Your Biggest Problem is Impossible to Solve — And That’s a Good Thing (PART II IN A SERIES ON WICKED PROBLEMS)

Image by Mo Fox for Wicked Article Part II

This is Part II of a three part series on Wicked Problems. If you missed Part I (the difference between Simple, Complex and Wicked problems), click here. For Part III, click here. So how do you tell what kind of a problem yours is?

Any of these sound familiar?

  • The company restructure looks great on the org chart, but productivity is down 60%.
  • The merger designed to save a fortune continues to haemorrhage funds, and breakeven has just slipped by about 3 years.
  • You’ve got total buy-in on a large project, but nothing’s getting done.
  • You’ve got a fancy new Innovation Lab and have put design thinking and innovation into everyone’s KPIs but nothing new is happening bar the place being plastered in sticky notes. That don’t move.
  • You spent a week at the ELT strategy off-site crafting a moving new OneCompany vision that went down a storm at kick-off, but the silos still stand and collaboration is patchy at best.

And of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Roughly 80% of projects across notoriously Wicked problem areas such as culture, change, innovation, leadership and engagement fail, or fail to succeed. Despite having compellingly attractive outcomes.

Roughly 80% of projects across notoriously Wicked problem areas such as culture, change, innovation, leadership and engagement fail, or fail to succeed.


Because however glorious your vision or outcome, and however cunning the path you plot to get there, it is likely to come to nought if you don’t know where you are starting from. And by that I mean where you are really starting from — not where you assume you are, wish you were, told the board you were, thought you were last week, or even where you should be, all things considered.

Sounds obvious, yet one of the reasons so many Wicked ventures fail is that most of the people championing them are essentially starting from a misconception of where they are. In other words, from a misunderstanding of what kind of problems they are dealing with and therefore what kind of approach they need to take to get the outcome they want. They assume the problem is Complex instead of Wicked, and that it will therefore bow compliantly to lashings of rational analysis followed by a logical reductive process designed to get the situation firmly under control as they relentlessly execute their way towards ‘The Right Solution’. (Breathe.)

Which might work a treat if the problem is indeed Complex, but is likely to open up to a whole world of pain if it is actually Wicked, or even more confusing, if it’s a hybrid of all three (Simple, Complex and Wicked)

Here’s a refresher of the three problem types for your delectation: (For a more fulsome reminder, read Part I here)

Simple problems are easy to solve. They are linear, straightforward and objective.You know the problem and solution before you start.

Complex problems resist solving. They are primarily objective, non-linear, full of interconnected elements and hidden root causes. While you may not know the problem or solution at the beginning, you will by the end, so they are solvable.

Wicked problems resist even defining. They are subjective, relative, chaotic and ambiguous, full of stakeholders and different agendas. They are messy, ad hoc and unsolvable — though you can create great outcomes.

Download our Summary Chart of Simple, Complex and Wicked Problems

So how do you tell what type of beast your problem is? Particularly when Wicked problems resist defining? And what can you do about it once you know?

Bring the problems you were contemplating in Part I (previous article) back to the table. You remember, the gnarly, won’t-go-quietly personal and professional problems that are doing your head in.

Now with those two clearly in mind, take this quick quiz.

  1. Does your problem resist being clearly defined?
  2. Do you have either not enough information or so much that you have no idea what’s relevant or what isn’t?
  3. Does it involve changing people’s beliefs, behaviours or sense of who they are?
  4. Does it feel like when you’re done, the problem will still be there?
  5. Does it feel like no matter what you do, someone will be unhappy?
  6. Have you noticed that every time you think you’ve cracked it, you haven’t?
  7. Does the map — your understanding of the problem space and where you are — keep changing?
  8. Is the problem unreasonable?
  9. Is being rational and disciplined not really helping?

And the big one…

10. Is it doing your head in?

If the answer is none of them, then congratulations! Your problem is likely to be either Simple or Complex and not nearly as gnarly as you made it out to be in the beginning. So enjoy using your existing toolkit to map it and crack it.

If not, or if you feel that parts of it are crackable and others are a giant pain in the pattootie, then welcome to Wicked. And the more of these questions you nodded your head to, the more Wicked your problem is likely to be. (Though frankly if you just ticked #3 on changing people’s beliefs, behaviour or sense of identity that’s enough to land you firmly in Wicked territory all on it’s own.)

