Wicked problems defy solutions. They are complex, riddled with uncertainties, in many ways unpredictable and can certainly be volatile. So what is the best way to handle wicked problems? A great question indeed – the 5 steps below are a good place to start.
Take it Slow
A wicked problem is tough. Like an octopus, it has arms that extend into other areas, can change its color and leave a cloud of ink behind when it escapes your grasp. How changes in those areas of your business feed back into each other is what makes them difficult to anticipate. Cause and effect are very difficult to establish in a complex environment. Take it slowly and approach change incrementally. Carefully observe these small experiments and how they affect your environment. Before implementing any changes, consider if your changes are going to help, or put more ink in the water. Pressuring managers to “Git ‘r done” may cause more problems than they solve. So take it slow and focus on understanding the dependencies of your problem. One way to help you understand dependencies is to form an inclusive group of stakeholders.
Make it Inclusive
Most organizations rely on communicative planning. Communicative planning means bringing the team together to study the problem, proffer opinions, review data and decide what to do. However, if your group doesn’t include the right stakeholders, you might be creating future roadblocks. This is really true in larger organizations. How many times have your efforts to improve a system been thwarted by another department or higher echelon of your organization that just doesn’t understand the problem? Include them up-front. It takes longer in the short term and makes it more difficult to get activities started, but pays off in the long run because your activities run into fewer obstacles. The place to start with gathering stakeholders is at the grassroots.
Keep it Local
Grassroots stand the best chance of envisioning a solution because they understand the local fabric of people, systems and resource interactions. Trying the top-down approach to change is guaranteed to leave something out. Ford and Toyota (and most manufacturing by now) learned that solid, incremental and local change was the foundation to improving quality and throughput. They empowered their workforce at the local level and pulled change from the shop floor up through their design processes. They created multi-stakeholder groups and invited them to kaizen, where they developed an interactive expertise that resulted in some of the best manufacturing processes in the world.
Don’t Smash a Gnat with a Hammer
It bears repeating. Resist the urge to “overhaul” a system because of an isolated flaw or two. Granted, sometimes it pays to start over. But success in grand scale change still depends on a firm understanding of the problem and buy-in from everyone who has to work inside the system. In the long run, it pays to be patient and to take a scientific approach to understanding the problem and its dependencies.
Embrace the Politics
Whether you are in a small company or a large corporation, change is political. Since most systemic change involves the interests of various parts of the organization, you must be skilled at weaving the outcome based on what everyone wants and what they are willing to compromise. Sometimes managers express their contempt for the politics they see all around them, but politics are no more a “necessary evil” than a coffee pot that someone left empty in the breakroom. It is just a part of the human condition. Successful leaders that embrace politics and develop the necessary skills to move the interested parties towards a common end are the ones that ultimately succeed.
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