Against the background of COVID and other impenetrable problems facing us, Nicky Carew and David Walker have revisited their approach to solving wicked issues in the 21st century. It’s WICKEDD.

Introduction and overview

The last few years have proven that change is faster, less linear, more democratic and more complicated to manage.  That goes for climate change, COVID precautions, hybrid working or AI technology.

This is particularly true in organisations and businesses.  The issues leaders have to deal with are multi-faceted, with many stakeholders and across many boundaries.  The ‘answer’ is rarely clear.  Every action creates another situation down the line.

The military have long recognised these issues and called them “VUCA” – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous problems.  There are so many facets to any particular situation that it won’t stay constant.

In other circles these complexities are called the catchier ‘wicked’ issues.  The term better reflects that some issues cannot realistically be solved but doing nothing isn’t an option.  COVID or global warming would fit this definition.

There is something special about wicked problems – they are not just complicated.  Complicated problems are ‘tame’ problems – difficult in themselves but where a best solution will emerge and a standard operating procedure could be or has been developed (eg: heart surgery, building a bridge, scheduling a football league).

Wicked issues are complex – they are intrinsically woven into the environment.  COVID has been one of these.  All the initiatives to cope have had knock on effects – furloughing, virtual working, crowd attractions closed… have all made significant changes to the economy that impact us all.  It has changed the way we work and what we do, it has changed our consumption habits and travel plans.  These wicked issues cross all sorts of boundaries and never stay constant – they are volatile, uncertain and ambiguous.

Wicked problems can’t be left to fester on the basis they are too complex.  Whether we want to or not, we have to address hybrid working or we will lose talented people in our organisations.  We have to listen to our customers and stakeholders and adapt to their needs.  But the answers are not clear – these are complex problems yet the pressure to be seen to act decisively often leads us to try to resolve the problem, as if there was a linear cause and effect.  The universal answer to global warming was investing in biofuels, only it led to the destruction of tropical forest, the one protection we had to reduce carbon dioxide.  Closing stadia for sporting events to reduce crowds meant fans watched their games inside, together in clubs and bars – and these became worse COVID spreaders than going to the game in an outside arena.

How, then, do we get a grip on wicked issues?

When you understand what makes wicked issues different then the way to tackle them becomes clearer.  A useful analogy is to regard tame issues like physics – if you know the rules then an outcome can be predicted with any intervention.

Wicked issues are more like biology – life has evolved according to the environment at the time, it adapts and mutates, it has history as have wicked problems.  Biology and wicked problems involve complex relationships that cause interactivity that is hard to anticipate. We have taken a leaf from the book of biological science and how they get to understand complexity.  Biologists observe, record, tinker and observe more.  A true leader in a wicked world learns to manage wicked problems in a similar way – so we developed our WICKEDD© solution as a means of helping leaders in a wicked VUCA world!

“Wicked issues need WICKEDD© solutions”

Taking our ‘leaf’ from the biologists – they conduct a field study to understand as much as possible about their subject.  Wicked issues are really tricky to define, tricky to control and tricky to solve so accordingly leaders need to take stock before leaping in with a management solution.

WICKEDD is a simple mnemonic for an approach to work through wicked issues. Each aspect of WICKEDD can have various techniques and tools applied, but the principal approach to getting control of a tricky issue is the same.  If the problem can’t realistically be solved at least one can move it on to a better outcome and minimise the unforeseen consequences.

Taking each aspect of the WICKEDD principle:

WHAT, WHY, WHERE – take a helicopter view of the situation with no preconceived solutions.  That especially means avoid advocating what worked previously because you won’t yet know what is influencing this problem at this time.  Each wicked issue needs to be seen as novel. What is the effect, why is it happening, where is it having impact? The answers will be new each time. The nature of wicked issues is that they aren’t tame and based on a routine or stylised problem-solving process.

INTERDEPENDENCIES – work out all of the aspects of the wicked issues and get to grips with the interconnectivity.  If you changed this … what will happen to that…?  Identify interdependencies that feeds into each problem, what this problem changes and what stakeholders have an interest in the problem.

