Wicked Problems

I wrote a few weeks back about Hard Problems in IT and my thinking that while some parts of the IT universe are getting easier there are some that are getting much harder. Yesterday while at the Gartner Symposium I participated in a workshop on “Solving Wicked Problems” led by Diane Morello and Mark McDonald. The workshop highlighted that there is a real domain of thinking called Wicked Problems that came out of social planning and there are studies and research on how to solve these problems

Wicked Problems are defined as difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. There are complex interdependencies and it might be unclear as to when the problem is actually solved. One of the important characteristics of such problems is that there are complex behavioral or social aspects to these problems. If it was just a complex technical problem but didn’t have social aspects it is likely not a wicked problem. Putting a man on the moon is certainly hard but it likely doesn’t fit the class of problems called wicked.

As we discussed these problems I learned that there are real leadership and learning aspects of these problems. Leaders must help with clarity and scope and all must be open to iterative learning from those involved. It would be critical to listen to different constituents and hear their perspectives, stories and issues with the problem space. These problems involve deep changes and as we all know change is hard for all involved. I wrote about change management a while back.

Securing the IP and operations of an organization would seem to fit this class of problem. It involves complex technology and risk understanding as well as huge social aspects as security depends on everyone’s support and behavior. There is no clear end point and in fact one might never know if the result is achieved!

Supporting the dynamics of end user technology transitions in an enterprise might be another one. Can you say iPad in the workplace? Diverse mobile platforms and easily downloadable software from the Internet make this hard to manage. Users have their own priorities and interests that complicate the problem.

There are some specific methodologies to work these wicked problems. I found the workshop at the Symposium useful. If you find yourself doing work on these kind of problems you might take a look.

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