wicked problems

Wicked Teams for Wicked Problems

Earlier this week, CMSWire published a well-edited version of this article. What follows is the unexpurgated, much longer version. Pick your poison.

What are Wicked Problems?

Some problems are such complex, entangled, multifaceted hairballs that we cannot approach them alone. They change and morph as quickly as our ability to understand them. They are known to academics as “wicked problems”, and we need a new way to take them on.
The challenges of modern enterprises are wicked: How do we compete? What should our next product do? How do we structure? Traditional divide and conquer, top-down organizational structures are a mismatch for these types of problems.
So, how to address these wicked problems then? The fog is beginning to clear on the answer: work as teams, collapse the boundary between learning and doing, embrace the rapid pace of change.

All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from a Video on How to Build a Raft

If you are a member of my GenX cohort, you will remember the PBS show, ZOOM. It would occasionally do feature segments on kids who’d done really cool things. Like building a raft from scratch. It was clear to me even at 8 or 10 years old that these kids were doing something special: -that is they were doing something.
This skill – to simply “do” – despite a lack of resources or formal expertise – is a key part of succeeding in wicked environments. This is the skill of Benjamin Frankin, the California 49ers, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, Thomas Edison, and Johnny Appleseed – this willingness to simply give it a go, learn from the flops and keep on going. It is the skill that brought us from the Age of Enlightenment into the Industrial Age. As we continue to stare down the intractable “Wicked Problems” of the 20th and 21st centuries, we need to mainstream this skill to catapult us from the Information Age into the Transformation Age.

Wicked Problems are Wicked Important

In 1973, Horst Rittel, and Melvin Webber were professors at UC Berkeley (Science of Design and City Planning respectively), and they published a paper that is getting some renewed attention. They give an overview of wicked problems in public policy:
Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic
society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity;
policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no
sense to talk about “optinaal solutions” to social probIems unless severe qualifications are imposed
first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.
Dr Tom Ritchie, a consultant on such problems, has written this succinct review of of wicked problems and says this:
“They are messy, devious, and reactive, i.e. they fight back when you try to “resolve” them.”
Wicked Problems are entangled issues and problems where no definitive or objective analysis of the root causes or ultimate solution is possible. These are problems where the number of people involved can make the problem worse. It’s the herding cats problem. Each tug at the issue changes the problems so that it evolves even as we try to fix it. The most obvious examples of such problems are world poverty or obesity.
Wicked problems are different from very hard problems. Putting a rocket on the moon is a very hard problem, but it’s not wicked, because the goal is pretty straightforward; it’s just really hard. DARPA’s red balloon challenge was very difficult, but not wicked (though the solution was wicked cool, and yes, I’m from Brockton). Righting a troubled economy — that’s wicked.
Not all wicked problems are as profound as the economy, energy crisis or hunger. The challenge at the core of nearly all business and government is around these problems. How to structure a business unit, how to design and build a product, how to build value in a dynamic and competitive market (how to defeat terrorism and stabilize Pakistan also classifies); these are wicked problems too.

Enterprises are rife with wicked problems

Why do we care that these problems are wicked? Because the inability to deal with wicked problems can be the undoing of an organization — keeping it forever stagnant, or worse, spiraling downward. These are the problems that can be so pervasive we barely dare try to solve them, or heroically throw ourselves against time and time again to little avail. They do not respond well to divide and conquer solutions. What they do respond to, are heterogeneous teams of people who transcend conflicting agendas, and target their coordinated expertise — and ability to learn and discover — on the problem.
Most organizations are hierarchical and inherently designed for divide and conquer. This patter is optimal for finding algebraic solutions to the kinds of traditional problems that organizations were designed to solve. The problem is that core issues of strategy, positioning, product development, solution development, marketing are not divide and conquer problems. They require holistic approaches. They are never solved, they only get better or worse.
Businesses that handle these problems well, have tucked away a very good team somewhere in their leadership or in some other very influential role that is addressing the problems collaboratively. John Seely Brown’s (Co-Chair of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, and former PARC Chief Scientist) describes these team as “marinating together in the problem space”. Without these teams and their diversity of perspective, you lack the intensity and pace required to make progress on wicked problems. (Have you noticed the recent uptick in use of the vulgar term for a failure? It has the word “cluster” in it. I’m sure this is an instinctive knowledge that the entanglement of issues is the real issue).
Three themes to note regarding wicked problems..

