Posted by Julian Sammy - 2016-06-14 01:01:00


This week Kevin and Julian delve into a realm where failure may be inevitable: wicked problems. Unlike simple problems (colonizing Mars) which can be shaved down to a solution, wicked problems (newspapers) get hairier and hairier the more you examine them. The discussion covers several practical ways to recognize when you're trapped in a wicked problem, even if there is no clear answer to how to escape that trap.

The term "wicked problems" was invented around 1970 as part of a paper exploring the limits of scientific exploration into sociopolitical issues.[1] In the abstract of their paper, Rittel and Webber say:

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to bail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity' policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct of false' and it makes no sense to talk about "optional solutions" to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

They go on to introduce ten key characteristics that differentiate wicked problems from tame problems. The paper is fairly easy reading and worth the effory (though the links we found are to a PDF with a duplicate of p162-163 jammed in between p155 and p156).

Topics up for discussion included:

  • Uber/Lyft vs Taxis.
  • Newspaper survival in the internet age.
  • Facebook's amplification of human nature.
  • Externalized costs.
  • Echo Chambers.
  • How to recognize a wicked problem in practice.
  • How to assess your capacity to address the wicked problem.
  • Ways to act even if you can't address the core issues.

Episode 3 was a bit of a fun romp through leadership failures. Episode 4 takes a darker tone, where failure is an option (not the desired option, but an option nonetheless).

About the Show

Each week Kevin Brennan and Julian Sammy talk about organizational change failures and failures to change. They explore doomed attempts to adapt to our changing world, what was messed up, and how disaster could have been avoided. They connect ideas that don't seem related at first glance, reframe the problems, and consider strategies and mindsets that you can apply in your organization.

Production Notes

This episode ran about 15 minutes longer than we intended, as we kept looking for a relatively simple takeaway for solving wicked problems. We didn't find one because, well, wicked problems don't work like that.

Thanks to the SGU folks and others who have given us feedback on the content and production so far. both have been helpful.

Links and References


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If you want to reach us directly, we are on Twitter @BAKevin and @SCI_BA and on email at Kevin@Change.FAIL and Julian@Change.FAIL.

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