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A Strategy to Deal with Wicked Problems

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

My advice, when faced with a Wicked Problem, is to throw everything you can at it!

The complex interactions involved in Wicked Problems mean that they cannot be solved by one individual, or a small group, using a step-by-step method.

Wicked Problems require collaborative problem-solving, and that means multiple problem-solving teams working on different aspects of the issue using as wide a variety of tools as possible.

Wicked Problem solving requires a "shotgun" approach in the hope that some of the teams will make progress. Remember, there is no one best solution to a Wicked Problem. There will be multiple solutions that deal with different elements of the problem, but these need to be implemented in a planned and coordinated approach, or aspects of the problem will get worse.

Wicked Problems need Clumsy Solutions!

Clumsy Solutions

A Clumsy solution is a group working together collaboratively with the knowledge and resources they have to hand, always questioning that they are doing the right thing, and striving to identify a workable solution – not necessarily the best or most elegant – but one that is achievable and workable.

Wicked problems are solved, or at least ameliorated, by collective (group) intelligence, not by any individual moments of genius (or at least rarely). Group cohesion is important to this, and building group cohesion requires empathy – seeing things from each other's point of view.

So how do we create clumsy problem-solving?

Clumsy Problem Solving

Wicked Problems require clumsy solutions. By definition, this is trying lots of different things to see what works.

Clumsy problem-solving is not an efficient way to solve most business problems. A structured approach is much more efficient for dealing with most problems – those are the Tame Problems we have already covered.

But Wicked Problems have multiple interconnected causes and develop complex, and often self-fulfilling, consequences. Step-by-step approaches are too restrictive and too slow. With a Wicked Problem, we need to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.

Clumsy Problem Solving involves three elements:

  • The creation of a central group coordinating the feedback from the problem-solving teams to see how well it fits together and how it might be applied. This central group does not manage the individual teams but can suggest new questions for them to look into, or create new teams to look at new aspects of the problem.

  • The establishment of a number of problem-solving teams looking at different aspects of the problem. The more teams we have, the more hope we have of finding workable solutions.

  • The use, by the problem-solving teams, of a wide range of tools and techniques to analyse the problem. Almost anything goes. There is no tool or technique too daft to be worth trying.

Let us look at these elements in more detail.

The Coordinating Team

Wicked problems need diverse groups of people using a variety of different approaches. Every Wicked Problem will have complex interlinked antecedents, and there is no clear way to address it. Consequently, rather than follow one line of enquiry, multiple routes have to be tried.

The best way to do this is to set up several problem-solving teams and task them with analysing different aspects of the problem and identifying plausible possible solutions. A Coordinating Team is needed to tie together the work of the different teams and to ensure that the findings of each are shared and used to stimulate further exploration of the issues.

The Coordinating Team should comprise representatives with a range of background experience and of thinking styles to ensure that ideas are not dismissed too early for being too left field. If possible, one person from each problem-solving team should also sit on the coordinating team. Depending on the size of the organisation, and the scale of the problem being faced, this means that the Coordinating Team might comprise eight to twelve individuals.

The Coordinating Team should meet regularly, fortnightly, or monthly, to review the results coming from the problem-solving teams. It is also useful to have each team present their work to the Coordinating Team on a rolling basis (perhaps every two months).

The purpose of the Coordinating Team is to see the "bigger picture." To rise above the complexity of the problem and try and view the emerging possible solutions in the light of their broader impact, and then to direct further analysis and investigation towards the areas that are bearing fruit, or suggest a change of approach for those areas which are remaining elusive.

The Bees Algorithm

The Bees Algorithm is an approach used in computer science which combines a global search with local searches. It is also a useful analogy for the work of the Coordinating Team when dealing with a Wicked Problem.

The Coordinating Team act as the hive, and they send out worker bees – the Problem-Solving Teams – to look for nectar (i.e., possible solutions) in particular directions which seem like they might be fruitful.

However, the worker bees – the Problem-Solving Teams – plan their own route and analyse the surrounding area as they see fit. If a Worker bee finds a good source of food, it flies back to the hive and directs other bees to the area using the famous waggle dance. Similarly, if a Problem-Solving team finds something that looks like it might lead to a partial solution, they will send a representative back to inform the Coordinating Team, who will then allocate other resources to intensify the work in the promising area and related areas. The waggle dance is optional at that point!

Thus the Coordinating Team provide a sort of loose-tight style of management – identifying broad areas for the Problem-Solving teams to look at and leaving them to get on with it; and taking their feedback to concentrate more resources if something looks promising, or to move the attention elsewhere if one area does not yield anything.

A Wicked Problem has no single solution. Rather a number of partial solutions, each probably developed by different teams, are going to be needed to tackle the problem. Thus, the Coordinating Team need to track the Problem-Solving teams to ensure that the partial solutions they develop are brought together with others and implemented in a way that maximises their joint effect.

The Problem-Solving Teams

The Problem-Solving Teams are the worker bees in our bees analogy. They are self-managing but will be directed to look at a certain aspect of the problem by the Coordinating Team and will feed-back their results at regular intervals so that they can be combined with the results of other teams to form a more effective model for tackling the problem.

It's impossible to say how many problem-solving teams are required for a Wicked Problem. That depends on the size of the organisation and the scale and seriousness of the problem.

A small or medium-sized organisation might only be able to establish three or four teams, of three or four members each. A large organisation might be able to deploy many more, better resourced, teams.

Each team may work full-time for a period or may meet once or twice a week for three or four hours to address their part of the problem.

A Wicked Problem is like a jigsaw, and the Problem-Solving teams each have a piece of the jigsaw allocated by the Coordinating Team. Each Problem-solving team must then work on their piece to see how it fits into the bigger picture and how it might be combined with the pieces held by the other Problem-Solving Teams to form a solution to the problem. This requires them to work well as a team, but also to communicate effectively and frequently with the other teams and with the Coordinating Team so that the move toward workable solutions is synchronised as well as possible.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we discuss problem-solving tools for wicked problems.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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