Four Wicked Themes for Radical Thinking

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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.


  1. Can I propose Leadership as a fifth theme?

    I see your themes of Wickedness and Pace as two dimensions. Speaking broadly, if there is change in just one of those dimensions, traditional approaches of working, communicating, leading will probably be OK. If there is change in both, then they won’t. Which is where I think we are at. [I have written about this (can I say, far less articulately than you) on my blog.] As you say, in order to respond, we do need to move teamwork to another plane and turn the concept of learning inside out.

    Five minutes of reading (say) #gov20 or #e20 on Twitter shows me that there is a burgeoning group of people who share this view. But, and I often have to remind myself of this, most people don’t. Or don’t yet. (Presuming, of course, that our world-view is right!) The implied change is significant and, for many, likely to be counter intuitive. I believe that a different (and from where I stand scarce) brand of enabling leadership is needed to carry us through it.

    Do I make the list?

    Another great post Deb, thanks.

    1. you’re absobultely right. – I had leadership in here as a 5th bullet, but I thought it was getting too long. a new kind of leadership – leader as facilitator, way maker and enabler is emerging… Go ahead and add what you would…

  2. Great post Deb, thought provoking as always. I was going to suggest leadership as a theme, but the gentleman above beat me to it. In my experience, what the most successful teams always have are great leaders. And, that’s plural, as I believe a multi-dimensional team should have a leader for each dimension in order to be most efficient.

    And, I have to ask, is there significance to you skipping the number 3 in your list of Four Wicked Themes? 🙂

  3. Great post. I’m very interested in your 2nd point about the value of teams. One thing that strikes me as a huge challenge going forward is that it is becoming more common for teams to be dispersed across different locations. I think a lot of organisations are going to need help in trying to effectively channel teamwork in this increasingly virtual environment.

      1. This is what I also do in my day job. I work for the US based multinational Oracle, in their European division. I help individuals and teams to communicate and collaborate more effectively.

        You can find out more about what I do via my blog posts. I guest post at and

        It will be good to keep in contact, as I’m sure I could learn a lot from you. I’ve followed your profile on Twitter.

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