Some problems are such complex, entangled, multifaceted hairballs that we cannot approach them alone. They change and morph as quickly as our ability to understand them. They are known to academics as "wicked problems."

In modern enterprises, we need a new way to talk about these wicked problems, as well as new approaches to address them. Normal isn't normal anymore. Change is the norm.

Wicked Problems Are Wicked Important

Dr. Tom Ritchey has written this succinct review of wicked problems:

They are messy, devious and reactive, i.e., they fight back when you try to "resolve" them.

Wicked problems are entangled issues where no definitive or objective analysis of the root causes or ultimate solution is possible. These are problems where the number of people involved can make the problem worse. It’s the herding cats problem. Each tug at the issue changes the problems so that it evolves even as we try to fix it. The most obvious examples of such problems are world poverty or obesity.

Wicked problems are different from very hard problems. Putting a rocket on the moon is a very hard problem, but it's not wicked, because the goal is pretty straightforward. Righting a troubled economy -- that's wicked.

The challenge at the core of nearly all business and government is around these problems. How to structure a business unit, how to design and build a product, how to build value in a dynamic and competitive market. These are wicked problems, too.

Why do we care that these problems are wicked? Because the inability to deal with wicked problems can be the undoing of an organization -- keeping it forever stagnant, or worse, spiraling downward. These are the problems that can be so pervasive we barely dare try to solve them, or heroically throw ourselves against time and time again to little avail.

They do not respond well to divide and conquer solutions. What they do respond to are heterogeneous teams of people who transcend conflicting agendas and target their coordinated expertise -- and ability to learn and discover -- on the problem.

The Wicked Enterprise

Most organizations are hierarchical and inherently designed for divide and conquer. This pattern is optimal for finding algebraic solutions to the kinds of traditional problems that organizations were designed to solve. The problem is that core issues of strategy, positioning, product development, solution development, marketing are not divide and conquer problems. They require holistic approaches. They are never solved, they only get better or worse.

Businesses that handle these problems well, have tucked away a very good team somewhere in their leadership or in some other very influential role that is addressing the problems collaboratively. John Seely Brown's (Co-Chair of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and former PARC Chief Scientist) describes these teams as "marinating together in the problem space".

Without these teams and their diversity of perspective, you lack the intensity and pace required to make progress on wicked problems. Have you noticed the recent uptick in use of the vulgar term for a failure? It has the word "cluster" in it. I'm sure this is an instinctive knowledge that the entanglement of issues is the real issue.

Three Themes to Note About Wicked Problems

  1. Change is part of the challenge. These problems are not static. They morph and wiggle away from any attempt to pin them down.
  2. People are a source of (and the solution to) complexity. The more people, the more complexity, the more ability to comprehend and understand the wicked problems. It's confusing, but, while an uncoordinated crowd of people makes things complex and wicked, a coordinated team is required to make progress.
  3. The concept of the social network is changing our approach to problem solving. There is some wicked cool thinking emerging around groups, teams, learning and change which could revolutionize the approach to solving wicked problems.

Enterprise 2.0 Is an Approach to Wicked Problems

We are to rising to the challenge of wicked problems by getting better at dealing with change and working as teams. We will be changing our divide and conquer mentality to marinate together in the problem space and to work jointly with our hands to produce tangible results that we can jointly examine, and manipulate into its next evolution.

Great teams are found in many organizations, but these are the exception and not the norm. Increasingly, great teams enabled by sensible processes and good technology will be the engines of progress.

For those who consider Enterprise 2.0 to be just a strategy or a tool-set or a marketing plan, I say this -- Enterprise 2.0 is but the first step of a profoundly more interesting and effective way to do business (or government). It is an extreme, full-impact sport that touches everything we do as an organization: who we work with and how, what we work on and why, the technology we work with.

Our wicked challenges require the diversity and experience of teams, as well as their ability to tap into and integrate new ideas and information. Our solutions will be tried and transient, keeping pace with the challenges they are meant to solve. A team with a bit of sense and technology can consistently outperform one corporate genius or the world’s most powerful computer in working through a wicked(ish) problem.

If you're serious about moving forward, you must be serious about these three ideas:

  1. We need to work as teams: Not a set of people with similar job titles, but real, collaborative, mission-focused, process-oriented, esprit de corp, i'll-cover-your-backside-and-I-know-you've-got-mine teams.
  2. Work is learning is doing: We need people who do as much as people who cogitate. Our society has lost most of its do, but we're getting it back, and we need to accelerate the rise of the Do-er.
  3. Change is the norm: We must start to learn and work in a way that is extremely agile, deeply and broadly informed. Normal isn't normal anymore.

The Age of (Wicked) Disruption and Transformation

Our reality is getting disrupted. Often. Have you watched John Seely Brown's speech about a revolutionary age where we will never again have a status quo to maintain?

This age is every bit as radical as the French and American revolutions. This revolution is far beyond the political, however. It features technology, economics, sociology and culture. Brown suggests that the revolutionary period that we're in will mean that the pace of change (radical change) will be so intense we will never again live in a predictable world.

So what we have here is this: a wildly unpredictable, wicked world and an infinite toolkit with which to explore and manipulate it.

This skill to simply "do," despite the lack of resources or formal expertise, is a key part of succeeding in wicked environments in this day and age. This is the skill of Benjamin Frankin, the California 49ers, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, Thomas Edison, and Johnny Appleseed.

It is the skill that brought us from the Age of Enlightenment into the Industrial Age. It is the skill that needs to be mainstream to catapult us from the Information Age into the Transformation Age.