Monthly Archives: August 2014

What Are We To Do With Wicked Problems?

IMG_0249August 19

Anyone who must deal with wicked problems on a regular basis (and that includes all of us) must come to grips with three questions:

  • What are we to do with them?
  • Who should do it?
  • How is it done?

What are we to do?

In an earlier post I suggested that the best way to understand problems is to think about them as gaps between the present state – one that is usually inadequate or unsatisfying – and a future state, one that is more desirable.   Defining problems as gaps is the most widely used way to define problems, and it presents us with four options:

Ignoring - and hoping that they will either go away or cause us no trouble.

Bridging - by which I mean gaining an understanding of the problem.   Imagining a bridge built over the problem gap allows you to cross over it and examine in depth the obstacles that are to be found in the gap.  Once you have crossed over the bridge,  you are able to gain a new perspective by seeing it from the other side.

Closing - closing the gap means moving toward the goal until you reach it and the gap disappears.  Problem solved!

Narrowing – narrowing the gap is achieved by taking actions that move you closer to the goal – another name for progress.  With this scenario, however, while narrowing the gap is possible, closing it completely never is.  The goal is never fully reached; the problem is never “solved.”


Ignoring serious problems is never a good idea, nor is denying that they exist, or pretending that they do not.  Trivial, insignificant, or unimportant problems can usually be safely ignored – and in fact, they should be – yet ignoring any problem prematurely is  risky. Who is to say a problem is trivial or unimportant.  What is trivial for one may important for another.

If a CEO of a company says that a problem is serious and needs to be addressed, then, by definition, it is.  Finding problems and signaling that they are important are among the most important functions of leaders.  In personal relationships, if Mary says to John that a problem is important, then, no matter what John may think, the problem is important and needs to be discussed.  When groups are people are trying to make sense of  problems things become more complicated.  There may be serious differences as to what the problem is and how important is is.  Before a group can begin to take action on a problem,  it must come to some sort of agreement that the problem exists, and that it is important as well.

The most helpful way to tell the difference between trivial and important problems is to pay close attention to the quantity and depth of the emotions that are associated with the problem.  Emotion is the sine qua non of a problem – no emotion, no problem.  The stronger the emotions, and the longer they continue,  the more important is the problem.  If, six months after an event, a person continues to feel strong emotions about what happened, then there is good reason to believe that the problem continues to be important.


People gain understand of a problem in two ways:  by getting below the surface of the problem by “drilling down” into it, and by listening carefully to others.

Most if not all problems are more complicated that they seem at first glance.  Drilling down into a problem means finding out as much as possible about it.

The second way of gaining understanding of a problem  is to listen carefully to other people who are also concerned about the problem.  Their perspectives of the problem are as valid as your own.    By listening to others, you are able to build a bridge of understanding among you that can lead to a new and more complete version of the problem. Gaining a more complete understand of the complexity of a problem is the key to collaboration. Then, and only then, will any actions taken to make things better be productive.


Gaps that can be closed are part of tame problems.  They are the responsibility of people with the technical skills and experience needed to apply the proper techniques which can lead to correct answers or right solutions.  When a patient  is diagnosed with a rare, tropical disease, then it is a physician who is called, and not a psychologist.

When the gap is closed, and the goal is reached, then the problem is solved.  A solved problem is a dead problem.  No one has any interest in working on a dead problem.  It is time to move on.


After drilling down into a problem, and it is determined that it is wicked and not tame, then those involved will understand that there is no final closing of the gap, only  a narrowing it.  When it comes to wicked problems, narrowing the gap is the goal.  Narrowing a gap is another way to think about progress.

When most people hear “problem,” what they expect is a solution.   It does not occur to them that many important problems cannot be solved, but only worked on until the gap between the present and the future is narrowed.  This lack of understanding should not be surprising.  The way we talk about problems suggests that “problem” and “solve” are attached at the hip.  For example, on July 18th, 2014, speaking about immigration, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, was quoted as saying, “This is a challenge for the country and we need to solve it.”  Unhappily for Senator Cronyn and for the country as well, what he wanted to solve was a problem for which there is no solution. Immigration is a messy, complicated, confusing, wicked problem.  No matter what Senator Cronyn believes, or what Congress does or doesn’t do,  there is no “solving” the problem of immigration.  It will only cease to be a problem when no one cares about it anymore.

The meta-level problem here is with the word “solve.”  When we say “let’s solve the problem,” what we mean is fix it, get rid of it, finish with it, all words that do not fit wicked problems.  Yet here we are in a bind.  We have few useful substitutes for the word “solve,” (and even fewer for “solution.”)  What Senator Cronyn should have said is “grapple with,” struggle with,” “attack,” “address,” or manage,”  yet it probably  never occurred to him that he could have been more accurate in proposing what should be done.

What needs to be done with wicked problems?  First, we need to think differently, talk differently and act differently. There is no “solving,” only grappling with wicked problems.

Second, grappling with wicked problems means taking action, finding ways to narrow the gap.  For this we need a plan for action, and then a way to implement the plan.  Making a difference mean narrowing the gap and moving toward our goals.

Who Should Do It?

First of all, it is crucial to remember that all problems are human problems.  They always belong to people.  Governments do not have problems, only people who work in government.  Organizations do not have problems, nor do businesses, nor teams, nor families. It is always the individuals in families, relationships, in teams, in organizations or in government that have problems.

