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What Do We Do with Wicked Problems

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

Wicked Problems have two characteristics which make them particularly difficult to tackle:

  • There is no cause that can be easily identified, and rather there are several interconnected and highly complex causes.

  • There can be no one best solution that meets every need. Multiple solutions are needed, and they need to be applied simultaneously to dampen all the causes. This is very difficult to achieve.

Wicked Problems are like wildfires. They can start unexpectedly when a complex set of conditions combine. They spread uncontrollably, often without a clear pattern. When one area is tackled, they can re-emerge elsewhere, sometimes seemingly lying dormant for a while. And a great deal of coordinated effort is needed to control them.

But Wicked Problems are not intractable. There are techniques and actions we can deploy to bring them under control, and even resolve them.

Just don't expect it to be easy.

The Mindset for Solving Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems are complex and multi-faceted. They do not fit into a single box or category. They cannot be solved with a simple step-by-step approach, and they cannot be solved by tidy regimented minds.

We, accountants, are often very task orientated. We like to follow a plan and work through it in stages. Wicked Problems require a more flexible approach. To play a valuable role in solving Wicked Problems, we need to develop a more flexible mindset. To do this, we need to accept certain pre-conditions:

  1. We need to acknowledge that there is no single "perfect" solution to the problem. There is no "one size fits all." A Wicked Problem is addressed through a number of partial solutions, which, implemented together, will yield results.

  2. We need to accept that we have to do the best we can with the resources we have available. That means we need to be creative and flexible in our approach. Fixed viewpoints and entrenched positions will not help solve the problem.

  3. We need to realise that a diverse range of skills and experiences will be needed to tackle the problem. The finance team alone cannot do it. Problem-solving teams need to be formed involving people from all parts and all levels of the organisation, from production line workers, to warehouse operatives, to technicians, engineers, and managers. We even have to include those dreaded folks from marketing!

  4. We need to accept that while expertise in the areas affected by the problem is important, it is not sufficient. Anyone might have the insight and inspiration to provide ideas that will contribute to solving the problems. The hobbies, personal interests, and diverse backgrounds of anyone in the organisation could provide valuable input.

  5. We need to realise the conformity is unhelpful and that dissent, with positive intent, is to be encouraged. Simply agreeing with everything, the "leaders" suggest will lead to ineffective solutions. Active questioning with a positive frame of mind must be encouraged. Constructive dissent among the group is vital to develop the range of ideas and potential solutions that will be needed.

These points bring us to a manifesto for solving Wicked Problems.

The Manifesto for Solving Wicked Problems

It can be useful for a problem-solving group to create a manifesto for their work together. This is an agreement of how the group want to work together and the behaviours they want to encourage. They are often written up in what is called a Team Charter and posted on the wall where the group is working.

When dealing with the extreme complexity of a Wicked Problem, I prefer the term manifesto. Each group should create their own, but here is my starter for ten:

  • We ask questions rather than provide answers.

  • Everyone's point is worthy of serious consideration.

  • We believe in collective intelligence over individual "genius."

  • We encourage relationship building and collaboration over adherence to structures and hierarchies.

  • We take time to reflect rather than react (ideas often come slowly).

  • We encourage constructive criticism and questioning.

  • We imaginatively use the resources that are available to us.

  • We work as a team equal in status and stature.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we introduce a strategy to deal with wicked problems.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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