Why we suck at “solving wicked problems” and 6 ways to become better.

Sonja Blignaut
Nov 30 · 8 min read

Problems: Wicked, complex, intractable or adaptive … whatever we choose to call them, we seem to suck at solving them. We often get profoundly overwhelmed and stuck and I believe the reason for this is hidden in the language I used in the title and previous sentence (hint: it’s not the adjectives).

Two words: “problems” and “solving” …

I’ve sat in many workshops where well-meaning people try to tackle what they invariably end up calling wicked problems. From transforming organisations, to health and safety to larger issues like youth unemployment, wildlife crime orsystemic poverty; we keep circling around and around these issues and never seem to make much progress.

Here’s how I see it. We often think we need …

  • problem solving skills (and a solution mindset)
  • new and different answers
  • expert advice and proven practices (best practices from other areas where they’ve had some success)
  • clarity: e.g. clearly defined problem statements (preferably at the level of root causes and drivers) & clear goals and focus areas
  • a clear vision of the ideal end state
  • alignment (of stakeholders etc)
  • measurable outcomes
  • a lot of money and the very best technology

What we actually need … (but often avoid)

  1. Sense-making

We are always dealing with different contexts. For example, consider wildlife crime: there are aspects that are quite ordered and predictable for example obtaining a permit to export lion bones legally; or drafting a new quota policy. However there are other aspects that are profoundly complex e.g social dynamics and perceptions around social justice, subsistance and conservation. This means that something that should be straightforward, like implementing a quota can have profound unintended consequences.

Before we jump into linear problem-solving, I believe we need to do sense-making. The framework I prefer to use is Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework as it enables me to distinguish between ordered aspects (where I can find root causes; do problem solving, involve experts; apply best practice; manage change etc) and complex aspects where I am dealing with emergent patterns with no clear linear causality. Here, I need to engage with the system to gain an understanding of how things are connected, run safe-to-fail experiments and learn and adapt as I go. If we apply linear thinking and ordered approaches such as root cause analysis; traditional scenario planning and best practices to complex problems we invariable end up making things worse.

2. Pattern intelligence.

I find Glenda Eoyang’s framing useful in this context: we need to learn to see patterns not problems — or acquire pattern intelligence. If I look at wildlife crime as a problem to solve, I can very quickly become overwhelmed. To solve wildlife crime I need to (among others) change consumption habits or spiritual beliefs of entire cultures in order to reduce demand; I need to disrupt organised crime networks and bring kingpins to justice; on the supply side I need to solve social justice issues; systemic poverty, unemployment and corruption; and … the list goes on.

A way to become unstuck and feel less overwhelmed is to look at wildlife crime as a pattern, with multiple interrelated influences or modulators and therefore multiple potential entry points. Instead of trying to find solutions, I focus on shifting the pattern through multiple small interventions, nudges or experiments. Every time I interact with the pattern it changes, new opportunities open up and I learn more about the system.

A metaphor I find useful in this context is James Carse’s finite and infinite games. If we think about finding solutions, we see it as a finite game with an outcome, a winner and a loser. Here we tend to think that if we can only find that one breakthrough idea that will unlock everything we can permanently solve the problem e.g we can put an end to poverty forever. If however we see think about an infinite game, where the rules, boundaries and players keep changing and where there is no clear outcome or winner we realise that we must focus on influencing an ever-adapting pattern to evolve in more beneficial ways. The purpose becomes to keep the game going, becoming aware and adaptive enough that you are the one creating the shifts that other players must respond to, not the other way around. If we see poverty or wildlife crime as an infinite game or ever-shifting pattern that we can influence, the way we engage with it will be very different, and I believe much more effective.

3. Value questions, not answers.

“We live in worlds our questions create.” — David Cooperider

I think most of us would say we live in worlds our answers create. Invariably think tanks and projects are focused on finding new answers. If we can just get the right experts in the room, or enough big data, or better AI soluions, we can find the answers we need to solve the problem. I believe if we start from a position of curiosity and finding new and different questions to ask, it would be much more useful. Answers are based on our current questions which are based on current assumptions or knowledge. In volatile and fast-changing contexts, what we think we know today may not be true tomorow. Or what is valid in one context, may not be valid in another. Discovering new questions, broadening our perspective and being curious (vs judgmental) will get us much further than looking for answers.

