Wicked Problems III
PROFESSORS Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber WHEN UC BERKELEY coined the term ‘wicked problem’ back in 1973, they could not have foreseen how poignant it would become for 21st century leaders. ‘Wickedness’, they argued, does not pertain to a degree of difficulty; wicked problems are different because traditional problem-solving processes cannot resolve them. Unlike ‘tame’ problems — which can be irrefutably solved — wicked problems are messy and reactive, and there is no single solution. Indeed, defining the parameters of the problem itself is often half the challenge.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because so many of the problems we face today fall into the wicked category. What features should you include in your next product? How should the global medical community tackle Ebola? What can be done about income inequality and youth unemployment? The ‘answers’ to such questions depend very much on who you ask, because wicked problems are about people with vested interests.
Our first issue dedicated to wicked problems was published in winter 2009, followed by a second in spring 2012. With this issue, we pick up the mantel once again to present some of the tools and mindsets required to tackle wicked problems of all shapes and sizes. We kick the issue off on page 6 with The Power of Coordinated Action, where Rotman Chair in Management Anita Mcgahan describes how temporary, collaborative organizations are emerging to create infrastructure and fulfill missions that no one organization can achieve on its own.
University of Pittsburgh Professor John Camillus began the discussion of wicked problems in the business arena in 2008, with an article in Harvard Business Review. As he prepares to launch a new book on the topic, he presents a tool that can help with ‘wicked strategy’ formulation in Feed-forward Systems: Framing a Future Filled with Wicked Problems on page 52.
Elsewhere in this issue, Rotman Professor Sarah Kaplan describes the emerging, opportunity-laden field of ‘gender investing’ on page 40; IDEO’S Jane Fulton Suri et al discuss the power of empathy as a strategic tool on page 60; and our Idea Exchange includes UCLA psychiatrist Mark Goulston on the importance of listening; former Nelson Mandela assistant Zelda La Grange on the key lessons the great man taught her; and Rotman Professors Dan Trefler and Mark Stabile on their latest research.
Knowledge will always be an important asset, but complex problem solving also requires emotional and social resources. Importantly, it demands that problem solvers know how to leverage complexity, rather than stifling it. As contributor Frank Spencer has said: “Without actively developing this new type of thinker, we are going to miss the unlimited possibilities to create aspirational futures and solve long-standing world problems.”
As Spencer shows in his article on page 80, an era of ‘wicked opportunities’ not only has the potential to usher in some amazing solutions to our greatest problems, it could also generate a new pipeline for economic development and job creation. The choice of whether to participate or not is ours; but make no mistake: one way or the other, the future will be wicked.