties and risks involved in business and government strategy.
Here is a systems diagram of a mess. You can start anywhere in it and go anywhere in it. I start, for example, looking at the inner city in America, the connection with drug gangs, which connect to the US governments’ war on drugs – a very expensive proposition, which connects to the country of Columbia, where the drug is growing, and the war on the Mexican border that has cost 20,000 lives in the last three or four years – and Afghanistan, oh yes, the major supplier of heroin.
So, I could go on with all of these connections in greater detail, but one question is: how do you even name a “mess” then? Well, I call it sometimes the inner-city-drug- war-drug-gangs-drop-out-rate-unemployment-prison-guards-Mexico-Columbia- Afghanistan mess.
But naming really isn’t the issue, although it does help us to keep remembering that we are dealing with a mess. The challenge is how do we usefully work with messes? Our parliaments and legislatures are struggling, especially with the fast-moving social messes. I am not going to solve all this for you in the next nine minutes, but I do want to point out exactly these criteria, and to note that we are not talking about textbook examples, such as creating a building or certain kinds of engineering where simple fixing broken systems is the issue. The big important lesson is: don’t treat a mess like an ordinary problem.
My next topic is visual language – something, which I spent a bit of time doing, studying the syntax and semantics of it. It is roughly defined as the tight integration of words, images and shapes, each doing what they do best in a communication unit.
You have seen a great deal of visual language in the slides by the other presenters today. I am going to show you a bit about how we have used visual language as well as group process to work on some of the messes that I have just been referring to.
Case study number one: radioactive waste disposal. Everybody recognises that it is a major issue; some countries have done better than others. We were asked by the UK agency in charge of radioactive waste disposal to create some kind of an understanding of what was happening in the UK on radioactive waste disposal. We created, among other things, a very large information mural that contains several hundred visual elements, several hundred verbal elements, each of them tightly integrated. It conveys, among other things, the 12,000-year plan that the UK is developing and is about to present to her Majesty’s government. What was the purpose of this particular exercise? Well, the managing director said to us: “We have had difficulty aligning the whole organisation around multiple aspects of this plan.”
Zooming in a little bit, you can see the tight integration of the words and visual elements – the visuals help you see some patterns and relationships that you might not otherwise see. The verbal elements handle the various levels of abstraction. As you can see from this slide, we changed the way time is presented. We stretched it. The left-hand third of the slide has about 50 years – the history of the nuclear age. Then the near present, which is the decision-making arena for managers and executives – two or three years into the past and two or three years into the future, and then, finally, the 12,000-year plan.
Case number two: this is an international case. We worked with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Geneva. It was an 18-month project with 29 senior strategists from major transnational companies; some of them here in Germany: Volkswagen and Vattenfall. The major question was: if we imagine a relatively prosperous world in 2050, can we actually get there? My job was synthesiser and visualiser. What you can see on that mural is 350 milestones along 10 different tracks that the team of strategists over this 18-month period worked on and developed. On the right-hand side are 70 measures of success. “If you cannot measure it, you probably cannot get there.”
Some of the tracks are energy and power, mobility, agriculture, forests, buildings, manufacturing, governance, people and so forth. The process that we used for that was to backcast; that is to start with the vision, the relatively optimistic vision and then figure out what has to be in place in the 2040s for this to happen, and then 2030s, 2020s and so forth. In the decade we are in now, the 2010s, there are 40, what we call, “must haves”. Zooming into the slide, they are the yellow boxes you see there. I am sorry we don’t have a chance to spend very much time discussing individual ones. But, I imagine that suites of these kinds of murals, each from a different point of view, because there are multiple points of view in messes, can be presented in decision rooms like this, and in seminar rooms in universities. That is one of the ways we will be able to handle messes.
Case three. In this case I want to particularly emphasise a local case. We have now done a national policy case, an international mess, and this is a local county-size mess in Scotland. There we used both visual language and very structured group process, which I will explain briefly. We had a task force of some 30 people who were working on the delivery of public mental health services in Scotland in the county of Fife. We presented them first with a template of what we call a mess map. It is messy; it contains – the technical term for it is “blobs”. We found, by the way, in experimentation that blobs are much easier for people to work with than really tight little rectangles. We asked the group themselves to fill in what they saw as the problems, because remember a mess is an interrelated set of problems – and other messes.
Zooming in on it, we looked at it from different angles. This was from the executive angle, which looked at only the budgets and personnel but not the real problems. A quantitative look at the issue as well. And here is a rather vivid look that one of the directors of mental health provided for us: how it was felt, how it was seen, how it was experienced by people.
So, my summary. Remember this: don’t treat a social mess as a regular problem.
Visual language can help you with the multiple points of view, the patterns, the context, and put that together with facilitated group process; and the action research to can help people at different levels with their messes. Thank you.