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The Wicked Problem

This lesson is a part of an audio course Creative Problem Solving by Ross Maynard

Wicked Problems are problems where there are many interconnected components. Move one lever and another lever somewhere we might not have thought of, moves in the opposite direction. These are problems with many interconnected causes and many consequences which, themselves, drive further causes.

A Wicked Problem is a self-perpetuating cycle of considerable complexity. In a society as a whole, there are many Wicked Problems:

  • Climate Change.

  • The Health Impacts versus the Economic Impacts Of COVID19.

  • Plastics Pollution.

  • Affordable Healthcare and Social Care.

  • Poverty.

  • Homelessness.

  • Addiction.

  • Crime.

  • Deforestation.

The good news is that Wicked Problems are relatively rare in business, but they do, occur so it is worth developing the skills that can help tackle them. Examples of Wicked Problems in Business include:

  • New enterprise I.T. systems. With many competing user requirements, vested interests, and professional cynics, there are many ways that the implementation of a new I.T. system can go wrong. That's why a new I.T. implementation is best treated as a Wicked Problem.

  • Industrial accidents. If there is a serious accident in your business, then there is the potential for it to engulf the whole organisation. Think Deepwater Horizon, but it is not just large organisations that can be affected. The discovery of norovirus or salmonella in a catering business can have serious ramifications; or the discovery of contaminants in the firm's products. Every organisation has the potential to suffer some sort of accident that can lead to impacts that spiral out of control.

  • Hacking and fraud. Invoice scams, hacking into business systems, and hacking computer systems are all serious risks for all businesses and unnervingly common. Several British universities have recently had their data stolen through the hacking of a cloud-based platform, and many companies have had their IT systems held to ransom.

  • Social media trolling. In the social media age, there is an infinite opportunity for someone to be outraged by some aspect of your business operation. Negative campaigns against the business have the potential for that to spiral out of control and cause immense damage.

  • Pandemic. The current COVID19 crisis and the challenging of maintaining business operations and surviving in these difficult times is definitely a Wicked Problem.

How Do We Know If a Problem Is a Wicked Problem?

In the previous lesson, I introduced a set of six indicators to determine if a problem is a Tame Problem. If the problem isn't covered by any of those indicators, then it is a Wicked Problem.

A problem is "Wicked" when you don't know what to do, and the danger arises when there is pressure to "do something." This can lead to decisive, but wrong, action. The first step with a Wicked problem is to pause and reflect. Slow, careful analysis of the problem from many aspects is required.

With a Wicked Problem, the real skill is not in removing the uncertainty but in managing to remain effective despite it. The ability to tolerate anxiety but to ensure it does not lead to panic or is denied (leading to inaction) is vital.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we discuss what we can do when faced with a wicked problem.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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