1. Change is part of the challenge. These problems are not static – they morph and wiggle away from any attempt to pin them down.
2. People are a source of, and the solution to, complexity. The more people, the more complexity, the more ability to comprehend and understand them. It’s confusing, but while an uncoordinated crowd of people makes things complex and wicked, a coordinated team is required to make progress (so approach matters).
3. The concept of the social network is changing our approach to problem solving. There are some wicked cool thinking emerging around groups, teams, learning and change which could revolutionize the approach to solving wicked problems.

The Age of Constant Disruption and Actionability

Our reality is getting disrupted. Often. Have you watched this speech that John Seely Brown gave as a closing keynote at the 2010 New Media Consortium? It is an hour long and every minute is fascinating (except for the first few, while he gets warmed up). Brown explains that we’ve entered a revolutionary age where we will never again have a status quo to maintain, and that radical new concepts of “extreme learning” will be the dominant way that people excel.

This age is every bit as radical as the French and American revolutions that introduced the notion of democracy to the world. This revolution is far beyond the political, however. It features technology, economics, sociology and culture. Brown suggests that the revolutionary period that we’re in will mean that the pace of change — radical change — will, for the duration of our and our children’s lifetimes, be so intense that we will never again live in a predictable world.
Brown goes on to talk about how some people make incredible progress in these up-heaved times through intense learning and doing.
What we need to do right now to solve hard problems is to team with other smart (passionate) people, “marinate in the problem space” together and progress — not simply by applying expertise and effort, but by vigorous application of our creativity to find new ideas, possibilities and connections that we can leverage and mash up (if you will) into new solutions that we try, test and discard as we find the next.
Brown offers terrifically entertaining examples of this, including how a cohort of boys became world champion extreme surfers. He focuses on working together with others and doing, as studying. It’s a great talk.
When I first started watching Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk several years ago, I was unimpressed with the “laws stifle creativity” theme he begins with.
But within minutes, I embraced his notion that what we need to do is actually encourage people to use existing work as the basis for new work and to re-purpose things in novel new ways. That this was the ultimate creative process. He proved to me that until we put the means of production (that is tools with which we can make things real – at least in the realm of media) into every school child’s hands (and their parents too), we are profoundly inhibiting our cultural, economic, personal and global progress.
In his recent review of “The Social Network” he makes a similar point when he argues that what was disappointing in the film was that it failed to highlight the difference between being brilliant and converting that into action. The ability to do this as never before is what made Facebook, and what can make the next great innovation.
So what we have here is this: a wildly unpredictable world and an infinite toolkit with which to explore and manipulate it.

