Wicked problems

A wicked problem is defined as:

“A social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

Organizational change normally falls into wicked problem territory –  typically aligning to the four reasons given above. Adam Kahane wrote about solving tough problems, where he explained solutions to the wicked problem of South Africa and Apartheid using a technique called Scenario Planning which was invented at Shell. It’s a fascinating book and one that’s worth reading to learn about the technique itself, but also the dynamics of working on such an important social issue.

In the Shell Scenario Planning exercise there is a process that helps you to define a number of potential, realistic, but extreme, future scenarios. These might include economic, political, social, technological, or environmental factors to describe a future. The idea is to open up managers’ and leaders’ minds to the potential effects of underlying trends in the environment so they can prepare to respond to them in the future – if they ever happen to appear. It’s not about knowing the answers, but being aware of the signals.

Wicked problems aren’t solvable by lots of upfront planning and solution design. They are often believed to be impossible to solve completely and this certainly can’t be done through thinking alone. However, wicked problems can have solutions that impact in a positive or negative way. This can be done by running experiments, learning more about the problem space, and trying things to change the situation. Each step helps you develop deeper understanding and, hopefully, a positive impact as you move forward.

What experiments can you run to learn more about the challenges you are faced with right now in your work?

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