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Escaping wicked problems

Some management dilemmas defy logic
Escaping wicked problems

Pick three words to describe how you like to approach a difficult business problem. There's a fair chance that your list will include words like logical, rational, process or method. You might even have said analysis, definition or measurement. If so, you are typical of the industry in which you work. 

The life sciences sector, steeped in science and wrapped in regulation, has an industry-wide culture that is characterised by an instinct to address issues in sequential, connected steps. And the long success of the industry demonstrates that, in most cases, it's a very effective way to solve many kinds of problems. But now think of business problems that seem intractable, such as being transparent in a bribery-ridden market or increasing team productivity while improving work life balance. These are problems that executives and consultants have attacked with an armoury of logic and process for many years but we still can't say we've cracked it. That's because these, and many other of our most challenging business issues, fall into the category of Wicked Problems and aren't amenable to our Vulcan-like instincts to define, analyse, dissect and process. But these and many other real world issues facing us remain important, pressing challenges. So how can we address them?

...problems that seem unsolvable by traditional, methodical methods

The first step is to understand why some problems are called wicked. By that, I'm not implying they are evil in any way. I'm simply adopting the terminology of Horst Rittel, who first used the term to designate a problem that seems unsolvable by traditional, methodical methods. Rittel and his colleague Melvin Webber recognised that wicked problems aren't just more difficult than ordinary problems, they have 10 distinct characteristics that differentiate them from other, more routine problems. These are shown in box 1.

10 Ways Wicked Problems are Different 
1. You can't fully define wicked problems in words
2. Wicked problems have no clear end point
3. Wicked problems have subjective solutions
4. You can't ever know if you've solved a wicked problem
5. The solutions to wicked problems have consequences that can't be undone
6. There is no clear set of alternative solutions to problems
7. No two wicked problems are the same
8. Wicked problems lead to other wicked problems
9. The consequences of wicked problems look different to different people
10. The problem solver will always be seen as wrong by somebody.

If those ten characteristics seem abstract or extreme, just apply them to the two examples I gave above. You will see how Rittel and Webber's criteria work, revealing the frustratingly interconnected and ill-defined nature of both the problem and the solution. Importantly, for a problem to be wicked it doesn't have to have all ten of these characteristics, just most of them. So if you find that a pressing business problem of your own meets many of these criteria, you can be reasonably sure that you're dealing with a wicked problem and that addressing it in a rigorous, methodical way will probably result in nothing more than an unsolved problem and a headache. 

If you are unlucky, you may even find that your business problem fits into a subclass described by Kelly Levin and her co-workers as 'Super-wicked Problems'. These have the same characteristics of wicked problems but also include approaching deadlines, lack of central authority, an environment where future outcomes are discounted on an irrational basis and, worst of all, a situation where the problem solvers are also problem creators. In my experience, many strategy formulation and implementation problems fit into this super-wicked category.

A useful second step in managing wicked problems is to understand where they are most often found. Although it is not always true, problems involving physical or natural systems - problems we might usually find in engineering, science or finance - are less likely to be wicked. By contrast, problems that emerge from social systems - organisations, societies, relationships - are much more likely to be of the wicked variety. This prevalence stems from the different sorts of systems they are and in particular from the interwoven, adaptive, dynamic nature of social systems. This is an important observation because, encultured in the scientific method as we are, many life science industry executives default to a rational approach when faced with social-system, human problems. In effect, this represents a tendency for us to treat people like molecules and organisations as if they were test tubes. This habit, often seen in consultancy-led change management programmes, is naïve and, because it originates in our preference for our personal comfort zones, it is essentially self-indulgent. 

So, wicked problems are different from ordinary problems and they are often found in the messy, social, human systems that we call organisations, whether that be our own, our customer's or at the interface between the two. We have a tendency to approach them as if they were ordinary problems, not because it is effective but because it makes us feel comfortable. Knowing all this is useful but we are still left with the question of how to properly address our wicked problems. To illustrate and compare possible approaches, allow me to use a real world example, simplified for clarity, which is very relevant for life science companies.

All companies, life science or otherwise, face the same dilemma when designing their innovation process. Do we look to the market and develop what it wants or seize on scientific innovation and develop products as yet unimaginable? The arguments for both are well-rehearsed and are often entrenched in functional silos. To caricature the product-led school, often based in R&D, customers don't and can't know what they want so innovation must be technologically led. The counter, market-led argument, usually based in sales and marketing, is that product orientation is wasteful, producing incremental, unsellable gimmicks, so innovation must be customer-led. Life science companies have struggled to balance these two opposing arguments for decades and, when one assesses this dilemma against Rittel and Webber's 10 criteria, we can see that it fits easily into the wicked problem category. When it is crystallised into a decision about a particular product development choice or licensing agreement, it can become exacerbated into the super-wicked category.

In the right circumstances, ...[collaborative consensus] offer[s] the best potiential outcome

The most authoritative and oft-cited view on how to approach wicked problems is in the work of Roberts, who suggested three possible routes. Described in the context of our market-led/product-led problem, these are:

Revert to authority
This approach would reduce the complexity of the question by reducing the number of people involved. In our example, a small, senior team would call the product development shots. One can immediately see the attraction of this streamlined approach but of course it depends on the small team having an excellent appreciation of a complex issue, which is not always the case.

Competing arguments
This approach depends on encouraging the development of alternatives and enabling their competition against each other. In our example, competing product-led and market-led initiatives would make their case. The merits of this approach - clarity and constructive conflict - are attractive. However, it creates adversarial relationships and depends on an objective judging process, which is asking a lot of human beings.

Collaborative consensus
This approach depends on enabling all stakeholders to share their thoughts constructively and move towards common agreement. In our example, technological innovation and customer needs would converge on an optimal product strategy. This approach sounds ideal in theory but is very time consuming, requires expert facilitation and is prone to influence by strong, not necessarily well-informed, egos.

Which of these approaches is the best and most effective? Well, in the manner traditional of academic researchers, I have to give the answer 'It depends'. Rittel himself seemed to lean towards the third, collaborative, approach and, in the right circumstances, that would seem to offer the best potential outcome. However, expert facilitators are rarely found internally and external experts rarely have the necessary contextual knowledge. Also, in time-pressured situations, collaboration is the slowest approach. The autocratic, revert-to-authority approach has the merit of speed and efficiency. But without a well-informed, objective leadership this approach will lead, quickly and efficiently, to a suboptimal result. The competitive approach seems to offer most when the alternatives can be well defined which, as Rittel noted, is not always the case for wicked problems. In addition, political biases and ineffective comparison processes can mean that what is superficially a competitive process is, in the end, a Machiavellian political one. So, in the end, the choice of approach to solving your own wicked problem is a contingent one. If you can, find a skilled, well-informed facilitator to enable the collaborative approach. If time or skills prevent this, and you have the ability to run a fair competition, then do so. Alternatively, when complexity threatens to overwhelm you, resort to authority that is as well informed as possible. The only sure thing is that, if your issue scores highly on Rittel and Webber's criteria, then don't default to your rational, methodical, culturally embedded approach to problem solving, no matter how comfortable.

Article by
Professor Brian D Smith

is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences sector. He works at the University  of Hertfordshire and SDA Bocconi. He welcomes comments and questions on brian.smith@pragmedic.com

18th February 2016

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