Leadership Skills: How to Approach “Wicked” Problems

4-businesspeople-in-meetingIn my last post, I identified “wicked” problems as those that defy solution.

What makes a problem wicked as opposed to tame is its multifaceted nature. No known algorithm will solve it. Attempts to solve the problem often simply reveal more about the problem.

I’ve noticed two common responses among clients who face wicked problems. The first response is to get frustrated and do nothing. The second response is to oversimplify the problem, and then to use a tame problem-solving approach to address it. Neither response is effective. A much more effective approach is to acknowledge that the problem is multifaceted and likely unsolvable using traditional methods.

Consider that wicked problems are well suited to a team approach. The principle at work here is to address a multifaceted problem with a multifaceted team.

Two team tools can help you gain confidence about approaching wicked problems: Domain Mapping and Brainstorming Questions.

Both tools were taught to me by W.L . Gore and Associates internal coach and former University of Colorado at Boulder professor Dr. Michael Pacanowski. Domain Mapping The purpose of the Domain Mapping exercise is to acknowledge and capture the domain of characteristics, features, and issues around the problem. To prepare, create a simple form by orienting a sheet of white paper in landscape format. Draw a 2″ tall by 3″ wide rectangle in the center with 15 or 20 lines radiating out from the rectangle like rays or legs. Inside the rectangle, print “What are all the characteristics, features, and issues associated with x (where “x” is the problem)?” Make copies of this form for each team member. Create a similar form on a piece of flip chart paper or on an electronic whiteboard. In a meeting, give team members 3 to 5 minutes to silently list characteristics, features, and issues on their own. Then, rapidly and without discussion, elicit and record their ideas on the shared display. You need not be exhaustive. Five to 10 minutes will elicit 20 to 40 or more prominent ideas. Now, debrief the activity by asking participants what insights they get from looking at the domain of characteristics, features, and issues around the problem. One insight will likely be that each team member learned something about the problem from other members. Question Brainstorming Next, use a brainstorming technique such as the Nominal Group Conference (aka, “sticky note process”) to brainstorm questions rather than solutions or answers. At this stage, it is much more important to ask the highest leverage questions than it is to consider solutions. Here are the steps:

  1. Pose the brainstorming question: “Given the characteristics of x (the problem), what are the most important questions to be addressed?”
  2. Allotting 5 minutes, ask individuals to silently generation questions, writing one per sticky note.
  3. Remaining silent, have the individuals collectively post their sticky notes in round-robin fashion on a flip chart.
  4. Invite members to now talk to each other while sorting the questions into themes or categories. It’s helpful to have more and distinctive categories than to have fewer and broader ones. Label each category with the question that represents its essence.
  5. Using voting or multi-voting, prioritize the categories.

Now you have information about the most important questions to be answered as you design approaches for dealing with your wicked problem. More importantly, you’ll have a great deal of shared understanding and shared commitment.

Get Started With This 5-Minute Stretch

What wicked problem have you either not addressed or addressed too simply? Which team could help you with this problem? Schedule a meeting and invite the participants. Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team. Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.




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