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Wicked Opportunities

Lessons For Survival On The Voyage To The Elusive Future

“It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Niels Bohr

You may well have heard of the wicked problem. It’s the definition of especially thorny societal problems. It was coined in the 6o’s by Horst Rittel.

For the last two decades (at least) I’ve come to realise that even solving an everyday business problem is hard — often wickedly hard. And keeping the damn thing solved ?— doubly wicked.

Getting to the future is a pretty nebulous idea. You describe the ideal future, it seems reasonable if a little challenging but that’s good. The world changes constantly and the plans you’ve made have to change accordingly.

A blank sheet of paper

In established businesses, there’s never a blank sheet of paper.

A business is typically built on a ‘solution’ to customer need. This would be fine in an ideal world — but no one is starting from scratch.

Ground Zero

A majority of businesses have to start the voyage to the future by untangling the constraints of their current situation — previous investments in infrastructure, cultures, existing plans, leadership styles, competitive players, new/disruptive entrants, stakeholder demands, capability and skill gaps, existing technology challenges, shifts in consumer demand, channels to markets, supply chains, market maturity and expectations, future technology adoption, workforce motivation, distribution challenges, regulatory challenges, cyber-security, relationship building, sales techniques, branding, messaging — management and operational designs. To state a few.

Even Starting Is Hard:

  1. Identifying the actual challenge. Once identified — knowing where to start. Knowing ‘how’ to start. Recognising that the actual challenge wasn't really the challenge.
  2. Getting anyone’s attention. Explaining the challenge without scaring everyone off. Keeping everyone’s attention.
  3. Finding the time to apply useful thought. Identifying those with useful thought. Figuring out where to focus the thought. Knowing what to do with the thought.
  4. Changing habits and behaviours as remedies emerge. Realising that changing habits and behaviours is almost impossible.

And on and on…

But, because the challenges are wicked — so are the opportunities.

Some Lessons

  1. To get anything done requires people to get their hands dirty.
  2. Getting people involved will not happen without attention and trust.
  3. Impartiality, objectivity, facilitation and constructive challenge are paramount.
  4. Finding the team with the right mentality and attitude is non-negotiable.
  5. I built tools that looked like fun but worked — great conversations — big visuals — blueprints, frameworks —short programs, engaging techniques, plain language — solutions that are easy to kick off.
  6. Simple and yet robust enough to embrace the wickedness.
  7. Immersive enough to transfer confidence to those who will be executing.
  8. Being visual, collaborative and creative as well as — rigorous, forensic and analytical.
  9. Practical deliverables that are immediately useful and owned by the team.
  10. Another hundred things.

Wicked challenges require smart thinking.

Putting it graphically…

The Future Takes Some Thinking About

Clients Will Say:

  1. “We have fundamental business challenges to overcome” — access to investment, upgrading the way the operation works, attracting the right skills, transforming the culture, changing mindsets — a big list.
  2. “We need to take advantage of the opportunities” — growth, scale, new product developments, new markets and new business models — a big list.
  3. “The business has to develop practical plans if we are to achieve the future” — capabilities, capacities, processes systems, timelines, milestones.
  4. “We need to get to results fast” — we have competitive pressure, lack of data, variable maturity across our managers and leaders.

The reality is all these four come along at once. They are all part of the same puzzle — present in every challenge.

Putting the challenge graphically…

Riffing on the definition of the Wicked Problem

All Business Challenges Are Wicked So All Operations Need To Be Intelligent

  • A Strategic Sense Of Direction — Dealing with wicked challenges demands having a clear and inspiring vision.
  • A Coherent Operational Approach — A successful vision will only be achieved with an intelligent operation in place.
  • The Right Leadership Mindset — An intelligent operation can only be built by determined leadership.
  • Prepared For Anything — Intelligent operations are adaptive, aware, resilient and persistent.
  • An Ecology — Everyone involved internally and externally is engaged within an intelligent operation.
  • Intelligently Designed — Critical and systems thinking is an essential foundation for the operation of the future.
  • Resourced For The Future— Capability in application — digital and data analytics, market dynamics are foundational, not optional skills.
  • Designed For The Future — Profit is important but it has to result through a sustainable purpose — one which respects the planet and the people who are served or depend on it.

Putting it graphically…

Getting To The Future Requires The Right Preparation

  • Appreciate — the continuous challenges and barriers in ways that ensure they can be turned to your advantage.
  • Define — Arrive quickly at a shared definition of what the future vision is — and how that integrates with the whole operation.
  • Deconstruct — Breaking the challenge into parts (to be tackled) without forgetting that operations are whole systems.
  • Declare — Knowing what is critical to — and what constitutes success.
  • Think — A focus on what matters, what’s changed and how that implicates shifts to everything across the operation.
  • Design — Assemble the right team and install the systems and processes that will allow for open and trusted communications and collaboration.

Putting it graphically…

A Practical Approach

  • Establish the mechanism — know how to bring the right skills to bear at the right time and on the right challenge.
  • Equip the team — ensure those who will execute are with you through the entire journey by communicating and collaborating on the real work.
  • Remove the jargon — don’t allow any language to be used that seeks to make the point unclear.
  • Create trust and engagement — interact human to human — use co-creation techniques and tools to engage and create ownership.
  • Work with objective partners — work with those prepared to bring impartiality and truth to the challenge rather than their vested interests.
  • Compress the time to value — create frameworks and conditions for choosing the path — the hard work required to make high-quality decisions
  • Invest, measure, learn — identify what matters, invest in that, stop what was being done, explain why — communicate the results.

Putting it graphically…

Turn Every Insight Into An Advantage — Principles

  • Given the right perspective and experience, a barrier is always an opportunity.
  • Listening to those on the front line is essential — they always know more than those at a distance.
  • Likewise listening to those at a distance is essential too — but hearing what both are saying is what makes the difference.
  • An insight is not data. It is the jewel resting somewhere within it — the element that can ignite value and unlock everything.

Continued:

  • Creating advantage from adversity requires the right mindset. Paying attention to what happens in adverse conditions develops the right mindset. This often gets called experience.
  • An insight is that breakthrough piece of information — an ‘aha slice’ of clarity and truth that is hiding somewhere within all the rest of the data.
  • Trust is at the heart of everything. For us to trust each other is to have the belief that the motivation is pure.
  • An insight is precise information — something so valuable that it can inform the direction and distinguish the decision or choices to be made.
  • We are all creative — even though it may not be in the job title or the role definition. Creativity is the raw material we have to draw on as we embark on this new era.

Putting it graphically…

A Summary Of Sorts

The future is unknown.

All you can do is be as prepared as possible to go there. The lessons above took decades to summarise — they’re still being learned.

But use them.

If I was still a client I would double down on finding that trusted team of people who would tell me the truth.

Those who would come with enough experience that they know they don’t know the answer but would not stop until they helped me get there.

Test and learn.

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John Caswell

John Caswell

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I'm John Caswell - The founder and CEO of Group Partners. We Help Clients Make Strategies That Work. I’m The Head Of Crayons.