Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers

The Guide to Solving Wicked Problems

We have all seen and heard them before, the questions that are so deep, complex and far-reaching that we both love and hate them at the same time. Impossible to answer and yet important to ask: wicked! Yet, leaders are often challenged to find answers – often without the necessary time to reflect, read or even understand. So what can you do?

There is an initial basic choice:

  1. To either ask, listen to, or hear the question
  2. To ignore it and pretend you haven’t heard it.

Option b) is clearly easier than option a). My hope is that I can encourage you to consider option a). For this, I am willing to abandon my cautious attitude and to jump into offering you a solution. Deal?

Here is my best attempt to offer you a fool-proof, easy-to-apply and quick HOW-TO METHOD to approach wicked questions or problems:

How to deal with wicked problems Not really (1 point) Unsure   (3 points) Very much (9 points)
  • Relevance: How important is this question to your organization?
  • Pertinence: Are you personally touched?
  • Next generation: Will your children/grandchildren be impacted by this question?
  • Scale: If you could answer the question, would it matter in the grand scale of things?
  • Impact: If you could help solve the related problem, would you make a significant difference?
  • Opportunity cost: If you don’t answer or contribute to solving this question, could something go wrong in a potentially important way?

  • If you have less than 10 points: ignore the question
  • If you have more than 20 points: continue below
  • If you have more than 30 points: drop what you are doing and take 2h off to take immediate action (no matter how small)
= = =
  • Think big: You won’t find an answer easily, nonetheless, do you have a sense in which direction to go based on your values-based gut feeling and accumulated experience?
  • Start small: Very likely the question is only a symptom of a larger problem. Can you nonetheless work out an answer that shifts things in the right direction?
  • Act now: Do you know what your first action needs to be to answer/solve the question/problem?
  • Risks: Are there potential unintended negative consequences if you engage with your limited knowledge?
  • Support: Can you contact somebody to help you with this?
  • Commit: Before anything else, pick-up the phone, or write an email to somebody you love or respect and share the very first action step you will take in solving this question/problem. Have you done it? Congratulations! Next: start at 1) again!

Kathy asked a few really hard questions in her last blog – these made me think. Sometimes, trying to find answers is too overwhelming or simply too potentially disruptive in our busy lives. So we need to figure out if a question is important and relevant enough to spend time addressing it. If it is, we do need to dedicate – pragmatically – some time to figure out what a next relevant step is and then we need to immediately commit to undertaking that step by sharing our commitment with somebody who matters. This action alone won’t solve the problem, but it represents that first important step to shift your energy in the direction of solving it. And in the beginning, that is all that matters. After that, the next obvious step will emerge, irrespective if the first step was right, wrong or quite irrelevant.

I am convinced that if each of us would assume our responsibility in each of our roles and functions we have to address such wicked questions, we would have no problem at all to together – in a collaborative and cooperative way – solve these really impossibly large and complex problems the world has in store for us. Easily! Become part of the solution – apply this easy to use HOW-TO METHOD and watch what happens. I look forward to hearing from you!

Author: Katrin Muff PhD

Dr. Katrin Muff is Director of the Institute for Business Sustainability in Lucerne, Switzerland and Professor of Practice at the LUISS Business School in Rome, Italy. She consults leaders and boards in business sustainability and strategic transformation, and runs an executive program together with Thomas Dyllick. Her book “Five Superpowers for Co-creators” provides insights about issue-centered multi-stakeholder processes. She brings 20 years of international strategic and general management experience in Europe, Australia, North America and Russia and a decade of leadership in business education. www.KatrinMuff.com

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