Monthly Archives: December 2015

Success Story: Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls


December 24, 2015


On the night of May 13, 1994, Phil Jackson, coach of the NBA Chicago Bulls, came face-to-face with an unexpected and crucial choice point.  How he  handled it made a significant difference in his life and in the lives of the Chicago players.

The Bulls were playing the New York Knicks for the championship of the Eastern Conference in a best of four of seven games.  If they won, they would move on to the NBA finals; if they lost, their season was over.  Winning titles and championships are always important for NBA teams, but that year it was more important than ever for the Bulls.   For over a decade,  led by superstar Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever,  the Bulls had been among the league’s elite teams.  In 1994, with Jordan retired, they were anxious to continue their tradition of excellence.

The Knicks won the first two games.  If Chicago lost the third game, their chances of moving on to the NBA finals were practically zero.

In the last quarter of the game, the Bulls found themselves suddenly reeling.  Ahead by 22 points as the fourth quarter began, they lost their huge lead and  found themselves tied at 102 – 102 with 1.8 seconds to play. Chicago had the ball and called a time out.  The players huddled around Jackson who told them what he had decided.  Scottie Pippin was to take the ball out-of-bounds and throw it to Toni Kukoc, who was to take the last shot.

Pippin was furious.  He saw himself as Michael Jordan’s heir apparent and the star of the new “Jordanless”  team.  He had expected to take the last shot.  Mumbling “Bullshit,” he turned away, left the huddle, moved to the end of the bench and sat down.  He was refusing to follow Jackson’s instructions.  Jackson walked to Pippin and once again told him that he was to throw in the ball to Kukoc.  Pippin refused again. “I’m out,”  he told Jackson.  Several players called out to Pippin, “Pip, come on, get up, what are you doing?” Pippin ignored them.

When the time-out was over, the other four  players  moved out onto the court.  Yet there was no one to throw in the ball.  Jackson quickly moved to a reserve player, Pete Myer, handed him the ball, and told him to throw it in to Kukoc.

Meyer made a perfect pass to Kukoc who caught the ball, spun around Anthony Mason, the Knick who was guarding him, and made an incredible shot at the buzzer to give the Bulls a stunning 104-102 victory.  The Bulls were still alive.

Yet they were now facing a new, complicated, and potentially destructive situation.  At the most important moment of the game – and perhaps of the whole season – Scottie Pippin, in a moment of personal pique, committed a flagrant – and very public – act of insubordination.

When Jackson entered the dressing room after the game, the players, distraught and tense, turned to him to see how he was going to handle this unexpected, and fraught situation, one that Jackson undoubtedly had never expected.

Jackson looked around the room, making eye contact with each player.  Then he said evenly, “What happened has hurt us.  Now you have to work it out.”  Jackson saw that the real problem was not his but one that belonged to the team.  They were the ones who would have to step up, take responsibility, and decide what to do.

Faced with this choice point,  Jackson refused to make one of the obvious choices:  Ignore Pippin’s behavior?  Pretend that it didn’t happen?  Make clear his authority and suspend Pippin from the next game?  Make him apologize to the team.  Instead, he chose a third way, one that none of the team expected.  He gave them responsibility for the problem.  And they accepted it.  As the team began to work on the problem, Jackson quietly slipped out of the dressing room.

The players were shocked and surprised.  They had expected that Jackson would deal with Pippin’s refusal to follow instructions.   After a moment of silence,  Bill Cartwright, the center on the team, spoke up.  ”Look Scottie, that was bullshit.  After all we’ve been through on this team.  This is our chance to do it on our own without Michael, and you blow it with your selfishness.  I’ve never been so disappointed in my whole life.”  Cartwright, known for his quiet demeanor and stoicism, was crying.

