Tackling Wicked Problems — Applying Science to Collaboration

In many ways collaboration comes naturally to people, despite the common assumption that we should all be competing our way to success. Sometimes all we need to do is take down artificial barriers. And we all know collaboration can be helped by the right conditions — the attitudes of people participating, good communication systems, effective facilitators, pleasant workshop venues. But sometimes we face stubborn challenges where a large part of the problem is that everyone is seeing the situation from their own perspective, describing it in different ways and holding different ideas on where to start. Often these problems span organisational boundaries, and resist all attempts to break them down into smaller more manageable parts.

These challenges can be described as ‘Wicked Problems’, first labelled in the 1970s. And the good news is that for 50 years or more now, people have been working out how to deal with them. As a senior manager in business in the 1990s I spent a lot of my time wrestling with this sort of challenge, and I was always on the lookout for tools and methods that could help. In 2003 I was introduced to a methodology based on a body of science that started to develop in the USA in the 1980s, now generally called Structured Dialogic Design or Structured Democratic Dialogue (let’s call it Structured Dialogue for short). Since then I have seen it work in many different situations across the private and public sectors, including a health service transformation in Manchester.

Andy Hegedus of Demosophia leading a Structured Dialogue Colab

So how does it work? A key principle of tackling a complex or wicked problem is that we first need to understand the various stakeholder perspectives, to get ‘the big picture’. That means bringing together individuals who can represent those perspectives — and that immediately creates the next problem, which is that these people almost by definition don’t really understand each other. We rely a lot on words. We can’t help making the assumption that when someone else strings a sentence together, it means the same to us as it means to them. On that assumption we create service specifications, business plans, strategies, and we have meetings and workshops. We intend to exchange meaning, but what we actually exchange are words (and hopefully sometimes pictures). My experience with Structured Dialogue is that words are slippery things. We are all alert to the idea that specialists develop their own terms, but what everyone misses is that different groups also use the same words to mean different things (‘commissioning’ is a good one!). Structured Dialogue rapidly uncovers these points of misunderstanding and supports the participants in co-creating a common language, along with shared meaning, which is fundamental in establishing trust.

We don’t just need a shared language. We then need to use it to develop a shared view of the complex challenge, one that represents the key dimensions of the problem, ‘the big picture’. This part can be mind-blowing without process and technology support, as we humans have not yet evolved the capability of holding much complexity in our heads — at least not in the short-term memory we rely on much of the time. The research says we can each handle 5 to 9 individual items at once (which is why phone numbers get broken down into smaller chunks). Our standard way of coping is to write things down, but in a workshop we can’t all focus on the same part of a large document (we can try, and many do, with Powerpoint, but we all know how well that works). We can write words and phrases on post-it notes, and group them into categories, but that doesn’t mean we have developed enough shared meaning to really make a difference once the workshop is over and we are back to the day-job. So with Structured Dialogue we focus on just two factors at any one time, keeping well within our cognitive capabilities. Behind the scenes the software is recording how these multiple factors fit together, developing an ‘influence map’. This map is co-created by all of the participants, and amongst other things reveals the deep drivers of the system, which are generally where the most attention needs to be focused to improve the situation. The priorities become clear, and very importantly, hold the power that they have been genuinely co-created by the participants.

If you are interested in finding out more you can find case studies and links to the science at https://demosophia.com/resources/.

Pete Miles


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