CAUSALITY – what are the root causes of this problem?  How and when did it appear, what systems encourage it, what behaviours reinforce it?  What is taking us away from the route to our Vision?  It is well known that correlation is not causality.  It is not always clear what is causing what or what happens to look like it correlates.  Biologists have to test their hypotheses and observe.  You may feel the pressure to quickly put in place solutions before really understanding the full implications.

KNOWLEDGE – what do you know, what don’t you know, what do you really need to know?  Mark Twain said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.”  This is almost the perfect cause of wicked problems!  What do you know about the problem and, as importantly, about the people involved whose behaviour will impact on the wicked issue and ultimately any progress towards a solution.

ENGAGE – having identified who needs to be involved in diagnosing and improving the situation ‘engage’ can be the most unpredictable and difficult part of the wicked solution.  People prefer stability to change. They will unconsciously gravitate to solutions that give us fastest relief or a feeling of certainty.  A successful collaboration of people engaged in creating a WICKEDD solution will feel collective responsibility.  The more diversity you can build into the engaged stakeholders, the more challenging the ideas, the more creative outcomes you will have. This is where successful leadership skills to get full engagement are key – we tackle this lengthy subject elsewhere in blogs, training and webinars.

DIAGNOSE – now better informed, with the best information you can have – what is the vision for the solution state?  How are you going to mitigate other potential complications? Are there interim states that can be achieved that move us in the right direction? With all parties fully committed and willing to engage as participants what can you agree that will help the solution?  COP26 may not solve global warming but perhaps it was as good as it could have been under the circumstances and we are all more aware of doing our bit.

DO – the action points you have identified and, most importantly, monitor impact.  What new adaptive outcomes have emerged, what loose frameworks may help make people more adaptive?  But hold onto your plans lightly and don’t be afraid to do something different if the outcome is not what you expected or the wicked issue mutates or evolves – that is the nature of wicked problems.

Each of the aspects of WICKEDD help shape what needs to be done to get to a fully-rounded action plan with agility in execution and get control of a wicked issue.

Ideally of course we would be citing excellent examples of solved wicked issues.  But the very nature of wicked issues is that so few of them are ever ‘solved’.  As you reveal one solution another wicked issue pops up.  In the UK there will always be problems with the Health Service provision but we can make it better. Likewise we are a long way from any agreement that will solve global warming and the best we can hope for is a slowing down – ‘falling forward’ if you like.

However, one notable wicked problem in the UK has been successfully controlled after many years of trying.  The teenage pregnancy rates were alarmingly high in the 1970s and 80s (55 conceptions per 1000 teenage girls aged 15-17).  They are now at a level more akin to our European neighbours of 21 per 1000.  While linear solutions were prevalent in the early years (ostracise ‘them’, deny ‘them’ support, stop encouraging ‘them’ with sex education) the level seemed to keep rising with all the social problems that came with it.  Results were only achieved when the focus was on cross-agency support, relationship education, easy to use contraceptives and good support for young parents (all things that were previously deemed to encourage the problem).

Conclusion

Wicked problems are inherently messy.  Each solution may well spur unintended consequences that, in turn, may require more solutions.  Uncertainty is the reality.  As more and more problems exhibit volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous characteristics leaders need to have the ability to see what is good in each different situation.  Partial and whole solutions will not be drawn from the rulebook but rather from collective responsibility, experience, reflection and good judgement.

The wicked nature of COVID means a global solution coming to the fore is some way off. Global leaders pull in a variety of directions, based on various clinical and political advice.  Their impacts have consequently varied with countries and regions pursuing varied strategies. When you add the views and actions of individuals the divergence between leadership and practical action of the population is further evidenced. Could pursuing a WICKEDD approach help?

There are masses of techniques that can be deployed to help you build an approach to developing solutions for your wicked issues.  The key is to move towards developing collective solutions that have the inherent flexibility and controls to adapt to an evolving issue. WICKEDD will help with that.

To learn how we can help you be more “wicked”, contact us here. We’ll email you back a summary paper of what you need to know about resolving your wicked issues.

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