Jackson’s move was not only brilliant, but also successful.  Scottie apologized to the team and the coach, and nothing like that ever happened again. Jackson and Pippin avoided a “perpetual problem” in their future relationship.  Later, Scottie Pippin was inducted into the NBA hall of fame.  And in 2015,  when Phil Jackson turned 70, Scottie Pippin sent him a tweet:   “Happy 70th birthday Phil Jackson, we’ve come a long way since 1987!”    Indeed they had, and it is clear that Phil Jackson’s innovative and courageous action at a critical choice point moment on May 13, 1994  had a lot to do with it.


Choice Points: Tame and Wicked




December 15, 2015

Do you remember the “Good News – Bad News” jokes? Here’s a favorite of mine:  The airline pilot comes on the intercom and says to the passengers, “There’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that we are ahead of schedule.  The bad new is that we don’t know where we’re going!”

Here is more good and bad news: The good news is that while life is never simple or easy, most of the time it is fairly stable and predictable.  Over time and with effort, most of us get pretty good at it.  We learn how to turn uncertainties and complexities into habits and habits into routines.  At the end of most days we can say to ourselves “Well, today was a pretty good day!”  Facing decisions one after another – some small and insignificant, others large and important –  most of the time we know what to do:  We look closely at the obstacles that stand in our way, then say  ”Ah, been there, done that,” and move on!  And most of the time, things turn out okay.  Most days bring few unpleasant surprises, no insurmountable problems, no huge crises.

The bad news is that sooner or later our good luck runs out:  Something out of the ordinary will happen.  We will be surprised, we will come upon what seems to be an insurmountable or even an unimaginable problem, and  once in a while, we will all face a serious crisis.  Like it or not, we will be expected – and at times required – to make choices we would rather avoid,  address decisions about issues we do not understand, and confront situations for which we are not prepared.  Now, rather than “been there, done that,” all we can say is “This is really new and I have no idea what to do.”

Occasionally, one of these “unknown” problems turns out to be an extraordinary one.  No matter how we respond, it has the potential to make dramatic changes in our future. Social psychologists have called these moments Choice Points.  ”Choice Points,” writes John Glidewell, “are the points that set courses that change a family or change a city.”

In Choice Points, published in 1970, Glidewell writes:

Sometimes choice points come up slowly and gradually.   I’m pretty sure I don’t notice them until it is too late.  Sometimes choice points come up suddenly and dramatically.  I am startled and disturbed by the flat demands they make upon me…Faced with a choice point, I find that I am involved emotionally. I feel all sorts of things. I seem to be scared, angry, hurt, and even sometimes glad – all at the same time.

Glidewell suggests that there are three human situations – he sees them as universals – within which Choice Points can be expected:

  • Fight or Flight:  ”When to fight and when to run away; and how to fight and how to run away.”
  • Dependency or Dependability:  ”When to be dependent and when to be dependable; and how to be dependent and how to be dependable.”
  • Love – Offered or Sought:  ”When to offer love and when to seek love, and how to offer love and how to seek love.”

Finding ourselves in the middle of one or another of these universal human situations, each of which requires us to struggle with two totally different issues –  first the”when” and then the “how” to take action – we inevitably create what Glidewell calls “perpetual problems,”  what I am calling wicked problems.  They are “perpetual,”  wrote Glidewell, because  ”We come around to them again and again, each time getting a little closer or a little further away from solutions.  The tension rises and then it drops, but it never goes away.”

Glidewell stumbled unexpectedly upon one of these choice points – and created for himself a “perpetual problem” –  during what turned out to be a painful and life-changing conversation with his five-year old daughter.  At the time, he was on active duty in the air force during the Korean War:

“Do air force planes drop bombs on real cities,” his daughter asked?

“Yes, in war time they do,” answered Glidewell.

“Do any people get killed?”

“Yes, some get killed,” answered Glidewell, aware that he was becoming hopelessly caught in the impossible task of explaining the cruel folly of war to a trusting child.

“Why do we kill people?”

“They are our enemies.  They are trying to kill us or our friends.  That makes them our enemies.”

“Do any little children get killed?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“Are they our enemies?”

At that, wrote Glidewell, “all my adult wrapping fell off and I stood exposed to my child in all my foolishness.  I spoke through the shame in my heart and the hot tears in my eyes.”