You Can Do Anything With a Decent Team and a Laptop

Chess is not actually a wicked problem. The end state is well defined, but it has certain wicked characteristics (infinite problem/solution space). Individual chess moves have a wicked flavor to them. Chess is an iteration of think, act and think again — which should, perhaps be the new motto of work (hopefully replacing my alma mater’s “grandescunt aucta labore” which I always thought was a near miss).
A few months ago, Andrew MacAfee wrote about what Kasparov had learned about how to win at chess. It used to be that individual genius reigned supreme. Then in the 1990s, computers broke that barrier. Now in the aughts, it seems the way to beat both the computers and the savants is by working collaboratively with a team of decent (not necessarily stellar) players supported by decent technology and good process.
From McAfee’s piece:
The overall winner was a team that contained neither the best human players nor the biggest and fastest computers. Instead, it consisted of “a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants.”
Let me say that again. A team with a bit of sense and technology can consistently outperform a genius and the world’s most powerful computer in working through a wicked(ish) problem. For real! Take that back to the executive team.
Enterprise 2.0 Is an Approach to Wicked Problems
We are to rising to the challenge of Wicked Problems by getting better at dealing with change and working as teams. We will be changing our divide and conquer mentality to marinate together in the problem space and to work jointly with our hands to produce tangible results that we can jointly examine, and manipulate into its next evolution.
Great teams are found in many organizations, but these are the exception and not the norm. Increasingly, great teams, enabled by sensible processes and good technology will be the engines of progress.
For those who consider Enterprise 2.0 to be just a strategy or a tool-set or a marketing plan, I say this – Enterprise 2.0 is but the first step of a profoundly more interesting and effective way to do business (or government). It is an extreme, full-impact sport that touches everything we do as an organization – who we work with and how, what we work on and why. The technology we work with too.
Our wicked challenges require the diversity and experience of teams – as well as their ability to tap into and integrate new ideas and information. Our solutions will be tried and transient – keeping pace with the challenges they are meant to solve.

If you see these trends like I do, you’ll help us learn how to do these things better:

1. We need to work as teams – not a set of people with similar job titles, but real, collaborative, mission-focused, process-oriented, esprit de corp, i’ll-cover-your-backside-and-I-know-you’ve-got-mine teams.
2. Work is learning is doing – we need people who DO as much as people who cogitate. Our society has lost most of its DO, but we’re getting it back, and we need to accelerate the rise of the Do-er . (all hail the Makers Fair and this Father and son Team Homemade Spacecraft on Vimeo).
3. Change is the norm – we must start to learn and work in a way that is extremely agile, deeply and broadly informed. Normal isn’t normal anymore.

Four Wicked Themes for Radical Thinking


What is clear is that change is afoot -  not little “c” change but BIG “C” CHANGE. We are being challenged with new ideas and to see the world differently and to change how we respond and get along in that world. Its not bad change – its thrilling change – if you’re thinking about it the same way I am…

1. Wicked problems

Theme: There are some problems which are so complex and multifaceted, that they can’t be understood by a single individual or even a single discipline. They can’t be broken down into smaller parts because they are so entangled. And the problem morphs as we tuck and prod at it. They require multi-disciplinary teams to work and act as a whole. But this in itself can add to the complexity.(think product strategy, infrastructure or nearly any social or political issue).

Implication: We need to  focus on bringing these multi-disciplinary teams together and enable them create a common operating picture so that rather than expending most of their time and talent at managing their communication and arguing over the problem, they can begin to think together toward possible approaches and solutions.

Further reading: A surprisingly good summary on wikipedia and a superb whitepaper here.

2. The pace of change

Theme: John Seely Brown is exquisitely articulate on this subject. He notes that the pace of change is now such that we can never again expect to have a status quo to maintain, that its not just constant evolution, but frequent revolution – a pattern of constant, punctuated equilibrium.

The first time I saw this theme was in the (kinda rough) 2007 book “Now is gone“. We see it again with the “Fail Fast” meme. The idea here is that We will no longer solve problems so much as surf them.

In general there is the theme that the socio-economic, cultural and geographical make up of the world is changing faster and faster, and that coupled with the exponential pace of technological change, we will be increasingly unable to predict the future or plan for certain events. We will become adept at recognizing trends and adapting solutions quickly to meet the new requirements.

Implication: No matter what we do, it will need to change and evolve, so learning becomes imperative and action becomes a core part of the learning cycle. In fact learn, act, learn, act is now the only meaningful process for either learning or acting. We are not used to this. we think that big problems require big plans. This will be less and less feasible going forward. We will get very good and very comfortable acting in the absence of complete knowledge and understanding and learning, course correcting as we go.

Further Reading: John Seely Brown’s discussion of the Pace of Change. A nice illustration of societies progress here, and this popular and “Shift Happens”, a popular and mesmerizing  video.

