The uprisings in the Arab world are capturing worldwide attention not only because we’re witnessing history in the making, but because the changes are bound to affect us all. We live in a world that’s interconnected in ways that were hard to fathom only a few years ago. Interconnectedness is creating new challenges with social implications that traditional institutions and leaders aren’t equipped to handle.
The clashes across the Middle East and North Africa are only the latest example of unforeseen events that reverberate across regional boundaries. Before that, the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. sparked a deep global recession that affected more sectors than anything economists had seen before. As some economies began recovering during the following year, Europe’s mounting debt crisis triggered a cascade of new problems in distant economies.
Today’s challenges, geopolitical or otherwise, are more difficult to predict, understand and handle than the kinds of problems we’ve seen until recently. As the world grows more interconnected, we become more exposed to what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called “wicked problems” which are substantially harder to define and solve than so-called “tame” problems.
Wicked problems are a major force in today’s world. Many of us working on a global stage recognize that the kinds of challenges we face now are wicked by nature. Tackling them requires greater creativity and cooperation with our peers. Solving wicked problems is the defining challenge of our age.
Wicked problems are vexing because they have multiple, interrelated causes that can’t be solved by traditional tools and methods. They are, by definition, unique and novel. Wicked problems occur in a social context where stakeholders tend to disagree about the underlying causes thus hampering efforts to reach an effective solution.
Wicked problems affect nearly every organization and leader today, yet many leaders honed their problem-solving skills when most issues could be readily circumscribed and methodically solved.
Roger Martin observes, “There was a time when leaders shared a sense that the problems they faced could be managed through the application of well-known rules and linear logic. Those days are gone. Most of today’s important problems have a significant wicked component, making progress impossible if we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.”
Lean-software developer Mary Poppendieck puts it another way: “The easy problems have been solved. Designing systems is difficult because there is no consensus on what the problems are, let alone how to solve them.”
Wicked problems demand new ways of collaborating. Wicked problem-solvers must first seek to gain a common understanding with their counterparts. The new skills required include self-reflection, consensus-building and mobilizing others. My hunch is that relational competencies will be more critical measures of future leaders.
“Wicked problems call for us to harness all the creativity and knowledge at our disposal,” says Martin. “Whether we choose to fight one another or work together to confront threats and opportunities, our fate and common wealth are in our hands.”
Check out the University of Toronto Rotman School’s Rotman Magazine, WINTER 2009, “Wicked Problems” including a feature by John Camillus (“Strategy as a Wicked Problem”) and an interview with Jeff Conklin of CogNexus. Conklin identifies six characteristics of wicked problems:
- The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution
- Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”
- Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
- Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one shot operation”
- Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions
Tags: age of design, CogNexus, complex, complsity, design theorist, design thinking, Horst Rittel, integrative thinking, Jeff Conklin, John Camillus, Mary Poppendieck, Melvin Webber, relational skills, roger martin, rotman, shared understanding, solving wicked problems, wicked, wicked problems