“No,” he answered, “they are not our enemies.”

Glidewell paused to regain his composure.  ”The world can be a cruel place,” he finally said.  ”But I promise you that I will do all I can in my time to build a world in which little children will be safe. It is a solemn promise.”  And in the moment, a new future opened up for Glidewell.

Years later, Glidewell wrote that he had never forgotten the promise given to his daughter.  After years of focused effort – of fighting what had become for him the Good Fight against violence in all of its forms  - it seemed to have made little difference.  ”But I haven’t had much effect on the world trying to keep [my promise]” he wrote.

Strategic Inflection Points

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, in Only the Paranoid Survive, writes about a day in November, 1994, when Intel had its own choice point moment.  A flaw had been discovered in their new Pentium processor chip which was being installed in most of the new computers.  The flaw was determined to be a design error in the chip that caused a rounding error in division once in every nine billion times.  In practical terms, it meant that the average spreadsheet user would run into the problem once every 27,000 years.  The senior managers at Intel decided that since a technical fix was quite simple, there was no need to worry.

But then the media discovered that the chip was “flawed.”  Headlines appeared:  ”Flaw undermines the accuracy of Pentium chips,” and “The Pentium Proposition:  To buy or not to buy.”  In a matter of days IBM,  Intel’s most important customer, announced that they were suspending the shipment of all computers with the Pentium chip installed.  And in Grove’s words, “All hell broke loose.”  Calls flooded in from thousands of computer users demanding a new chip for their computers.  The irony was that none of the callers were actually customers.  Intel only sold chips to computer manufacturers, not to individuals.

Intel resisted at first.  Their first strategy was to inform these irate callers that they didn’t need a new chip, that the old one would work just fine.  It was a serious mistake.  No one was satisfied with this. They wanted the flaw fixed!  After several days and nights of hectic meetings by an Intel crisis team,   they changed course.  Anyone who wanted a new chip could have one.  And in Grove’s words, “Something big, something different, something unexpected happened…And we embarked on a whole new way of doing business.”  The name that Grove gave to this “something” was  ”Strategic Inflection Point.”

“What had happened?” asked Grove. He made sense of it this way:  ”…The old rules of business no longer applied…New rules prevailed now…The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed – what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we now had to abide by.”

What Intel faced that November in 1994 was a transformational choice point.   Grove defined it “as a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change.  When a Strategic Inflection Point hits,” he added, “all rules of business shift, furiously and forever.”

Strategic inflection points are not limited to high-tech firms,  Grove concluded, nor “are they something that happens to the other guy…They are inevitable.”  And when faced with one, all business face the same challenge:  ”Adapt or die.”

“When You Come to a Crossroads, Take It!”

Yogi Berra, all-star catcher for the New York Yankees, is considered to have been among the best baseball players in recent memory.  But he had become even more renowned  for his “Yogi-isms” – his talent for mangling the English language into new and amazing configurations.  Two of his most often repeated pronouncements are “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” and “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”  But Berra is most famous for this: “When you come to a crossroads, take it!”

When we hear someone repeat that, we laugh.  Ha- ha.  How silly.  Everyone knows that when you come to a crossroads, there are always several roads leading away and sometimes more. “Hey Yogi,” we want to say,” there’s no ‘it’ at a crossroads!”

Or is there?  Could it be that Yogi was to something, at least where choice points and strategic inflection points are concerned?

For our purposes, let’s assume that leading away from any choice point crossroads there are at least three possible paths:

- First, we can take the path of Denial. “Hey,” we insist, “there’s no problem here.”  Or if we can’t deny it, we can insist that it must belong to someone else.  We can “leave the field” and flee in another direction.  Or faced with unassailable evidence that there is a serious issue before us, we can procrastinate, saying as did Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, “I can’t think about that right now…I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

- Second, we can fall back upon the habits and routines that we have relied on in the past.  We can do what we’ve always done when we faced problems.