4. The extaordinary value of teams.

Theme: We have always known that some teams were better than others, and that a great team was greater than the sum of its parts. This last week, the journal Science published an article demonstrating that teams have a measurable “collective intelligence” and that that CI was not highly correlated to the IQs of the people on the team – but was correlated to the social sensitivity of the participants (a trait often found most strongly in women). A few months prior to that, Andrew MacAfee published an article about some very surprising discoveries in the field of computer chess. The discovery is that amateur players, with basic computers and a good process for problem solving could reliably beat world champions working with super computers. This is a stunning result. It means that Team + Process beats genius and raw power. Holy cow!

Implication: we’re going to be spending a lot of time learning how to build and participate in teams, and on the enabling technologies.  Emotional Intelligence and teamwork will no longer be  nice biz book buzz words, but a vital career skill.

Futher Reading: The Science article is posted here on the Anita Woolley (principal author’s) page. Here’s MacAfee’s article. And Nancy Dixon’s article on leveraging collective intelligence.

5. Extreme Learning

Theme: John Seely Brown (he’s my most recent find, and he’s prolific and tells a great story) says that he’s interested in a “new culture of learning for a world in constant flux”. There have always been examples of extreme learning, but its importance is growing as the complexity of the world and the pace of change accelerates. The nature of how we learn is evolving. Its evolving  in several ways:

- from being something that a teacher “gives” to students to one where a teacher or other leader is facilitating learning among the group. Group learning and action – that of teams is intensely at the heart of progress.

- from being passive to active – doing is the new learning. The advent of new media has put the means of production and distribution into the hands of nearly anyone – we are all “Makers“. This is why we need to get over the idea of “fail fast” and embrace experimentation as learning. Doing is learning.

An amazing result that was posted a few months ago involved another wickedly hard problem – that of protein folding. Proteins are the building blocks of most living things and most medicine works on interacting with them in some way. The interactions are based on the structure of the protein – which is amazingly complex and hard to figure out. Protein folding is a wicked problem. We’ve applied super computers and Biochemists to it, but some nuts made it a massively parallel game – lay people playing with these structures. It turns out that these game players working together at it are better than the supercomputers and bio-geniuses. Learning is doing – with others – joint action.

Implication: The implication here is that if you are not connected with a group of people who are working through the problem with you, and enabling joint thinking and joint action, then you are at a significant disadvantage.

Further Reading: MacAfee’s report on the Fabulous Folding Problem. John Seely Brown’s stellar talk on “A New Culture of Learning“.

What are your wicked themes? Please  add to my list of references on these topics, if you can. If you have good ones, I’ll create a public wiki for everyone to benefit from going forward.

G20, Social Media, Solving Hard Problems

This year the G20 did something different. Several weeks in advance of the G8 and G20 meetings in Toronto, they began to use a social collaboration tool to prepare for the event. The way the project was conceived is interesting, and the outcomes and implications are even more so.

First, let me say I currently work for open text, the provider of the tres cool software they used (its not your papa’s enterprise software). That said, my interest here is really more academic than commercial ( i guess that’s why they keep me around).

The G20 is a meeting of the senior  finance ministers from the top 20 economies. The G20 Summit is a meeting of the heads of state of those economies which was first held in a response to the 2007 economic crisis.

To support last weekend’s meeting, Open Text put up 3 hosted instances of Open Text Social Workplace – a shared, social workspace designed to support team and organizational effectiveness.

The first instance was highly secure and restricted to use by the key delegates and sherpas to share information and collaborate. The second was  for the media, librarians, academics and other interested parties to do the same, and a third that used some cool 3D experience widget technology to publish and navigate video published by the various attendants.

BTW – the official press release is here.

