2013-05-15

Turning Wicked Problems Into Wicked Opportunities

Businesses often try to eliminate complexity, but that’s impossible and futile. Success will come only when you find complex solutions to complex problems.

We are living in an age of accelerating complexity, a world where change is exponentially increasing in speed, degree of surprise, and amount of possible outcomes. This means that our world is much less predictable, and requires a completely different mentality and approach to dealing with emerging issues and events.

Despite this realization, very few people have a clue as to what we should do about it. Governments are shifting, economies are in turmoil, technology is exploding, business models are falling and rising at the speed of light, a new social reality is evolving by the minute, and almost every single issue has become what is known as a “Wicked Problem.” The use of the word “wicked” in this phrase does not refer to being evil, but rather having an extremely complex nature that doesn’t have a straight-line or simple solution. On the contrary, every solution created for a so called "wicked problem" only reveals or creates more problems.

In today’s landscape of complex dilemmas in food economies, shifting concepts in work and education, technological disruption, economic distribution and disparities, shrinking job markets, political upheaval, class disenfranchisement, environmental collapse and resource wars, almost every single issue has become a systemic, complex problem with no obvious solution. And our leaders are desperately seeking for order in the midst of chaos. So, what should we do?

The common approach has been to avoid or attempt to “kill” complexity, but in this environment of accelerating change, that advice is similar to suggesting that we stop breathing in order to avoid the flu. One of the first things I tell clients is if they attempt to kill complexity in order to successfully navigate the future, they might as well quit doing business altogether. Whether building companies, steering governments or achieving personal goals, avoiding complexity isn’t the answer anymore. Rather, just the opposite is true.

In our world of accelerating complexity, we must recognize that it isn’t the rapidly changing landscape that is the real enemy of aspirational futures, but rather it’s our mental maps that are tuned to a way of thinking and acting that worked in the previous era. What we need now isn’t better teaching on mindsets that were successful in the last economy. We need to shift our models. Businesses, organizations, innovators, and entrepreneurs will need a new platform from which to operate. Instead of operating out of fear and a “fortress mentality,” leaders must embrace the increasing complexity as a matrix from which to create new ideas, new products and services, and new solutions. Nature itself moves from simplicity to complexity as a sign of growth and maturity. Despite the tremendous problems we face, our world of expanding complexity is an indication that we are growing as well. When we adopt this view, we will begin to realize that complexity is actually the catalyst for new ideas that can solve age-old problems. In this new world of rapid change, we must learn to “dance with complexity” rather than attempting to kill it.

What exactly does a future in which we “dance with complexity” look like?

Embrace transdisciplinarity

One of the results of attempting to create a world of simplicity was the siloing of ideas and disciplines. In our Wicked Futures, we must learn to embrace “transdisciplinarity," a fancy word that means the crossing or converging or disciplines to create a holistic approach. The power of transdisciplinarity over the established concepts of multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity is in the creation of the “spaces in-between.” In complexity, we are afforded the emergence of new ideas and tools that result from this convergence. In a transdisciplinary world, the sum is greater than the parts, and we can see the answer to questions that have plagued us for decades.

Transformational, Not Incremental

We must move beyond incremental innovation into transformational thinking and invention. Complexity presents us with with the forces of disruption and creative destruction, helping us to leap-frog in our growth in business and society. Businesses have depended on making their products a little bigger, a little smaller, or in the most popular colors in order to extend their market cycles, but Wicked Futures will move much too quickly for this outdated notion. Complexity not only changes the fundamental concept of the consumer, but it forces us to innovate with greater meaning and purpose.

See The Big Picture

We must train ourselves in the art of pattern recognition and sense-making. This means that relying on trend analysis and even big data--a concept that is only in its infancy--will not suffice. As a matter of fact, growing complexity means that trends and data are amplifying and meshing at the speed of light, and those who are able to see the patterns that are emerging from this clustering of ideas and events will be those who can pull transformational futures into the present.

Foster A Global View

Since the command-and-control operations are shifting, business is requiring a mindset that works to see the world from multiple perspectives rather than a singular or myopic viewpoint. The “new global citizen” will be one that not only sees the perspectives held by other cultures, but is able to process and create new “worlds” from the convergence of those views. We are now realizing that the future isn’t linear, and we hold the key to framing preferred outcomes.

As the future becomes more complex, we must reframe our Wicked Problems as “Wicked Opportunities.” This means that we actively pursue unique and unseen opportunities created by the complex situations present in our increasingly connected world. The more complex our world, the bigger our canvas becomes on which to paint an unlimited amount of transformational and aspirational ideas. An era of Wicked Opportunities has the potential to usher in some amazing solutions to our greatest global problems, generating a new pipeline for job creation and economic development across the world.

We must see the rise of wicked organizations, wicked innovators, and wicked entrepreneurs. We need to foster an entire generation that has a positive relationship with our world of volatile change if we want to intentionally seize the unlimited opportunities that are just waiting to emerge from the fertile environment of increasing complexity. Without actively developing this new type of thinker in our businesses and society--leaders who know how to leverage complexity rather than kill it--we are going to miss the unlimited possibilities to create aspirational futures and solve long-standing big world problems. The choice is ours. But one way or the other, the future will be wicked.

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6 Comments

  • Dubaian

    I appreciate Frank's approach. In no way is futures thinking a new concept, but seen with modern filters as detailed above, his outlook is pragmatic and relevant to the future of our current world which in itself is a very different future from the ones envisaged in the decades that passed.

    The future is not evolving in a linear fashion but rather in a myriad of unpredictable directions. Frank speaks of "pulling transformational futures into the present"and this is the interesting angle here.

    I look forward to reading more from this author.

  • Nelsongroup

    It is unfortunate that the term 'wicked problem' is used to mean or infer 'complexity' rather than Horst Rittel's original description and explanation of what constitutes a wicked problem, which is so much richer and consequential. 

  • Njschro

    Correction: I meant to say, "The term wicked problem was borrowed FROM Karl Popper..."

  • Njschro

    Well put! I agree entirely! The term wicked problem was borrowed by Karl Popper; though, he used it in a very different way (to describe trial and error of scientific method) than Rittel. Horst Rittel coined the term as it is used today in various disciplinary fields. Dr. Jeff Conklin also has a description that reflects Rittel's articulation. 

  • Jeanine

    Indeed and I am glad. David Snowden has been talking about this for years and surprisingly, not a lot of people even know about the guy. But good for Frank for bringing it to this public stage.