Whenever problems are on the agenda, there are three groups of people:  those who care about the problems and want to see changes made.  I will call this group the Problem Owners.  A second group is made up of people who are aware of the problem but have no stake is seeing things change.  And finally, there are those who are not even aware that there is a problem.

It is the Problem Owners, those who care about seeing things change, who have the  responsibility for working on a problem.  If a problem owner is an individual, then he or she is the one who needs to step up to the plate.   Problems that belong primarily to one person are Intrapersonal Problems.  Other people in the vicinity may be affected, but they do not have the primary responsibility for dealing with them.  Some examples of Intrapersonal Problems are:   “Shall I take an overseas job?”  ”Shall I ask for a divorce?”  ”Shall I leave the priesthood and go to graduate school?” ” Shall I buy the Chevy or the Honda?”  ”Shall I have the operation now, or follow the ‘watch and wait’ advice?”  Some people may be drawn into the problem and asked to help – parents, priests, rabbis, coaches, consultants – but no helper is the “owner” of another person’s problem.”  Intrapersonal problems often affect other people either directly or indirectly, and out of necessity they may find themselves becoming problem owners.  Then  the problem moves from being Intrapersonal to becoming Interpersonal.

For people in organizations, it is a different story.  No single person who has a problem that involves the organization can deal with it alone.  It is impossible for one person to fully understand the nature of the problem.  Gaining sufficient understanding about what is happening, then deciding what to do about it will require a careful exploration of many different perspectives about the nature of the problem.

There are even more complications.  Since in the beginning,  there is usually one person who believes that there is a problem and wants to see changes made, then he or she must  find a small group of people to help define the problem and determine what needs to be done.  The original Problem Owner must find a way to make the others  Owners of the Problem as well.   Finding these people and converting them from observers to problem owners is in itself a problem, often a difficult one. People in positions of power can assign people to work on a problem, but assigning people the task of working on a problem, or delegating it to them, does not guarantee ownership.  Getting people to “buy in” to the challenge is an important first step and should not be ignored.

And here we run into another meta-level problem.  The owners of important problems in organizations are usually single individuals or small teams at the top of the organization. “This is important,” they say, “and we need to do something about it.”  But these people are not the ones to actually work on the problem.  It is passed off to a small group of people who are given the task of defining the problem and making a plan to do something about it.   And once again, the responsibility for implementing this plan is passed on to still other people throughout the organization, most of whom have not been involved in defining the problem nor in making a plan to “fix” it.  And to make things even more complicated, the people who are now responsible for making improvements have their own problems to worry about, not to mention a full agenda of tasks and assignments.

This turns out to be a new wicked problem in organizations:  The people who are supposed to manage the problem may know little about it; may have so sense of “ownership;” and may see the assignments that they are given as added burdens imposed from above by people who have little knowledge or interest in what they are already dealing with at work.

For many if not most problems in organizations, the people who care about them are not the ones who will work on them and the people who are supposed to work on them may not care about them.  It is not difficult to see why so many initiatives to improve organization performance fail.

How Is It Done?

 The only way wicked problems can be grappled with, or tackled, or addressed, or managed, is by people talking either to themselves or to others.  Effective use of language is the key.  Working on problems begins with talking about problems.

If the problem is Intrapersonal, then the problem owner has a conversation with himself or herself:  ”I need to figure out what I should do?  ”Should I go to Dallas, or stay here?”  ”What are my options?”  ”What do I need to do first?”  He or she may find it useful to talk to someone else about the problem.  If others are to be helpful, then the quality of the problem language is critical.  Before anyone can help, he or she must understand what the problem is.

When the problems being addressed involve other people,  for example, family members, or married couples, or members of teams or organizations, then people must find ways to talk to each other.  There is no other way.  Organizations cannot figure out what the problems are, nor can governments.  Only people talking to each other about issues they care about can lead to productive work.   Among the things they will talk about are:  Is this a problem? Who thinks it is? Who knows about it? What should we do? When?  Who should do it?  What obstacles are in the way of making things better?  Is there a Plan B? What will happen if we don’t do anything?  All this always involves people talking and listening to each other.

What about relying upon technologies to solve problems?    Obviously, technology has many important contributions to make in our society, but excessive reliance upon it when grappling with wicked problems is not one of them.  When dealing with problems, the primary role of technology is to gather and share information, not in making sense of it and deciding what to do about it.  For that, people are required, people having conversations: sharing opinions, preferences, perspectives; disagreeing; confronting each other, seeking new and better ideas; arriving at consensus, and making plans.  Talking about wicked problems will never be easy for the simple reason that there will aways exist serious misunderstandings, profound disagreements, and strong preferences.  Working on problems always means talking with people who care about them, people who want to see changes made.  It means talking face-to-face, and not quitting  until some agreement is reached.

Since working on wicked problems always involves conversations, the communication skills that people bring to the table are crucial.  If, when people talk to each other,  things get worse instead of better (not an unusual experience), then there is little hope for narrowing the gap.

Effective language is the key for understanding problems and working successfully on them.  The most important way to  improve one’s skills in working on problems is to become a master at using problem language.   Stay tuned for specific suggestions and recommendations.