- Third, we can take the “road less traveled .”  We can plunge into “the swamp,” do the best that we can, figure it out as we go, improvise, engage others and recruit them to help us make sense of it all.  And then with their help, put together an action plan.  Then, as the Nike ad instructs, we “Just do it.”

All In

Denying that there is a serious problem when there is a  one almost never works!  And when facing new and unknown situations, relying upon past practices may make one feel better temporarily but will rarely help in the longer term.

Both Jack Glidewell and Andy Grove chose the third option.  In reading their accounts, it is clear that the first two options were not ones they chose. When they came to their particular crossroads, only one path fit within their value systems. In response to his daughter’s devastating questions, Glidewell could have answered,  ”No children were killed.  We were bombing the enemy and the children were not our enemies. You don’t have to worry about it.”  Or he could have said “It’s all very complicated. You’re too young to understand.  We can talk about it when you grow up.”

But he didn’t.

Grove could have said, “There is no problem here.  The media always exaggerate things out of proportion.”  Or “This is no more than a tempest in a teapot. It will blow over in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, it’s business as usual.”

But he didn’t.

Neither used denial as his defense; neither pretended that what was happening was unimportant or insignificant, and after an early struggle, neither put off confronting the issue and moving aggressively to make a new plan.  When they came to their crossroads, they “took it.”

And for both, “taking it” was the not end, but the beginning of their journey in new directions. Glidewell writes that after his exchange with his daughter, he made struggling with the complexities and difficulties of  war and peace a central part of his life.  And after the crisis of the Pentium chip, Grove led Intel toward a new and dramatically different future:  ”We embarked on a whole new way of doing business,” he wrote.

Coming upon and struggling through choice points is always a harrowing experience.  By definition we are “in over our heads,” never a pleasant place to be.  But if we “take it”  by choosing the third way,  there are important benefits to be gained, not the least of which is becoming aware that the world is stranger, more complicated, and more difficult than we thought.  And while it is true that we will often be asked to decide before we are ready, and act without understanding what we should do, when it comes to working toward the goals that are important to us, we really have only one choice:  ”When you come to a crossroads, take it!”




Wicked Confusions


November 30, 2015


I first came upon the concepts of Wicked and Tame problems in the late 1980′s.  I was reading Challenging  Strategic Planning Assumptions by Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff,  published in 1981. Their primary contribution to the literature of strategic planning was the introduction of tame and wicked problems into the language of planning.  Their most important challenge to the traditional assumptions of strategic planning was that strategic problems were always wicked and not tame and so  business leaders ran the risk of getting off track.  What was needed was a new way to think about business problems that were not “solvable,” a language and an approach with which to move in new directions.  Mason and Mitroff offered a new model for strategic planning based upon what Horst Rittle and Melvin Webber, called the the “distinguishing properties” of wicked problems which include:

  • Wicked problems have no stopping rules;
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but bad, good, better, best;
  • Every attempt to “solve” a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation;”
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique;
  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem;
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem;
  • A problem solver has no right to be wrong.

Most importantly, no matter what is done to them, said Rittle and Webber, wicked problems are never “solved.” In practical terms, this means that once one is engaged with a wicked problem and continues to care about it, he or she is never finished.   At best, said Rittle and Webber,  ”[wicked problems can] only be resolved – over and over again.”

It was for me a powerful insight. It changed how I thought about problems and, as I learned more about this way of thinking, how I acted upon them.  From then on I began to include the concepts of wicked and tame problems in my professional work as therapist, professor, consultant, and in my personal life as husband, parent and friend.  To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, when it came to problems,”I took the [road] less traveled by, and that  has made all the difference.”

My thinking about problems resolved itself into a new and  much more significant and powerful framework: Significant because now things made much more sense, and powerful because I felt more competent to work constructively on problems.  Before my “aha” moment with Mason and Mitroff,  I had been acting as if all problem were alike, when in fact wicked problems are as different from tame ones as watermelons are from pomegranates.

