I still remember some of the (written down) expectations I faced when I joined a high-profile consultancy in 2001. One of them was:

"to effectively solve poorly-defined problems"

The "poorly-defined" is the interesting part here. But at that point in time, it made a lot of sense. We've been paid mucho dinero to tackle whatever was to be tackled, regardless of "minor inconveniences". We couldn't appear helpless, drifting, or simply not smart enough to immediately start smashing obstacles (you know, the style over substance ;P). A client doesn't really know what they want? Well, we'll deliver it anyway!

I think the intentions behind the statement were fine & reasonable. Even culture-wise, it was quite smart: own the problem even if it's not served on a tray, with a map and guidebook.

But the execution often used to get skewed & twisted. And so it still does in numerous other companies nowadays:

  • instead of solving the most important/meaningful problem, we navigate our efforts in a way to focus on the ones we fill comfortable with (e.g., technical ones, not business ones)
  • we keep mixing (various, co-existing, but inherently separate) problems and get lost in the meanders of their overlapping impacts
  • we mistake problems with their visible symptoms because fixing a visible effect is frequently much easier/cheaper than going for the full score

All of those are results of poor problem definition (& framing, & scoping, etc.). Obviously, there are tools, techniques & practices to deal with such challenges. However ...

"Something wicked this way comes."

..., there's a separate category of poorly-defined problems that are even harder to deal with. They are called "wicked problems" & they are the main topic of this blog post.

What's wicked problem (WP)? Quoting Wikipedia, a wicked problem is ...

... a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point.

It's not the only definition provided, but I find it the best - very short & perfectly captures what distinguishes WP. Take note - the challenge here is not the domain, technical or mechanical but SOCIAL complexity. In my case, it was enough to grab my attention.

This concept of WP comes straight from sociology and it's best to illustrate it by listing the key properties of a wicked problem (again, quoting Wikipedia)

  1. The problem is not (properly/correctly) understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule (criteria of being "solved").
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong (in a binary way).
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation" (it's not possible to try it out / evolve it).
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

The most common wicked problems come from domains of economics, politics, global ecology, etc. Take an issue of handling COVID-19 pandemics, controlling the national debt/inflation rate, qualifying any Polish team to UEFA Champions League, dealing with recent migration movements in Europe, reducing traffic jams in Warsaw or preventing alcoholism & drug abuse among adolescents.

Everyone knows these are actual, significant problems. Everyone has an opinion (on what would work best in each case), but it's not possible to come up with a consensus & agree on a common way to deal with literally any of those problems. Wicked problems polarize opinions, escalate conflicts, slow down or event prevent any actions & in the end - infuse the environment with helplessness & frustration.

Getting wicked

To be honest, there's a fascinating piece of theory behind "wicked problems" ("super-wicked problems", so-called "social messes" - yes, it's an actual term!, divergent vs convergent problems, etc.), so feel free to take a deep dive (the Wikipedia page linked above is a GREAT starting point), but the purpose of this article is different than playing with the academic considerations.

My point is: any work environment (it doesn't even have to be dysfunctional) is capable of growing nearly every problem from a category of a "standard" into the "wicked" one. It doesn't take the whole nation but only a bunch of individuals (with colliding standpoints, misaligned goals & overgrown egos) to paralyze the organization & cause the disorder. Examples?

  1. "Which web framework would work best in our next project we're just about to start?"
  2. "How to deal with the technical debt we've accumulated for the past 5 years?"
  3. "We'd like to have a unified logging mechanism across all X teams, but how to get there?"
  4. "We have a bunch of components created 'the old way' and some in 'the new way' - how do we fix this situation?"

Do these look familiar? Don't problems like that keep popping up (every few weeks) at your guild/status meetings, make people vent out for 40 minutes, until they get exhausted and you can move to the next point in agenda without anything conclusive?

I thought so. Yes, these are your local, wicked problems.

Everyone has encountered some of those. The goal is to avoid creating them if possible. Here are my suggestions on what could help you in succeeding in that field. Do your best ...

  • to put ALL the politics, religion and other social topics OUT of work environment (to avoiding mixing in the problems which are inherently wicked!)
  • to make sure that the decision-making policy in your organization is clear (it's known who makes the decision (the "owner" of the problem) & what kind of responsibility it means)
  • to avoid "direct democracy" (and all sorts of committees) as a form of decision making
  • to dissect very clearly the diverging (brainstorming, looking for alternatives, building up knowledge) and converging (eliminating options to determine the best direction) phases of decision making
  • to be able to separate (unequivocally) the facts from opinions - because we're emotionally very closely attached to the latter, but the decisions should be based on facts whenever possible
  • to have a dedicated role of someone keeping the "discussion hygiene" high (by avoiding re-iterating topics, getting de-railed with meaningless edge cases or watering down precise issues)
  • to build up the "bias towards action" - because one can always come up with a reason not to do something (as it's safer & doesn't make you personally accountable), but action is the engine of progress
  • to work out a habit of dissecting problems into smaller but independent ones - so the burden of decision-making is more bearable, there are less factors to consider and the decision itself is reversible/adjustable
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