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Wicked problems…

14 Dec 2010

require the patience of a saint…

Wicked problemsAs promised in my recent post on outcomes (“Beware banana skins”), I am returning to the theme of so-called ‘wicked’ problems.

What are ‘wicked’ problems? I think that the best definition I have seen is provided in the book “Leadership on the Line” by Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky. In that Heifetz and Linsky talk about adaptive change or adaptive problems, contrasting them with what they call technical problems. Their definitions are:

“Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the organisation or community.”

In my view adaptive and wicked problems are synonymous. Wicked problems are therefore ones that aren’t amenable to handed-down, technical solutions. They are complex, with multiple causes, all of which interact to create the conditions that define the ‘problem’. In many ways, as I said in my earlier blog, talking about them as ‘problems’ in itself creates difficulties. When we hear the term ‘problem’, we immediately assume there is a solution (singular). Wicked ‘problems’ are much more than that; they are emergent. That is, they are created by the conditions that give rise to them and constantly change as those conditions change.

Does that mean wicked problems cannot be addressed? No. But emergent ‘problems’ require emergent ‘solutions’. In other words – a combined set of approaches to address the underlying conditions that give rise to the problem. And those ‘solutions’ must be capable of adapting, as those underlying conditions change.

What does all of that mean? Well, lets take the example of rising levels of childhood obesity, mentioned in my earlier post. There are many conditions that have given rise to this trend – the easy availability of highly calorific, fatty foods, attitudes to food, understanding and attitudes to nutrition and food preparation, commercial drivers within the food industry, etc.. There is no simple technical fix to suddenly magically reverse the trend. Instead we need to address the underlying conditions – changing attitudes and behaviours, working in collaboration with consumers, communities and the food industry. Ultimately, we need to get people to recognise that this is a shared ‘problem’ that requires ownership and involvement from us all.

That might mean individual initiatives that are relative small but, done in combination with other things, lead to an overall change. And all of those factors require much more sensitive indicators that show when things might be changing – so approaches can be adapted to capitalise on the ‘good’ effects and ameliorate the ‘bad’.

And of course – as indicated earlier, addressing such problems takes time and sustained effort . . . in other words patience!

If you want to hear more about how we approach wicked problems, why not drops us a line at

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