In the classroom, in the lecture hall, in discussions with parents, in seminars, in leadership training programs, and in consulting sessions with executives, I began to “speak” wicked.  For  almost 30 years, I have observed several different – and predictable – patterns of responses from those who participated .

Some Already “Knew!”

Many people seemed to know the difference between tame and wicked even before 1972.  They had an intuitive sense that some problems could be solved and others could not. When others in classrooms and seminar rooms perceived the association between “Tame” and “Wicked” and problems, they said Yes!  The concepts brought order into what had been for them a significant area of confusion   It all made perfect sense they said.  The reason that some problems could be solved and others could not be is that they belonged to different categories.  Over time and with experience, they had already arrived at the conclusion that there were important differences between problems.  What they lacked were words with which to explain the  differences. Here are some examples of people who “knew” the  difference but could not explain why:

-  Sir Isaac Newton (1640 – 1726): “I can calculate the  motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people”

-  Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle, (2000): “Science can teach us and help us to resist death, but it can’t teach us to prepare for death or to die well…Science has armed us but it cannot disarm us.”

- Former Secretary of State George Shultz:  There are important differences between “problems you can solve and problems you can only work at.”

- Gary Hamel, in The Future of Management (2007):  ”It may turn out that many of the 21st century’s most perplexing problems are the ones we can only work at…”

- Marilyn Monroe:  ”It might be kind of a relief to be finished.  It’s sort of like you don’t know what kind of a yard dash you’re running but then you’re at the finish line and you sort of sigh – you’ve made it.  But then you never have – you have to start all over again.”

- Jack Glidewell in Choice Points (1970): His title for the last chapter, “On the Quests: for Truth, for Justice, for Love,”  begins  with a clear understanding that the quests for truth, justice, and love are never finished.  ”I started out to define the problems [of finding truth, justice and love], not to solve them,” he writes.  ”They are perpetual problems.  We come round to them again and again, each time getting a little closer or a little further away…The tension rises and then it drops, but it never goes away.”

- Business Executive:  ”Of course!   Solvable and unsolvable!  It was always clear to me that some problems were different from others, but I  had no idea that they had names!  This is great!  Now I can explain myself to others much better.”

- President Harry Truman, State of the Union Address, January 7, 1958:  ”The Nation’s business is never finished.  The basic questions we have been dealing with present themselves anew.  That is the way of society.  Circumstances change and current questions take on different forms, new complications, year by year. But underneath the great issues remain the same – prosperity, welfare, human rights, effective democracy, and, above all, peace.”

Many Were Surprised

When the idea of tame and wicked was presented, many people made a passable imitation of the man in the old ad from a number of years ago who slaps his forehead and says “I coulda had a V-8!”  They would make a symbolic slap on their forehead and say in effect, “I coulda said wicked!”

- Business Leader in a Seminar on Wicked Problems:  ”It never occurred to me that there were different kinds of problems, but now that you explain it, I can see it clearly.”

- EMBA Student:  ”Wow! What powerful ideas! This changes everything.  I was working on wicked problems all the time and thinking that they were tame and that we could solve them and they would go away.  It was very, very frustrating when they kept coming back.”

- CEO of an International Corporation:  ”This is new for us.  We are going to have to learn to deal with some problems in a new way.  We need to make the principles of wicked problems part of our culture.”

- Organizational Effectiveness Leader at a Fortune 500 Company:  ”I have never forgotten your work and have talked about it with others.  Your concept of finding and tackling wicked problems is a concept that has helped me from becoming paralyzed  and overwhelmed by wicked problems.”

Some Had (and Continue to Have) No Clue

And then there are those who continue to speak about problems as if there were only one kind:

- Bill Nye, the “Science Guy:”  In a November 23, 2015 interview with Time Magazine, Bill Nye is asked about his recently published book on global warming.  In answer to the question, “Why is it important for you to focus on solutions?” Nye answers:

I became an engineer because I think any problem can be solved with technology.  It’s not an exaggeration!

