Wicked Solutions for Wicked Problems

Wicked Solutions for Wicked Problems
09/09/2016 Brian Petersen


We all face problems. To be politically correct, we sometimes call them challenges. Or just work. But sometimes, the problems facing us are so difficult that lose that optimism. We no longer have the energy to joke about them or to find euphemisms which make us feel good.  In fact, we start to lose confidence.  We wonder if there is something wrong with us.  We go around in circles, alternating between increasing our efforts and giving up.  The problem starts nagging us, even when we try to focus on something else.  All of these are symptoms that we are dealing with a wicked problem.

The term “Wicked Problems” is, strange as it may sound, a scientific term.  It was defined for the first time by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 treatise on Social Planning. A wicked problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.  And because of complex interdependencies, solving one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.  Commonly used examples of wicked problems include climate change, drug trafficking, social injustice, healthcare and nuclear weapons.

As business managers, it is inevitable that we run into wicked problems. And often, our business success depends on solving them.  The reason why it is so important to know when we are facing a wicked problem is that we need to use different techniques to solve them.  Analysis, rationale, theory or blood, sweat and tears will not solve them.  An Aha experience will.

The “a-ha moment” is the moment where there is suddenly a clear forward path.  Most of us have had this experience.  It happens when a new insight or a new perspective suddenly allows us to see the problem in a new light. We can suddenly draw on our own resources to solve the problem ourselves with very little effort, generating great personal satisfaction, learning and results.

When we are stuck, it is usually because we have a mental fixation on some aspect of the problem – and this blocks us from seeing the solution. Mental fixations – or limiting beliefs and convictions – exist at the level of individuals, teams and organizations. They range from incorrect factual data or lack of knowledge, to personal beliefs and convictions about anything (business, colleagues, myself….).  In my blog “This is Why your Company is not Winning”, I explain how these frustrating situations slow down business progress in all companies.

Working with an outsider is the best way solve wicked problems.  To find this mental fixation, shed light on it, and help you see the issue from a new and different perspective.  The more tools that your outsider has to work with (coaching, mentoring, training, teaching, facilitating, problem solving, etc), the faster he or she can help you solve your problem.

With a bit of external inspiration and guidance, you can see the way forward, with clarity and joy.

It’s possible.


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