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How Can We Deal With “Wicked Problems”?

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of “wicked problems”. More and more, we’re facing complex and challenging issues as individuals, partners, parents, work teams and as a society.

So what should we do when we’re faced with a problem that doesn’t have a simple solution? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as finding the missing piece and dropping it into the puzzle!

What is a "wicked problem"?

It’s a problem that is difficult to solve because it is: 

  • dynamic, 
  • high-stakes, 
  • complex, and 
  • messy.

It involves:

  • multiple layers of interconnected systems, 
  • imperfect solutions, and
  • many different stakeholders with competing interests. 

Sound familiar?

Wicked problems pop up in our relationships, businesses, and society as a whole. 

How do we solve wicked problems?

There are three commons approaches to solving them: 

  • Authoritarian — a single person or small group of people is tasked with deciding what to do. Competing viewpoints are ignored, or worse, extinguished completely.
  • Competitive — stakeholders have to come up with their preferred solution, then fight it out to decide whose solution will be implemented.
  • Collaborative — stakeholders are brought together to find the optimal solution.

The issue is that, no matter which approach we use, we’ll never solve a wicked problem in a way that everyone agrees with. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

So what should we do? 

Firstly, notice that we’re dealing with a wicked problem. Recognising what we’re facing is an important place to start. 

Secondly, draw out information and input from as many stakeholders as possible, by listening with as little pre-judgement as possible. This lends itself to the competitive and collaborative approaches mentioned above — authoritarian approaches might not have much use for consultation and discovery!

And thirdly, acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a perfect solution — but imperfect attempts at solving a problem is better than sitting around arguing about what the perfect solution would be. 

Which approach works best?

The odds are that the collaboration approach will produce a solution that is acceptable to the widest group of people. It’s unlikely to leave anyone thinking that it’s a perfect solution. 

An experienced negotiator once told me, “My job is to make sure no one leaves the table completely happy”. By this he meant that everyone has to give up a bit of what they want to get a result that benefits the widest possible group of people.

What wicked problems are you facing?

Take a moment to check in with yourself — where are you facing wicked problems? Remember, they can turn up at home, at work, or in the community.

What steps can you take once you’ve recognised your wicked problem? Whose perspective do you need to seek out? And how can you contribute to an imperfect-but-implemented solution? 

Do you need some help?

If you need some support to tackle your wicked problems, I offer tailored coaching and training programmes. You can read more about my approach on my coaching and training/facilitation pages, or book your free, no-obligation 30-minute chat using the button below.


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