The King Baudouin Foundation recently published a succinct guide to ‘Working with Wicked Problems’. The guide was written by shiftN’s Philippe Vandenbroeck and synthesizes a long experience in using systems and futures methods in dealing with complex decision-making challenges.
Today there is a lot of talk about ‘wicked problems’. There are two basic reasons for their wickedness: complexity and conflict. These problems are ambiguous and hard to pin down because they seem to consist of many partial, but interrelated challenges. So it is hard to tell what button to push, or what lever to pull to make them go away. And the people affected by these problems will have very different views on what the nature of the problem is and how it can be tackled. So, a solution that can be considered ‘optimal’ from an objective, impartial point of view does not exist.
This guide argues that there is not something out there to which we can objectively point and say: “This is a wicked problem”. A ‘wicked problem’ is not a ‘thing’ but a social construct. It is a particular way of looking at the world, of framing the challenges we are currently facing. Observing the world through a ‘wicked problem’ lens may make us a lot smarter, more realistic in our expectations, and more alert to the human sensitivities embedded in complex challenges.
On a practical level the guide suggests to approach wicked problems from three rich traditions to deal with complexity: systems thinking, dialogue and design. They provide three different repertoires of knowing and acting when confronted with wicked problems.
It then goes on to discuss five coherent approaches that embody these traditions in various ways: soft systems methodology, transition management, scenarios, appreciative enquiry and design thinking. Given the open-ended nature of wicked problems none of these approaches provides us with a neat, stepwise template. All of the proposed approaches boil essentially down to different strategies to support structured and effective learning.
The conclusion is that change in complex and contested settings remains a slippery mandate, beyond the reach of cookbook approaches. It requires people to be comfortable with paradoxes: to be decisive in the here and now whilst maintaining a view of the whole, to exercise patience with the slow pace of fast change, to mix rigour and flexibility, to discern abundance in scarcity. We need to learn to see these tensions as valuable as they lead to conversations that matter, and that help communities and organizations to reaffirm their roots and express their desires about the future.