Wicked Problems and Creative Change

Change is a given in organisations and the need for change is recognised when there is a gap between what is desired and what exists. We could refer to this gap as a problem or a series of  issues, sometimes even an opportunity.

In terms of problems there are two ways of looking at these, tame and wicked problems. Tame ones are relatively easy to solve as they are clearly formulated and there is an obvious testable solution. These can be solved using logical, rational means provided that there is a clarity around the problem definition.

What are Wicked Problems?

Wicked problems are not clearly formulated, nor is there one testable  solution. In problem solving terms wicked (or messy problems as they are often referred to)  require a creative approach rather than a logical rational approach because they involve many possibilities, can be seen from many perspectives and there is no one clear answer. If a wicked problem is addressed using rational, logical techniques then it is highly probable that there is no clear understanding of the problem and that a solution has been found which may not actually resolve the situation.

Here are some of the ways in which Rittell described wicked problems:

  • There is no definitive formulation of the problem
  • There is no stopping rule
  • Solutions are not true or false, but good or bad
  • There is no immediate test or ultimate test of a solution
  • Every solution is a one-shot solution, there is no trial and error possibility ( the solution can open up other wicked problems)
  • There is no exhaustive set of possible solutions
  • Every wicked problem is unique
  • Every wicked problem can be seen as a symptom of another wicked problem

For example a typical problem that I have come across with leaders has been: ’employees are not taking responsibility for their mistakes, are not engaged and this needs to change’.

If the parameters above are applied in this example, then it would certainly fall into the wicked problem category: there is no one right answer, the problem is unique within the context of the organisation and its culture and environment, there are many possible ways of solving the problem once the problem has been fully explored and understood.

Creative Problem Solving Approach

So for this reason I would advocate a creative problem solving approach to facilitating the change process. A creative problem solving (CPS) approach makes good use of alternating divergent and convergent phases and forces time to reflect upon the nature and understanding of the problem before it is defined.

I will come back to this process in a later blog post.

If this is something you have experience in and/or are interested in, please share  your stories here.

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