What Shape Is A Wicked Problem?

“Innovation As A Wicked Problem”. I just heard a great talk with that title by Tendayi Viki at Agile Manchester – which inspired some deep thinking.

A “wicked” problem isn’t evil! It’s “simply” a problem that’s difficult or impossible to solve. That might be because:

  • there are incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise
  • there is no single solution to the problem
  • it has no determinable stopping point
  • its complex interdependencies mean that the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Tendayi pointed out that innovation processes are inherently messy, not step-by-step. They’re not amenable to heavy analysis: nobody can pick the winner at the start. Mostly, he pointed out, they fit the definition of a “wicked problem” – as do persistent personal and social problems.

This has helped me to understand why Clean Language appeals to people in the Agile and Design Thinking spaces – innovators all. Clean was originally intended to work with persistent personal problems(in therapy, by David Grove), and was adapted for working social problems (especially by Caitlin Walker). It fits with “wickedness” just as it fits with complexity (as defined by Cynefin).

That’s because it’s an emergent, non-linear process. It’s all probe-sense-respond. Listen. Ask A Clean Language question. Notice the answer you get. Update your picture of what’s going on. Ask another question. Rinse and repeat… developing your picture as you go.

What was even more striking to me was his observation that people (especially organisational managements, and consultants writing books and conference talks) seem to default to turning emergent, messy processes into linear ones – even when they know that’s not the reality of how it works.

For example, he talked about doing this in his own book, The Lean Product Lifecycle. He said, “It’s drawn as a circle, but really it’s a line… Then when we were teaching it we would add all these other dotted lines all over it, to show how you could start anywhere in the cycle, move anywhere… and in the end we were saying that the line was “for storytelling purposes only”!”

Linear management processes were a bit like a drunk uncle. They kept turning up and crashing the party!

(Re-reading this post, I notice that in my description of Clean above, I make it sound like a linear-iterative process. This linear thing is everywhere!)

I’m now wondering, if it’s not a line, and it’s not a circle – that’s just a line that iterates – what shape could we draw to represent an emergent, non-linear process? Tendayi drew a scribble. That reminds me of drawings of binds – knots, tangles etc.

It matters – because in Clean we know that once we have a metaphor for a bind, we can easily move up a level to start to figure out how to tackle the problem. And that solution will not have a linear relationship with the original problem… probably.

What strikes you about all of this? Please comment below.

9 thoughts on “What Shape Is A Wicked Problem?”

  1. Nice thoughts..
    And what strikes me about it is …..
    I kind of think of lots of process like waves…as one bit rises another falls ..they peek and trough…brake and form and do all sorts of wave like things ….and it keeps me fluid

  2. Thanks Judy, thought-provoking!

    This reminds me of Clean Space – I don’t know why, but it does. There is that magical space where everything happens between observation points. And somehow those different points are linked to others inside the space. And insights that will rise come out of those non-linear connections.

    I just got a challenging assignment where I need to create a new solution model for the complicated issue and this definitely did help. Thanks!

  3. Thought provoking piece, Judy.
    If this were an auditory metaphor, it would be a orchestral score with countless beginnings and endings and meanings to be made.

  4. Hesham Abdalla

    I loved the wave metaphor Shaun. And at quantum level, light is simultaneously a wave and a stream of particles 🙂

  5. Alex Blanes @daftmonk ‏wrote elsewhere: “We did the Wicked Problems LS at last month’s London meet-up.

    “I had an insight then which understood a wicked problem as a “strange attractor”—a basin of attraction for a set of possibilities, with either ‘end’ of the system representing the (often complementary) limits of said system.

    “Understanding these boundaries, and thereby transmuting the bias of a single perspective, could enable a whole understanding of the system described by the wicked problem.”

  6. Steve Grey wrote elsewhere: “If we draw any representation of a system, we tacitly place ourselves outside of it, which is a dangerous point of view for dealing with complexity. In general, we are part of the system, not an external and objective observer separate from the system but a part of the system that is affected by it and affects it.”

  7. Greta Irving @gretairving said: “I did a brief CL facilitation with a small group of people about wicked problems a few years ago. It was only a brief opportunity to facilitate but the metaphors that came up included spiders webs, mountains, moving fog, spaghetti…. What struck me about these metaphors was that they do not adequately represent the ‘wickedness” of wicked problems. And that the individuals themselves could not grasp the nature of the wickedness… therefore… they couldn’t see a way to work with the slipperyness and confounding nature of such things. Realisation dawned round the group that WPs were not solvable in the way they had hoped. I then did a bit of facilitation on when you have a wicked problem and its not solvable, WHN… there were some answers along the lines of letting go, compartmentalize, doing what you can, keeping going as far as you could, do what you can and manage expectations…
    For me a metaphor might be one of those fiendish monsters in greek mythology that sprang new and multiple limbs or new attributes every time you thought you’d defeated it. Or a form of consciousness that can respond to your thoughts as soon as you think them.”

    And Vincent van Der Lubbe suggested: “Soil. It needs an ecosystem to survive and grow. And it needs to connect and use/repurpose/reorganize the resources which are available.”

  8. Caitlin Walker @caitlinwalkerTA tells me that she did some facilitation with a group around this topic which resulted in the insight that metaphors for complexity were themselves complex. Which, of course, makes sense.

    Metaphors they came up with included the Large Hadron Collider and a garden designed by, she thinks, Capability Brown.

  9. Thank you, Judy!
    This is so well written, and explained … this is exactly how I work with Clean Language and Design Thinking but mostly with the second phase of the modèle, prototyping.
    In a previous phase I have people experimenting different gestures, looking at their emotions and their mindset… all this through Clean Language!.

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