A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.Wikipedia, December 2018
An Introduction to Wicked Problems
I was introduced to the concept of Wicked Problems, by Ruven Gotz, in his great workshop at the SharePoint Conference in May 2018. It was a very productive day, and the concept of Wicked Problems has been rolling-around in my head ever since.
I’ve managed hundreds of projects, and some of them are just at a completely different level of treachery. To call these projects difficult is a gross understatement. They move, they change and they grow. It is even difficult to get consensus on their scope—they’re just WICKED!
Two types of problems have been identified by Sociologists; Tame problems, and Wicked problems.
Tame problems can be difficult, but once they’re solved, they stay solved. Their goals are easy to communicate, and well-defined. An often-cited example of an extremely difficult but Tame problem is President Kennedy’s challenge in the 1960’s to get a man to the Moon and to safely return him to Earth. There is no doubt this was hard to do, but it was clear to everyone what the target was and once they figured it out, they could do it again. It also had a distinct end point, when they knew they had achieved it.
Wicked problems doesn’t refer to being evil (although sometimes they feel that way), but they have an extremely complex nature; they’re untamable and tenacious. They’ve been described as a moving target; they can’t be fully solved because people have differing definitions of the problem, and the definitions are often seen as opinions. They’re perceived differently depending on who you talk to, and they tend to divide people. A few examples of Wicked problems are; Poverty, Racism, Climate Change, Business Strategy, Globalization, Politics, and Organizational Change. Along with their definitions being seen as opinions, their solutions usually are too.
Wicked problems may extend to cover a great area, but the problem is often unique in different regions. For example, the problem of poverty in Mississippi is very similar but uniquely different than poverty in the Congo.
A Wicked problem is a conglomeration of many problems. It is impossible to solve poverty without also dealing with homelessness, hunger, a living wage, child welfare, education, and many other issues.
Success is hard, if not impossible, to measure. This is often because solutions work slowly, or have many stages to them. Solutions can only be rated as good or bad, not true or false. Solutions are so complex, that you have to implement them to see if they work. You can’t really test a Wicked solution, and you just get one shot at implementing them.
- Not understood until you have the solution
- No stopping point
- No true/false or right/wrong answer, just better/worse
- No way to test a solution or learn by trial & error. Every attempt counts significantly.
- Connected to and consisting of other problems
- Resistant to change
Intranets are Wicked
For most established businesses, when it comes to their Intranets, the majority of these boxes are checked. If you’ve ever worked on an Intranet project, I think you’ll agree that they are Wicked projects.
Wicked Problems are Solved with Wicked Thinking
Solving a wicked problem requires recognizing it, embracing it, and being just as tenacious and wicked as the problem is. Wicked problems are in a completely different category with so many more dimensions; but so are their opportunities and rewards.
Transformational not Incremental
Innovation may solve complex problems, but transformation is required for a Wicked problem to be solved. Invention and completely new thinking are needed.
Big Picture Thinking
Pattern recognition is needed to make sense of Wicked problems. Not just analyzing trends, but you need to uncover patterns, cluster ideas and events. The more data you can work with, the more patterns you’ll likely uncover. It is a matrix from which new solutions, new ideas, new services and products can come.
Since the beginning of time, businesses have siloed ideas and disciplines. These traditions don’t work with Wicked problems. To tackle Wicked problems, we must embrace “transdisciplinarity” thinking and action. Traditional barriers have to be removed. This is a new type of mindset to most businesses, and in society as well. We need to foster environments that have a positive relationship with the type of volatile solutions these thinkers produce.
Imperfection is OK
Iterative solutions that give you room to change your mind, learn along the way, and change direction are necessary. The complexity of these problems make it nearly impossible to end up where you initially think you will.
Mistakes will happen and making a mistake, especially big ones, are no fun. We need to view failure in a different light. There’s a lot to learn from jazz, where there aren’t really mistakes—it is all about the progress.
Having spent a lot of time in a culture of over-perfection, I can tell you first-hand that the expectation of perfection is solution-stifling. With Wicked problems you need room to change your mind, challenge where you are, and where you’re going. Judgment has no place in Wicked projects.
Leverage complexity rather than kill it
Nature moves from simplicity to complexity as a sign of growth and maturity. Plants and animals evolve as they learn more about their environment. When we adopt a view that provides solutions that grow in complexity and change as more details are uncovered, we will begin to realize that complexity is actually the catalyst for new ideas that can solve Wicked problems.
Having a “fortress mentality” with traditional command and control operations doesn’t solve Wicked problems, it makes them more wicked. Focus on creating new worlds from multiple views rather than drawing lines in the sand. The more complex the world is, the bigger our canvas becomes.