He  then proceeds to contradict himself.  He identifies  two huge, serious, and unsolvable problems that are part of global warming, neither of which can be solved with technology:   First,  ”It’s the most important problem facing mankind, and it’s going to take everyone in the world to address it.”  How he intends to make sure that “everyone in the world” gets involved by using technology to address it is not only unclear but patently impossible.

Second, he makes reference to what he calls a “non-trivial problem”:  The people who  deny global warming.  What to do with them? His answer:  We need to “get them out of the way.  They’re trouble.”  How he proposes to use technology (which according to him can solve all problems) to solve the problem of troublemakers standing in the way he neglects to say.

- Jeb Bush, presidential candidate:  In November, 2015, in an attempt to jumpstart his failing efforts to gain the Republican nomination for president,  the Jeb! Campaign introduced a new campaign slogan:  ”Jeb Can Fix It.”  Questions arise at once: Fix what? And how does he propose to go about fixing “it?”  The reality faced by Jeb Bush,  and politicians everywhere, is that all of the problems that they are promising “to fix” are wicked, and  not “fixable.” Tame problems are almost always technical in nature, and so most of them can be “fixed.”   Machines break and can be fixed, but the problems that politicians must grapple with – health care, education, pollution, energy. terrorism, poverty, homelessness, and on and on – are not broken in the same way that a computer or a washing machine is broken. Even though we have no idea what the “it” was that Jeb Bush was going to fix, what we do know is that “fixing it” is not going to happen.

David Brat, Republican Congressman from Virginia’s Seventh District:  On November 11, 2015, when asked by Time Magazine, “What kind of speaker of the House to you think Paul Ryan will be?”  Representative Brat responded:  ”I’m looking forward to working hand in hand with him to solve the biggest issues that our country faces.”

Here we have another politician who has no clue.  The biggest issues that our country faces – wicked problems all – cannot be “solved.”  They can be worked on, grappled with, attacked, managed, but not solved.  Long after Rep. Brat has left politics, his successors will be grappling with the same problems that he and Speaker Ryan, together with the rest of government, faced in 2015. Promising to “solve” the country’s biggest problems accomplishes only one thing:  It  creates expectations that cannot be met!  In politics as in life,  unfulfilled expectations quickly lead to cynicism and loss of credibility.

- George W. Bush,  44th President of the United States:  The fourth paragraph of President Bush’s State of the Union Address delivered on January 28, 2003, is short and to the point:

This country has many challenges.  We will not deny, will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations.

Among the challenges and problems that were to be solved before Bush left office and not be passed along to “other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations” were:

  • Unemployment – making sure that everyone who wanted a job could find one
  • Lack of  high quality health care for all Americans
  • Energy independence, while at the same time dramatically improving the environment
  • The long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare
  • The needs of the “homeless, the fatherless, and the addicted”
  • The prevention of AIDS
  • Peace between a “secure Israel and a democratic Palestine;”
  • “Winning” the war on terror
  • Nuclear weapons in North Korea

What is abundantly clear in 2015 is these problems and many others that Bush identified in  2003, were all passed on to future Congresses, presidents, and generations,  and will continue to be passed on for decades to come.  They are all wicked; they do not get “solved” but can only be worked on again and again.

If Bush had been familiar with the fact that almost all of the problems presidents and Congresses face are wicked and not tame, here is what he would have said:

This country has many challenges. They are all what social scientists call “wicked problems.”  We will not deny that they exist, we will not ignore them, but will confront them with our very best efforts, allocating resources and talent to combat them. We know that this is why you have elected us.   It would be foolish to promise to solve them, and so when we pass them on to future generations, our promise is to have made progress in understanding and managing them effectively.

Wicked or Evil?

When some people encounter the term “wicked problem” for the first time, they associate the word wicked with evil.  Authors Rittle and Webber were explicit in not supporting this interpretation.  ”…We are calling them ‘wicked,’ they wrote, “not because [they] are themselves ethically deplorable.  We use the term ‘wicked” in a meaning akin to ‘malignant’,'vicious’,  ’tricky’, or  ’aggressive’.