So what? Well, if the system works at all (and the early anecdotes are very, very positive), the shared, social workplace will have improved preparations and enabled extended, persistent collaboration amongst the principals between meetings, so that their understanding, work and resources can evolve and compound naturally between meetings as well as at the specific meeting times. It supports and amplifies continuity of the proceedings and working groups beyond the annual meetings..

Next it has extended the number of media, academics, librarians and other parties who can participate – regardless of whether they were accredited to attend the conference -  and track what is going on  – connecting the dots amongst and between a large, diverse group of interested minds.

All that is good of course. What’s really interesting, however, is the chance to see whether the G20 can and will use this shared workspace to create and sustain a common operating picture of economic issues amongst the delegates and their sherpas, and whether that will help them make better progress in understanding and addressing global economic problems – a wicked problem indeed.

I’m on a mission to collect as many anecdotes and outcomes from this experiment as possible, to see if this works and we can really use social media to begin to unravel heinously complex global issues. stay tuned. As I said – early reports are positive, with lots of reports of questions to the effect of “we get to keep this going, right?”. I’ll do my best to report back on what we learn about supporting highly diverse globally distributed teams and organizations.

Is collaboration enough to connect-the-dots?

Connecting the dots is what we call the problem of finding various bits of the answer from various people who may not have been aware of the question to begin with. I described this more deeply in a previous post on the intelligence community’s connect the dots problem:

Imagine 10,000 people on 17 teams, working on 100,000 jigsaw puzzles. Now imagine that some of the pieces have been randomly distributed among the other players. Nobody knows how many pieces are in each puzzle. And some pieces may be missing entirely, or fit into multiple puzzles simultaneously. Each person has a limited number of puzzles that they are aware of, and some may be working on the same puzzle without realizing it.

They need a system that will make it possible for people to know what pieces the others have, for the pieces themselves to find the holes they might fit into, and – here’s the odd one – the holes can describe themselves to the pieces. This one needs one with some blue in it, or a fairly oval shaped connector.

Why do we need to connect dots?

Problem solving – I’m working on a problem. Say its how to satisfy a customer’s tricky technology issue. Say its figuring out how to keep explosive underwear off of airplains, or how a particular frog species might predict global warming effects, or how a certain bacteria may solve the worlds energy crisis, or competing against another technology company in a market sector. These can be extremely difficult problems. They all depend on being able to form a complete picture from a diverse set of information, understanding the implications of that picture and being able to act on that insight.

So. Suppose I’m looking for a cure for cancer. Some other person in my company (or not) is studying the effects of pseudonameotryxlate on diabetes. She notes that this drug seems to limit hair growth, but she’s not certain why. I notice that one of the key processes in this cancer progression is the same process that is involved in hair follicle generation. How am I going to know about the study on diabetes?

What if I had a system that would tell me about things that had to do with hair. What if I had a general awareness of surprising outcomes that people chatted about?

What if I were trying to form a strategy to compete against a certain vendor. And one of the sales reps got a comment from a prospect about that vendor that told us something we didn’t know.

What if I’m on a services team, struggling with some exotic server configuration that I’d never seen before – but someone in my org has….

So what are the components that would be of value to us here (so, so, so – why do I write this way?).

First – you need a system which will capture small bits of knowledge, not just formal documents or even wikis. Fortunately, social media tools are (can be) nicely designed to facilitate and capture question and answer, comments, remarks and corrections. In a good system, these will be indexed and retrievable.

Second – you need a system that promotes some level of ambient awareness – twitter/yammer type capability is very helpful here, as you see a (somewhat self filtering) stream of activity go by that you never really have to deal with, but you’ll notice when something critical pops up.

Third, you need a really, really good search tool. This search should not only identify content, in the form of docs, comments, Q&A and wikis, but should also identify people who may have generated that content, and communities, projects or networks where that activity is taking place.

Fourth- you need to let technology work for you in the form of recommendations based on semantic and statistical analysis. Both the – “these concepts are similar and therefore you might want to check this other one out” idea, and the amazon recommends concept “people who read or write about x also find y interesting”.

