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.