Man­ag­ing a Fu­ture Filled with Wicked Prob­lems

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By John Camil­lus

Dis­rup­tive busi­ness mod­els and wicked prob­lems have de-linked the fu­ture from the past, mak­ing tra­di­tional

strate­gic plan­ning sys­tems in­ad­e­quate.

are the two fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges COM­PLEX­ITY AND UN­CER­TAINTY that stand be­tween mod­ern man­agers and the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of their or­ga­ni­za­tions. Many of the tech­niques that man­agers em­ploy to deal with un­cer­tainty and risk — such as con­tin­gency plan­ning and five-forces analy­ses — fo­cus on cop­ing with and lim­it­ing volatil­ity. But un­cer­tainty comes in dif­fer­ent forms than sim­ple volatil­ity. In many cases, en­tirely dif­fer­ent al­ter­na­tive fu­tures ex­ist, and they are clouded by am­bi­gu­ity. When these ex­treme vari­a­tions of un­cer­tainty and com­plex­ity in­ter­act, ‘wicked­ness’ re­sults.

UC Berke­ley pro­fes­sors of De­sign and Ur­ban Plan­ning Horst Rit­tel and Melvin Web­ber first de­fined wicked prob­lems in 1973, iden­ti­fy­ing ten char­ac­ter­is­tics of these prob­lems. Rec­og­niz­ing that many of these char­ac­ter­is­tics were the same ones be­ing faced by my clients and ex­ec­u­tive stu­dents, I wrote an ar­ti­cle for Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view in 2008, called “Strat­egy as a Wicked Prob­lem.” In the en­su­ing years I have con­tin­ued to work on strate­gic wicked prob­lems with busi­ness lead­ers world­wide, and based on my ex­pe­ri­ence, I have whit­tled the ten cri­te­ria down to a more man­age­able five that are par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent to the realm of or­ga­ni­za­tional strat­egy. The five es­sen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics of wicked prob­lems that ren­der tra­di­tional prob­lem-solv­ing ap­proaches im­po­tent in this arena are:

1. The per­ceived ‘prob­lem’ is dif­fi­cult to de­fine, and sub­stan

tially with­out prece­dent. 2. There are mul­ti­ple, sig­nif­i­cant stake­hold­ers with con­flict­ing val­ues and pri­or­i­ties who are af­fected by the per­ceived prob­lem and re­sponses to it. 3. There are many ap­par­ent causes of the per­ceived prob­lem,

and they are in­ex­tri­ca­bly tan­gled. 4. It is not pos­si­ble to be sure when you have the cor­rect or best

so­lu­tion; there is no ‘stop­ping’ rule. 5. The un­der­stand­ing of what the prob­lem is changes when re

viewed in the con­text of al­ter­na­tive pro­posed so­lu­tions.

Prob­lems pos­sess­ing these char­ac­ter­is­tics can­not be solved by tra­di­tional meth­ods, be­cause tra­di­tional meth­ods re­quire a clear and ac­cepted prob­lem def­i­ni­tion. In this ar­ti­cle I will ex­plore one of the tools that mod­ern or­ga­ni­za­tions can em­brace

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