Wicked problems are not more complicated Complex problems. They are are inherently ambiguous, subjective and chaotic.

Remember, Wicked problems are not more complicated Complex problems. In fact they are a completely different type of complexity, and they are based on completely different underlying assumptions.

And while you can unearth and map all the moving parts of a Complex problem so that you can control and solve it, Wicked problems are inherently ambiguous, subjective and chaotic. And Wicked problems remain fundamentally unsolvable — though you can certainly create amazing outcomes. As I said before, you can turn a tanking company around, save a marriage, create a new market, pull someone out of addiction… You just can’t ‘solve’ it.

So which do you think it is?

And if you sense that significant parts of your problem are Wicked, then the first thing you need to consider — even before going on to look at the different approaches you need to use — is how does this make you feel?

How do you feel, knowing;

  • You can’t solve it?
  • That you’ll only be able to make it better or worse?
  • That you can’t be ‘right’?
  • That it’s going to be messy?
  • That you’ll have to get comfortable with all the chaos and ambiguity to be effective?

That — to paraphrase the inimitable Colonel Paul van Riper — while you may be in command, you’ll be out of control?

While you may be in command, you’ll be out of control.

Telling people who base their identity (and careers and income) on their ability to solve problems that their problems aren’t solvable elicits a whole pile of often extreme responses. Some object violently. “What’s the bloody point then?” they snarl at me in disgust. “I HAVE to be able to solve it. That’s what I’m good at. You’re telling me I’m going to fail.” They don’t like the mess, they long for control and a clear logical process, for people to just do what they’re told or even just what they’ve promised to do, and they really don’t see why it all has to be so hard. “It never used to be like this.”

With others, you can see a weight lift off their shoulders, and their faces visibly relax with relief. “You mean it’s not that I’m incompetent?? That just making it better is doing it right? That I can’t possibly know the answers to this?? Thank god!”

I remember asking participants how they felt about the whole thing at the end of the first day of the first public course at business school. One of the participants, a middle-aged woman who worked in the Department of Education, had been scowling at me all day, and her scowl just intensified at my question. So I prepared myself for ‘feedback’.

“What I don’t understand,” she said tersely, “is why I had to wait 30 bloody years for someone to explain this to me.” At this, the young exec next to her chimed in with relief: “Yes!! I just thought that when I followed all those 10 step processes I’ve tried that I was always just missing a secret step that would have made it work.” Sort of like the famous story of London’s culinary cognoscenti serving chocolate sludge cakes at their dinner parties for a year or two because the uber-trendy restaurant The River Cafe apparently ‘forgot’ to mention that for their renown Chocolate Nemesis recipe to work, you needed a high grade professional oven.

How you feel about it is important.

How you feel about is is important, so do pause and reflect on this. However much business would like to have you believe otherwise, emotions matter. A lot. Because how you feel will determine how you act and how effective you can be. It will determine the approach you take, how you interact with others and how many choices and options you create for yourself on the way. It will set your expectations. It will determine how burnt out or energised you feel as you go through the project.

And of course you don’t judge this, you notice it. Then decide: Is how you feel useful in this situation? Or not?

Why is this important?

Because when faced with situations that are ambiguous or unfamiliar, and when we are under stress, we tend to default to what we know, what we’ve done before, what we’re comfortable with, or what we think will take the least effort and give us the most control. And what we tend to default to most is the assumption that the problem we are dealing with is Complex and therefore logical and solvable. Which is fine if that is in fact what it is, but is likely to be disastrous if the problem is in fact Wicked.

Wicked problems demand an entirely different approach.

Because Wicked problems demand an entirely different approach. And to be effective in a Wicked space, you need to understand what that is, and add it to your repertoire.

What approach is that? A creative one.

And to find out what that looks like, head over to Part III of this series.

This is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book Navigating Wicked Problems & Ambiguity: A Guidebook to Taming The Unsolvable Messy Problems That Matter Most

If you want to get access to advance chapters, sneak peaks to some of the tools, and be notified on the publishing date sign up here.

Next public course on Navigating Wicked Problems and Ambiguity at MGSM is on March 26-27, 2019. Check it out here.


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