Yet Rattle and Webber do see some “evil” in wicked problems. They  identify three situations when wicked problems become “morally objectionable;”

  • Treatingwicked problems as if there were tame
  • “Taming” a wicked problem prematurely
  • Refusing to recognize the inherent wickedness of social problems

With this clarification, it seems reasonable to observe that when people speak about problems as if they were all alike, and then propose “solve them,”  their approach borders upon the “ethically deplorable.”

Some People Say “Wicked,” But Lack Understanding

As I observed in the previous chapter, the era of complete ignorance about wicked problems is rapidly coming to an end.  More and more individuals, universities, governments, pundits, and media are using “wicked problem” language.  Examples from the previous chapter included Hillary Clinton identifying Syria as a wicked problem she faced as Secretary of State; author Daniel Yankelovich using the concept of wicked problems to identify the present and future challenges  faced by the United States;  consultant John Kao suggesting that if America becomes the world leader in addressing wicked problems, she can once again become the one “indispensable nation;” author Jonathan Heidt’s assertion that “wicked problems” was the most “useful concept I have encountered in years…”

Naming wicked problems as “wicked” is a step in the right direction. Yet when it comes to moving beyond naming the problem and actually demonstrating an understanding of the nature of wicked problems in order to attack them, the scene is bleak.  Here are two examples of saying “wicked” but demonstrating a lack of understanding of what that means.  The first is from  Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices, in which 23 out of  25 chapters name a specific problem, beginning with”Asia: The Pivot,”and ending with what may be for her the five messiest,  most intractable problems of all:  Chapter 21. “Climate Change: We’re All In This Together,” Chapter 22.  ”Jobs and Energy:  A Level Playing Field;” Chapter 23. “Haiti:  Disaster and Development;” Chapter 24.”Century Statecraft:  Digital Diplomacy in a Networked World;” and Chapter 25, “Human Rights:  Unfinished Business.”

Clinton seem oblivious to the fact that not just one of the problem she discusses is wicked, but they all are!  Each of these 23 chapters  is a wicked problem!  Not one is tame. The reason for this is clear:  The job of the Secretary of State is to address wicked problems. The tame problems in government are delegated to the technical staff.  Why call only one problem wicked when the definition fits them all? And why is the human rights chapter – 25 – the only one identified as  unfinished, when they are all unfinished, and will continue to be for many decades to come?   Here is a better title for the next edition of Clinton’s book: Hard Choices for Wicked Problems: The  Messy, Intractable, Unfinished Work of a Secretary of State.

A second example of using the word wicked without seeming to understanding it is found in the autobiography of Daniel Yankelovich,  Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions:  Lessons from a Public Life.  At the end of the book,  Yankelovich identifies thirteen “Great Tasks and Wicked Problems that Confront Our Society.”  And he is correct.  All are wicked.  Here is an example:  ”Curbing the extreme individualism of our culture and elevating the importance  of caring for the larger community.”

Yankelovich offers a plan to “solve” these wicked problems by relying upon…what?  Alas, all he has to offer are more wicked problems!  Listed below are his “solutions” – wicked problems all – with which he proposes to solve his original thirteen wicked problems.  Read them and weep!

  • We will need to upgrade the public’s role in our democracy.  Americans must become as effective as citizens as they are as consumers
  • We will need to restore greater fairness to our system of capitalism, so that it is once again democracy-friendly
  • We need to rebuild the moral authority of our culture and provide individuals with better tools for making life’s existential decisions

The reality here is that no one has any idea how to make any of  these actually happen.  They are easy to say and write, but one knows where to start or what to do.  Yet Yankelovich assures us that if we are “brave enough” and “smart enough” it can be done.  It seems not to have occurred to him that relying upon wicked problems in order to solve other wicked problems borders on the surreal.

