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Dealing with Wicked Problems in a Complex World; The Disciplines of Integrative and Design Thinking Published: Sunday, October 13, 2013 12:01 am By: Ulises Pabón, Chief Operations Officer

Whether you're a business owner, a manager, or an individual contributor, it's safe to say that you spend a good portion of your day solving problems.  We all do.  Now, solving problems is one thing, solving wicked problems is another.

"Wicked" problems are a special class of problems that can not be solved through conventional means.  Under this category, we find problems that are ill-formulated, information about them is confusing, multiple players with conflicting values have a stake on their outcome, and their ramifications and repercussions are complex and complicated.

Wicked problems share four salient characteristics.  First, the root causes behind the problem are not only complex but ambiguous.  You can't tell why things are happening the way they are and what causes them to do so.  Second, wicked problems are particularly unique; they do not fit neatly into any problem category you've encountered before; hence, canned solutions and known approaches become irrelevant.  Third, every step towards devising a solution changes our understanding of the problem or changes the problem itself.  Finally, it is difficult to tell when the problem is "solved" and what that solution may look like when you reach it; there is no clear stopping rule.  Many social, economic, and organizational problems fall under this category. 

It's not that wicked problems are insolvable; they just happen to require a different type of thinking.  That's where integrative thinking and design thinking come in.

Integrative thinking consists in the ability to constructively face the tension that emerges from opposing models.  Through integrative thinking, problems solvers are better positioned to generate creative solutions at the intersection of these opposing models.  To do so, integrative thinkers consider many more salient elements of the problem than non-integrative thinkers do.  They explore non-linear and multi-directional cause and effect relationships.  They also maintain a systemic perspective as they work with the different elements or components of the problem and they explore creative solutions to the inherent tensions built into the architecture of the problem. 

Design thinking is a special application of integrative thinking.  Design thinking invites us to integrate the needs of customers, users, or stakeholders with what is technically feasible and economically viable.  Design thinking brings these three elements - desirability, feasibility, and viability - into a harmonious balance.  The iPod/iTunes duo is an excellent example of design thinking at its best.  Amidst chaos in the music industry regarding intellectual property rights and an old business model dependent on physical media (records or tapes), Apple emerged with an elegant pay-per-song design that was able to integrate desirability, feasibility, and viability; and became the number one music retailer in the process (ahead, in descending order, of Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Amazon, and Target). 

Developing integrative and design thinking skills may require honing skills and "flexing muscles" you thought you didn't have.   For example, a good place to start is to develop your observation skills.  We spend a good portion of our day on auto-pilot.  The more familiarized we are with a situation, the easier we take it for granted.  Hence, we rarely observe and usually overlook the details of the world around us.

Observation implies seeing what people don't do and listening to what they do not say.  This requires some practice.  Hospital emergency rooms, shopping centers, supermarket aisles, and airports are excellent laboratories.  What may seem as "illogical" behaviors are actually strategies people use to deal with a confusing and contradictory world.  If we learn to see between the lines, we will be in a better position to identify emerging and tacit needs and convert these into opportunities.

Practice observing the ordinary.  Make the habit of pausing at least once a day to think about an ordinary situation.  Spend an additional couple of seconds observing artifacts you normally take for granted - a stapler, the chair you're sitting on, the cup you're drinking from.  You'll be surprised by what you start to see.

A second crucial design thinking skill is the ability to build prototypes.  Traditional designers and problem solvers see prototypes as vehicles to validate concepts.  Design thinkers recognize that prototypes are an integral part of the exploration and design process.  Get used to creating prototypes early in the innovation process.  If you happen to be in the service industry, stories, scenarios, storyboards, homemade movies, and even improvised skits can be excellent prototypes.

Another important element in the development of design thinking is your openness to alternatives.  Design thinkers recognize the perils of prematurely converging on a solution.  They learn to nurture the divergent process of exploring multiple angles.  Resist the temptation to move forward with the first great idea or the first feasible solution to your problem.

Of course, searching for options complicates things.  Your colleagues will get frustrated and your customers will become impatient.  However, the eventual creative integration of options will lead to a more complete and comprehensive solution.  You can always use time limits to provoke and accelerate the cross-coupling of ideas and to avoid falling victim to analysis-paralysis.

Finally, learn how to open your problem solving venture to the world.  Companies across the planet are using open-innovation platforms and co-creation technologies as a means to provoke breakthroughs and accelerate the resolution of wicked problems.  By inviting other stakeholders to participate in the innovation process, they no longer limit themselves to the core competencies under their roof.  On a smaller scale, web sites like stixy.com, vyew.com and slideshare.net can get you started in experimenting with virtual collaboration.

Solving wicked problems will not be easy.  Anticipate a disorganized process, full of dizzying iterations.  Nevertheless, don't despair.  The addictive flash of insight we all experience when desirability, feasibility, and viability intersect, is well worth the wait. 


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