Wicked problems

Resolving performance problems has always been a key leadership role. A new challenge for leaders is to recognise that there are different types of problem and that they demand different approaches if they are to be successfully resolved.

There are 3 fundamental types of problem: tame, critical and wicked.

Wicked problems

Wicked problems involve novel, complex, messy and often intractable challenges. There are no known solutions, partly because the causes are themselves complex, ambiguous and often interconnected.

The first step in tackling wicked problems is for leaders to recognise them for what they are, and avoid applying management or command actions. The drive must be to search for patterns in the data describing the problem; use the collective intelligence built up through connections and relationships throughout the organisation; use constructive dissent to flush out new insights; and build comfort for people to explore the unknown and test innovative solutions. Typical wicked problems include: achieving sales targets while complying with regulations; reducing crime; losses of too many good people; and changes in markets or technologies.

Every wicked problem is an opportunity to gain a double advantage. As well as resolving the wicked problem, you need to develop a more resilient organisation. That is, an organisation that constantly adapts to a changing environment, either by reacting to current problems or by anticipating future problems. This ensures greater capacity for resolving future wicked problems.

We use informal networks help us understand what causes wicked problems and then take appropriate action to address them. This forms the basis for developing the resilient organisation.