More Confusion

Vinod Khosla is an entrepreneur who made himself into a Silicon Valley billionaire.  When making more money no longer interested him, he chose a new goal.  According to author Vijay V. Vaithheeswaran, in Need, Speed, and Greed:  How the New Rules of Innovation Can Transform Business, Propel Nations to Greatness and Tame the World’s Most Wicked Problems, Khosla decided that what he wants to do is “save the world.” His plan consists of applying his entrepreneurial skills to solving the world’s most wicked problems. He not only thinks big, he thinks biggest!  ”Unless you influence the lives of at least a million people,” he insists, ” it simply doesn’t matter.”  Khosla’s goal of “saving the world” consists of addressing only those problems that affect a million people or more.  Otherwise,  for him, it’s not worth the effort. The cynic in me cannot help but point out that there are thousands of wicked problems that affect less than one million people, all of whom are part of the world that Khosla intends to “save.”  Are there more billionaires to help them?

Khosla’s standard for deciding which problems to attack is an example of a common and serious misperception.  It is an example of the confusion that has arisen around the recent wicked problems conversations.  Without exception, those who have recently state that the most important problems we face have a name, and that the name is wicked, seem to believe that wicked problems occur only at the societal/national/global level.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Much of the frustration, confusion and pain that people experience in their lives originates with national or global problems.  This is especially true in countries or regions in the midst of social upheaval and war since much  of the stress and turmoil in people’s lives is connected to the unaddressed and unmanaged wicked problems found in personal crises,  families, important relationships, and at work.   The emotions that define and accompany our problems are personal!   And it is at the personal level that any serious work must begin.  This is not to say that the wicked problems that afflict millions of people in India,China, Africa or the Middle East are not important. Clearly they are.  The issues and problem situations that individuals struggle with as parents, as spouses and partners,  and as colleagues are also important. The scale is different but the problems are real.  And it is at the levels of families,  relationships,  and work situations that constructive work can be done more easily.  You or I may not be able to do much to alleviate the suffering of the millions of displaced people from Syria, but there is much we can do with the members of our own families, our spouses,  our colleagues and our bosses at work.

Those who are discovering the usefulness and the power of “speaking wicked” can also expand their awareness and  enlarge their capabilities by becoming aware that not only are conflicts between nations a serious – and wicked – problem, but so too are the endless arguments and conflicts that occur in a home;  that not only is child abuse in the nation a wicked problem that cries out for attention, but so too is the abuse of the child who lives next door; that not only is the mistreatment of workers in third world countries a wicked problem, but so too is the abusive boss who threatens, intimidates and punishes unfairly those who work for him.

An important part of the new conversation about wicked problem is to expand the range and scope of our concerns to include an awareness  that  wicked problems exist at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, team and organizational levels, as well as the societal, national, and global levels.  Does this make everything more complicated?  Of course.  No one said it was going to be simple or easy!

Is a Little Learning Dangerous?

The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of wicked problems and are including them in their language about problems is a positive step forward. But it is only one step.  Saying “wicked” is one thing;  understanding why problems are wicked is another.  And the next step is equally  important: mastering the skills needed in order to own them,  to “get down into the swamp” with them, and to work constructively with others on them in order to make a difference.

In 1711, in his poem, “An Essay in Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote  ”A little learning is a dangerous thing/Drink deep, or taste not from the Pierian spring.”  Pope’s advice is valuable for those of us who grapple with wicked problems – and that includes us all.  Is it dangerous to have only a “little learning” about wicked problem?  I believe that it is.  Over time, shallow and limited knowledge may create more disadvantages than advantages.  When one says “wicked,” but lacks the necessary depth of understanding to move beyond that, people may conclude that since one can say “wicked,” he or she also ought to be able to “solve” wicked. And for many, this is too great a temptation to resist. Rather, what is needed is “deep drinking”:  drilling down into theories, principles, and applications that are all part of wicked problems and that will help us become proficient in understanding the nature of the wicked problems we face.  And then even more drinking deep:  mastering the skills that will make our work with wicked problems more effective and more satisfying.