In this way you are maximizing the flow and availability of information in your organization, and allowing it to be filtered by a) yourself b) your network and c) technology – which is a winning trifeceta. With you, your network and your technology working in complementary fashion to find information most valuable to you, you have maximized your chances of finding what you need to know and which you may not know to ask about.

A social collaboration system should have each of these components, leveraging the productivity focus of collaboration into a refined ability to connect the dots.

What do the Smithsonian Institute, The National Intelligence Community and You have in common?

What do the Smithsonian Institute and the National Intelligence Community have in common?

(warning – i had too much caffeine with michael edson this morning – so this may head into some geeky ground)

The Smithsonian Institute is a federation of 19 museums and other research centers, founded 150 years ago, and dedicated to the “increase and diffusion” of knowledge. The Intelligence community is a federation of 17 Agencies, dedicated to understanding existing and developing threats to national security (The former Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell summarized their mission: “To create decision advantage”.  The new Director, Dennis Blair, is less pithy, but no less focused in his pursuit.)

The Smithsonian has a collection of artifacts and insights that is vast in both its depth and its breadth. No individual has the complete picture of its holdings. The intelligence community has something rather similar – a staggering amount of data to which no individual has full view.

Both institutions are looking at the world ahead, and the staggering, “wicked problems” that it is their priviledge on the one hand and their burden on the other, to solve.

Both institutions have leading edge initiatives to enable their unimaginably vast collections of knowledge, information and experts to come together, so that others can gain new and important insights to further their missions. In the Intelligence community case – it is a life and death race to evolve information availability and analysis such that unpredictable threats are reliably identified and thwarted. In the Smithsonian’s case, it is a heartfelt obligation to connect the curious and expert minds of the world to assets, information, knowledge and experts so that they may cherish and expand the treasure and capabilities of society.

These Institutions have some common obstacles to their goals. They are 3 – vision, technology and culture.

Vision – in order to ignite the energy required to get past the obstacles, each institution must articulate a vision of the future that will engage and direct its human resources.

Technology – both institutions must adopt technology that will unlock data silos,  connect people, expertise and information, and rapidly diffuse knowledge through the system, so that minds can find, identify and develop important issues.

Culture – both institutions have proud histories and legions of dedicated professionals. But their culture, their dedication and their current technologies have created both technical and cultural silos, making the diffusion and recognition of important information nearly impossible. (both are working on it, the intel crowd rather more urgently, and rightly so).

Critical insight into insight – now here the two institutions begin to diverge. The intel community is now working at a feverish pace on a problem which it has long been trying to work on. That is a fundamental understanding of insight. This is a long and exciting (if you’re into that kind of thing) of the nature of insight and whether it can be made more reliable or repeatable. The smithsonian wants to provide it for all – Intel needs it for themselves, and fast.

OK – so who cares, and how does this relate to you? (I may someday write something without the “so – “, but it hasn’t happened yet)

You have “Wicked Problems” – the problems you need to solve today are qualitatively different from a generation before. You are dealing with a rapidly evolving world, and issues that are entangled. Your perspective of these problems is more wholistic because you are more worldly – and that is both an advantage and a disadvantage. You need to identify and overcome the entangled challenges of vision, technology and culture that swirl around the inner knot of insight,  problem solving and most importantly, generating productive action from this insight.

We (that is the generational “we”, rather than the corporate or royal “we”) are inventing a new  generation of work tools, methods and processes that focus on the integration and “cross-contamination” of people, expertise and information and our goal is to get as close to the inner problem of insight and action as possible. Social media may be (at least part of) the “Alexandrian Solution” to the “Gordian Knot” (for those less caffinated and edson-inspired than i – this means taking an entirely different tack on a problem that makes its solution simple or moot).

And in conclusion – I don’t have one – just an exciting journey for us to go on. As we strip mine the problems of collaboration, analysis and insight, we’ll be enabling next generation solutions to next generation problems – in business, culture and security.