I was introduced to the concept of “wicked problems” during a facilitation I did for an internal customer. They were grappling with the global issue of maintaining healthy weight in pets. Pet obesity is a big problem (no pun intended.) The group had previously approached this problem through exhaustive research and development.  Solutions ranged from label changes, nutritional guides, recipe changes, scoop size, and others.  The problem continues.

Their current approach (and the reason for the facilitated session) was to seek external and somewhat unrelated expertise to look at the problem through a set of different lenses.  It was during this session that one of the external experts introduced us to the concept of a “wicked problem.”  A wicked problem meets the following criteria (Conklin):

  • The problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of the problem. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  • There are many stakeholders-people who care about or have something at stake in how the problem is resolved. This makes the problem solving process fundamentally social. Getting the right answer is not as important as having stakeholders accept whatever solution emerges.
  • The constraints on the solution, such as limited resources and political ramifications, change over time. The constraints change, ultimately, because we live in a rapidly changing world. Operationally, they change because many are generated by the stakeholders, who come and go, change their minds, fail to communicate, or otherwise change the rules by which the problem must be solved.
  • Since there is no definitive Problem, there is no definitive Solution.  The problem-solving process ends when you run out of time, money, energy, or some other resource, not when some perfect solution emerges.

Sound familiar? There are super-wicked problems like climate change, corrupt political systems, poverty and others.  You have probably dealt with some wicked problems yourself, including:

  • Organizational cultural changes
  • Knowledge management
  • Business Strategy
  • Education systems

It was nice to have a term to apply to these ever-changing, frustrating, energy-draining problems. So what can you do about it?  Remember, there are no definitive solutions, these problems don’t really go away.   Here’s a paper by Jeff Conklin, PhD that points us in the right direction.  Enjoy!

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