“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

My experience in facilitating groups through a process of understanding and engaging with a wicked problems is that there is actually a lightness to these engagements. Often, foresight processes can be strewn with people’s emotions as they grapple with their hopes and fears for a future yet to come. There can be an undercurrent of wanting to ‘get it right’ and not wanting to make a mistake or seen to not know what the answer might be. All of these dynamics are usually considered in a process design and so the outcome is positive, but the ‘feel’ is different to a group focussed on a wicked problem.

I wonder if the sheer level of ‘overwhemingness’ in the face of a wicked problem is an ingredient in this. Once a group has decided to grapple with a wicked problem the usual solutions have been tried and proven not to work. There is a recognition that the solution has to be collaborative and that there is lack of control on the part of the participants – they are usually only one part of the system.

Wicked problems do not have a single, optimal once-off solution. They have a temporary solution. And it is a solution that has to change over time in response to changing circumstances. The changing nature of wicked problems and large uncertainties surrounding physical predictions and future policy changes mean we have to take an adaptive approach to the problem.

Scharmer’s work on Theory U tries to grapple with this type of engagement by bringing the whole system into the room, and this is something I would like to try one day, if a client was ever interested. At Swinburne, we designed a social incubator for The Smith Family which held the space for such an engagement but we have so far been unable to find funding for the model. In the meantime, our process is to ask groups to appreciate the problem, imagine a future state where the problem is better or at least not worse than today and then to identify what has to be done to bring this about. A cross-section of the organisation is usually in the room and the process of appreciation often opens people’s eyes to the size and complexity of the problem, and the lack of control held by those in the room. This appreciation then seems to lead to a relaxation of the solution striving that can be a focus for planning, and often times we see highly innovative ideas germinated. The art is then to design the interventions in such a way that they are prototypes which fail and fail often to feed information into the system and in the process, change the dynamic, hopefully to something closer to the desired state. I think it is this embrace of the idea that all solutions will eventually fail that gives people the freedom to open up their thinking. Too often organisations say they want innovation but without failure, in my opinion, this is not possible. If you don’t fail at some point, then you are not tying hard enough.