Jennifer Riel: Tackling 'wicked' problems
When tackling problems that are big, complex and overwhelming, leaders should think like designers to find integrative solutions, says a University of Toronto business management specialist.
January 17, 2012 | Solving a hard problem can be vexing, as it requires working doggedly through potential solutions to find the correct answer.
But some problems are not just hard but wickedly hard in their unconventionality and scope, and the usual problem-solving skills are not effective, said Jennifer Riel, the associate director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“As you attempt to solve the problem, it starts to change,” said Riel, citing some of the characteristics of what she and her colleagues call “wicked” problems. “There are no starting and ending rules. You don’t ever actually know when you’re done solving the problem.”
Leaders can solve wicked problems, she said, by breaking down conventional thought patterns and developing fresh ideas through the models of integrative thinking and design thinking.
Riel, who holds an MBA from Rotman, said these thinking strategies typically have been focused on business management issues but can work just as well for other types of organizations, and even individuals.
Riel has created and led workshops for companies such as Four Seasons and AstraZeneca. She also collaborates closely with Martin on his writing, including the 2007 book “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking.”
She spoke with Faith & Leadership about the nature of wicked problems and some alternative approaches to solving them.
Q: Could you explain the difference between a hard problem and a wicked problem?
There are kinds of problems in the world, in particular in public policy, where the problem is not just big but almost overwhelmingly big. And you can’t see your way clear from the beginning to the end.
So you are as much designing your process to solve the problem as you are solving it, and that’s what makes it so tricky and pernicious. The term “wicked” came to be applied to these problems in part because it really does convey this sense of just how daunting it can be to be faced with a problem like, How do you provide health care to the people of the United States or the people of Canada?
Those problems look a little different from hard problems, and they require different skill sets.
We are trained really well in school to manage hard problems. Even when you get into higher levels of education, there still tend to be these reasonably structured problems. There’s a way of working your way through this complicated case that brings you to the answer related to the lesson you’re trying to learn in that class.
Wicked problems don’t work that way. They’re not pre-structured. They cross institutional barriers. They don’t belong to any one person, any one philosophy, any one organization, and so it makes it just way harder to come to an answer.
Q: How do you know you have a wicked problem and not just a hard problem?
I think life is a wicked problem, and there are hard problems within life.
How do I help my child determine which engineering program to go to? That’s a hard problem. There are a lot of engineering programs, and so you would go through your process.
That is a very different thing from having your child coming to you and saying, “What should I do with my life? What can I do that will provide me with meaning and passion?” That’s a wicked problem. How do you even start to think about a problem like that?
Q: Can you give an example in an organizational setting of a wicked problem and how it was solved ?
Steve Jobs was a master at dealing with wicked problems, and when he came back to Apple [in 1996], it was in a very bad place. They had the success of the Macintosh, and then they really struggled.
Most CEOs would come back and say, “How do I sell more computers? We’ll have to expand the number of consumers who are interested in my products. We’ll have to hire a chief marketing officer.” It’s a hard problem -- “How do I sell more computers?”
Jobs came in and asked different kinds of questions about what could that company even be. He famously said his objective was to make a dent in the universe. He asked, “How do I transform how people interact with each other and the devices that enable them to communicate?” It’s a totally different kind of thing.
The company went on to build the iPod, which is a fun little product but not much different from a whole bunch of other MP3 players that already existed at the time. But then Apple designed a whole system, created iTunes and an integrated marketing campaign that got people very excited about it.
Steve Jobs transformed what his company was about, which was how you interact with the devices in your life, and how an MP3 player wasn’t just about music but who you are as a person.
Another example that I like is Research in Motion. The BlackBerry guys are struggling a little bit [now], but think about what they did originally, which was to say, “How do people want to connect to their office when they’re not there?”
They first made digital pagers, and the notion that you could design something that would enable you to read email didn’t seem utterly transformative until it ended up in the hands of [RIM President] Mike Lazaridis, who asked, “How would you design this in such a way that would actually connect you to the people that you have left in the office?”
And that’s really what he did. He didn’t ask, “How do I make a better pager?”
Q: When you work with organizations and people in leadership, how do you go about helping them identify and address their wicked problems?
We work with a wonderful group at the Rotman School at the University of Toronto Business Design Initiative who call themselves DesignWorks. They were created out of some work that our dean, Roger Martin, did with Procter & Gamble, along with Dave Kelley [of Stanford University’s Plattner Institute of Design] and Patrick Whitney [dean of the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology].
Procter & Gamble was interested in spurring innovation internally through design. They had this insight that designers were able to tackle wicked problems in a way that didn’t seem to be happening organizationally.
So David, Roger and Patrick created a three-part process for generating innovation around wicked problems in an organization.
They take an ethnographic approach, using qualitative research and post-quantitative research -- really attempting to understand what the needs are. From there you move into the process of “ideating,” a new term for me before I met designers. It involves trying to generate ways of dealing with that need and prototyping lots of answers, testing them, going back to the users, and playing around with the ideas.
The third stage, that is so often neglected but most important, is saying, “How do I take that insight, that new innovation, and have it make sense with what I already do, with the strategy of my organization? How do I get people in my organization to understand how it fits and how to implement it?”