We also need to be open to new and different sources of knowledge: it is often the people we disregard, those with boots on the ground who have the contextual knowledge we need. If we combine this local knowledge with oblique or naïve perspectives i.e. people from other disciplines or with expertise in adjacent fields the chance that radically different insights will emerge is much greater than when we get a room full of “experts” together looking for answers.

4. Ambiguity and nuance vs certainty and clarity

Our need for certainty and clarity often leads to over simplification. Issues become black and white, people are either good or evil e.g. poachers become evil criminals that we can kill if we encounter them vs the more nuanced view that a poacher may be a desperate human being, trapped in poverty, needing to care for an extended family with no education and no prospects of getting a job.

These simplistic binary views cause us to implement equally simplistic solutions that end up making things worse. For example deploying the army to assist rangers with anti-poaching activities that end up further alienating the communities that we expect to be our allies in the fight against wildlife crime. Or making assumptions about the “demand side” of wildlife crime— that we know best and that we have the right to change cultural traditions and behaviour that we view as stupid or barbaric. Typically our simplistic solution to this is to design communication strategies that target entire people groups on the other side of the world with messages aimed at making their cultural beliefs and behaviours more like ours. Is this not another form of colonialism? Who decides what the “right” cultural values are for a nation or people group? It’s no wonder our efforts are resisted or at best ignored.

We can also choose to see the root cause of all of this to be economic: it’s “all about the money” — so if we can find the right incentives we can manage the market forces. Counter greed with greed. No unintended consequences there I’m sure …

We need to get to a place where we can see all of these nuanced interacting influences; all of the tensions and contradicting values at play; and be able to contain and work within that ambiguity. It is only when we are able to hold the tension, see the “AND” vs the “OR” that we will be able to engage with the system in a constructive way.

5. Focus on the present and what is possible from where we are (vs working backwards from an ideal future state)

An ideal future state is usually described from a limited perspective, not taking competing objectives into account. Even taking into account diverse perspectives, they are based on what we believe is possible or probable. They almost never realise in the way we imagined.

For example, for conservationists the ideal state may look like a world where wildlife crime has been completely eradicated: where animal populations recover and thrive and no one every feels the need to use a tonic made of rhino horn or lion bones again. I’d wager that that is not the ideal future state that a traditional healer or even an economist would describe. Defining an ideal state and designing solutions to close the gap is a trap. While we need a clear sense of direction and purpose, and in the shorter term goals and objectives, we need to be grounded fully in the present; meeting the system where it is and evolving or nudging it towards existing adjacent possibles (i.e. potentially beneficial patterns that already exist in the system and that are’t too far away from the current state). This is a much more pragmatic and sustainable (and often more cost-effective) strategy. To use an analogy: it’s like crossing a river on stepping stones i.e. I know my direction is towards the other side of the river, but I have no specific spot in mind — I follow the path as it emerges: vs designing and building a bridge.

6. Seek coherence not alignment

We often fall into the trap of expecting alignment between different stakeholders, projects, contexts etc. Alignment to the same vision or goal; aligned initiatives; aligned values. But in a world where we are dealing with competing values and tensions, we need diversity to respond to diversity. Alignment usually requires consensus, and it is valuable in ordered contexts where we are working towards known outcomes with fixed scopes and budgets; where we need co-ordination and collaboration. Here if we have no alignment it is like a relay race where athletes aren’t ready to accept the baton from each other or a football game where the teams try to score on the wrong side of the field.

When dealing with complex problems, however, consensus is often impossible as we are dealing with competing values, paradoxes and multiple inter-related causal influences. Experts would often disagree, and be able to offer valid evidence that support their competing views. Here consensus and alignment are dangerously limiting: so we need to think about enabling coherent heterogeneity. This is key to being able to implement portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments where some may contradict others. Having a coherent sense of direction with clear boundaries to create “safety guardrails” allows us to maintain local diversity, implement potentially conflicting experiments and engage with the system with the common objective of learning and evolving together. If we acknowledge that we are playing an infinite game i.e. there are no winners or losers; we can experiment, learn and adapt together and hopefully shift the pattern to one that is more beneficial for all.

One final note:

Money and technology are hugely valuable resources: they are certainly necessary but they are not sufficient. Simply throwing more money and/or more advanced technology at a problem will not make it go away. We need to fundamentally change our thinking paradigm and approach things in context-appropriate ways, otherwise we will never move the needle on these so-called wicked problems.

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