Wicked Teams for Wicked Problems

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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.



  1. Sorry for the long comment as usual 😛 but your post really triggered me to consolidate my reading of late, so here it is…

    Just from a quick read I can correlate what you call hard problems as “complicated” and what you call wicked problems as “complex”…in other circles I’ve heard them called “intractable problems” using “distributed cognition” (similar to wisdom of crowds)

    In this comment on Bas’s blog (highly recommended) I differentiated by saying that “Unlike some systems like a “car”, orgs are complex as there are unknowns that impact us everyday, whereas a car is complicated “all the parts are known”.
    I got that thinking from here

    I like how Jurgen differentiates this between an aircraft (complicated) and air travel (complex)

    Like an aircraft a photocopier is complicated, but it can live within complex boundaries (the room, and things in it…and people interacting)…see my comment on these thoughts and Chris Rodgers reply to my comment

    Here’s a brilliant post that compares complication and complexity when tackling wicked problems like “humanitarian response”

    I think the operating system of the firm will slowly evolve as a matter of need from risk-averse to adaptable (those forward thinking firms will get there first eg. apple http://johntropea.tumblr.com/post/1244559516/the-first-wave-of-distributed-capitalism) especially with hyper-competition and a fast paced world…loyalty, transparency, relationships, co-creation, customisation and the speed to serve is the new edge…therefore knowledge flow, diversity, design thinking and adoption, awareness, openness, and loosening of control to the fringes to make self-led decisions and form temp cross-functional teams to tackle issues and initiatives is key.
    This is happening at my work to a degree (and lots of workplaces I bet even if it’s under the radar…self-organising is a natural coping mechanism), but what we need is a framework to harness and execute it properly, as lots of us have work-group fatigue

    I find Shoshana and Denning as great spokes people for this new movement

    The burden of us early adopters, is that we are more proactive than reactive…and most businesses I know of are reactive and short-term. The reactors need a health problem to occur first…so you could say early adopters practice a preventative (well being) approach like “acupuncture”, whereas the mainstream take the fix it when it’s broke approach…or band-aid…or too late…like western medicine

    …and how social computing is a good fit for complex work

    More links:

    You say, “They are never solved, they only get better or worse.”…that’s just brilliant!!

    You say “change is the norm”…I like this quote by Margaret Wheatley:
    “Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. In these systems, change is the organizing force, not a problematic intrusion.”

    Some more thinking by Margaret:

    I like the use of the word “hairball”…I heard that from @joyce_hostyn
    – brilliant post that is, gotta catchup with her blog

    You say: “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.”
    ….I agree

    1. The “better or worse” concept isn’t mine- its really part of the definition of wicked problems. If you look at the Horst paper or the Cognexus paper you’ll see references too it. For the record, I’m not Cognexus approach fan – but I do think they are on to something – the common operating picture. And the paper they have is awesome. Thanks for the ref to Margaret Wheatly – fabulous stuff. You may not find it surprising that as a youth I worked on neural nets, complexity theory and agent based simulations of complex systems.

      In short I really appreciate your rich supply of pointers to fellow travelers and your willingness to respond in such depth!

  2. Your “Wicked Problems” roughly correspond to “Bizarre Systems” (term coined by Dr. Kirstie Bellman at Aerospace Corp) and “Bizarre (Problem) Domains”. I discuss these in detail at http://www.artificial-intuition.com/bizarre.html and in at least a couple videos at http://videos.syntience.com .

    Entanglement and continuous change are the main reasons for “irreducibility”. Entanglement also ties in to “deep complexity” which is one of three reasons for “chaotic systems”. The other two being (hidden) state and (unknown) component delays.
    Beyond these two I discuss insufficient, incorrect, and ambiguous input data as a third problem meta-category and finally emergence as a fourth.

    I also provide a solution sketch on my websites: Stop using (Reductionist) models and switch to holistic analysis based on patterns. Patterns are immune to all of the issues in Bizarre Domains.

    1. Thanks, Monica – I can’t wait to dig in there. I think we are all looking at a very similar phenomenon. Entanglement and irreducibility requiring different, holistic and collaborative approaches.

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