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Learning how to tame your wicked problems

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By Martin Conboy

wicked problemWicked problems are problems that cannot be solved. But they may be tamed. Obesity, climate change, the war on terror can be classified as wicked problems. To tame these problems the usual problem solving techniques based on rational linear analysis do not work. Customer service, particularly in the age of digital disruption, may be viewed as a wicked problem.

“It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.”Jay Rosen of NYU

The term “wicked problem” was coined in 1973 by UC Berkeley scholars, Rittel and Webber. Essentially a wicked problem is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete,

In this age of digital disruption, where social media and mobility are redefining the relationship between brands and consumers, organisations need to be more creative and innovative in their approach.

conflicting and changing requirements. C. West Churchman, systems scientist, describes wicked problems as “a class of social system problems, which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing; where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values; and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”.

The ongoing challenge of satisfying and exceeding customer expectations, which vary from customer to customer and are constantly changing, meets the criteria of a wicked problem. In this age of digital disruption, where social media and mobility are redefining the relationship between brands and consumers, organisations need to be more creative and innovative in their approach.

We are seeing a whole new suite of service offerings around the ‘customer experience’ and there are plenty of people claiming to have discovered the holy grail of what defines the customer experience. The challenge is that each and every customer is unique and we can no longer lump customers into the easy to manage, and understand segments of a few years ago.

Within an enterprise there are numerous stakeholders with different objectives, including employees, partners, management and shareholders. They each have different perspectives and aims, which may vary, dramatically from the goals of the company.

The challenge is that each and every customer is unique and we can no longer lump customers into the easy to manage, and understand segments of a few years ago.

There’s the basic conflict of trying to deliver improved service, so as to improve loyalty, value and revenue from customer relationships, versus the costs associated with restructuring the business to offer better service. And the needs and requirements of customers, as individuals and as a group, can be largely hidden from managers and executives within an enterprise.

To solve their customer service issues, which also impact their sales and marketing objectives, organisations try to design and build systems and implement strategies. However, many traditional problem solving and project design approaches do not work. And despite their verbal commitment to innovation and improving the experiences of customers, many organisations remain fairly inert and their initiatives are simply tick-the-box exercises.

According to John Kolko, in his article Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving[i], most organisations are focused on one type of problem – differentiation. Innovation entails some form of differentiation or newness. But in product design and product development, tiered releases and differentiation often replace true innovation. Every year there’s a new iPod or iPhone. Every year there’s a new version on a car model. Each new release incorporates only slight or cosmetic changes.

To tame a wicked problem requires collaboration and creativity. Processes need to be developed to ensure all stakeholders are involved in finding ways to manage the problem . This will make the planning process more complex, but it also expands the potential for creativity as well as achieving buy-in from all involved.

But improvement alone may not be enough. Look at what airbnb or Uber are doing to the hospitality and taxi sectors without actually owning anything. There are macro forces at play that are hard to understand i.e. The Cloud that is disrupting established and proven economic business models.

For most companies it’s all about staying ahead of the competition and ensuring quarterly results. This may very well prove to be very short sighted.

Just recently Apple shipped its 1 billionth mobile device, amazing success by any economic standard, but did anybody stop and think about what this really means? We are now so connected with technology that people are constantly burying themselves in their phones that we seem to have lost the art of real communication. So we had disruptive innovation on a grand scale but lost the ability to talk to each other – a very wicked problem. Depending upon your point of view that might be a good or bad thing!

Characteristics of a wicked problem

Horst Rittel highlights ten characteristics of a wicked problem[ii]:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The customer service issues facing one industry or organisation can be fundamentally different to another.
  2. Every wicked problem is unique.
  3. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
  4. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false.
  5. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide.
  6. There are multiple explanations for a wicked problem.
  7. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem.
  8. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  9. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimise the ability for trial and error.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.

How does one tame a wicked problem?

The term wicked problem emerged to address problems in social planning and designing public policy. Design problems are typically wicked because they are often ill defined (no prescribed way forward), involve stakeholders with different perspectives, and have no “right” or “optimal” solution.[iii] Thus wicked problems cannot be solved by the application of standard methods; they demand creative and unique solutions.

To tame a wicked problem requires collaboration and creativity. Processes need to be developed to ensure all stakeholders are involved in finding ways to manage the problem[iv]. This will make the planning process more complex, but it also expands the potential for creativity as well as achieving buy-in from all involved.

The ultimate aim should be to create a shared understanding of the problem and encourage a joint commitment to possible ways of resolving it. Not everyone will agree on what the problem is, but stakeholders should be able to understand one another’s positions well enough to discuss different interpretations of the problem and work together to tackle it.

[i] http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/wicked_problems_problems_worth_solving

[ii] http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/wicked_problems_problems_worth_solving

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

[iv] https://hbr.org/2008/05/strategy-as-a-wicked-problem
April 7, 2015
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