Posted by: Ornella Farrugia
on Tue 30 Oct

At September’s Innovation Day, we welcomed Dr Martin Rich, Senior Lecturer at Cass Business School. According to him, wicked problems are all around us and we need to prepare our teams and ourselves to deal with them. Some of the biggest problems facing us in the business and the wider world, such as global warming, health care, education, and crime are wicked problems.

What is a wicked problem?

Wicked problems are intractable and complex. They have multiple causes and can be ambiguous, arising from contradictory and changing requirements. They are complicated and there is no valid solution or right answer, but only answers that are better or worse from different angles.

Wicked problems are unique and emerge from the unknown. It is difficult to plan for wicked problems.  They are unique, so will not be replicated. There is no one way to prepare yourself for a wicked problem. As they cannot be easily defined and emerge from multiple causes, they can be hard to predict.

Wicked problems have multiple causes so there are multiple ways to tackle them. Wicked problems cannot be solved but they can be resolved. You can always take some actions, but this will never be perfect from all angles.

So, how do you tackle something that cannot be defined?

Wicked problems present a unique opportunity. You cannot be told how to solve them, as they are each an individual combination of contradictory and conflicting factors. There is no recipe that you can be taught to help you answer all wicked problems. How then can we prepare for these inevitable but extremely complex problems?

Simulations give you the time and space to practice the skills you need. Think about creating your own simulations. Make sure your team is ready to take on wicked problems by practicing with them. This could mean thinking about a simulation of your own. What problems do you anticipate your organisation facing in the future?

Reflect on your skills. The skills needed to deal with wicked problems are the same as those needed to deal with the unexpected. Some of the more famous examples of wicked problems are those disruptive situations, when the market changed in a totally unexpected fashion. Before running headlong into the problem, think about your skills. What is your personal brand and how would you contribute to resolving a wicked problem?

Recognise that there is no such thing as stability. It seems almost impossible to tackle wicked problems, they are so nebulous and complex. Yet they are an inevitability of conducting business, especially as the pace of progress increases and traditional ways of working are overturned. We do not have stability anymore, only dynamic balance. It is not enough to just shrug and write off these problems as too ill-defined and unknown. Practice and prepare to be able to resolve wicked problems.

These are just some key highlights taken from September’s Innovation Day. Each month, clients of the Innovation Programmes receive a full ACT report, capturing the guest expert’s research, the implications and next steps for leaders to apply back in their team and organisation.

Next month, clients will explore on organisational creativity and corporate entrepreneurship. For more information, please view the Innovation Day page.

Sources: Rich, M. (2018) ‘Overcoming Wicked Problems’, KnowledgeBrief Innovation Day Presentation, 12 September.

Wicked problems cannot be solved but they can be resolved.

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