This precis is about the principles that should guide how to deal with a wicked problem, such as can occur in any business. The COVID-19 pandemic has become a wicked problem, but not because it is a new contagious disease. It has become wicked because the entire nation has been locked down since it became clear there was community spread of the virus.  Lockdown put an end to or severely impaired the essence of society: human interaction. The consequences have been deep and wide and created a multitude of interconnected secondary problems for society. The merits of the lockdown are not at issue here. Interconnected problems in society, on which there are diverse perspectives and interests, are seldom solved … they may never end and continuously need to be ‘re-solved’.

            Authoritative strategies:  give the problem to some group of ‘experts’; they gather data, analyse and make recommendations; some powerful stakeholders may be consulted then the authority makes decisions. Other stakeholders acquiesce or are forced to abide by the authority’s decisions and they follow the orderly flow determined from above. Authoritative strategies do NOT solve or resolve wicked problems – they tend to cause protracted discord.

Collaborative strategies: are particularly relevant where part of the solution to the problem involves sustained behavioural change by many stakeholders and/or citizens. Success is contingent on shared information, shared understanding about the problem, and shared commitment to the possible solutions. Shared understanding means that the stakeholders understand each other’s positions well enough to have intelligent dialogue about the different interpretations of the problem, and to exercise collective intelligence about how to solve it.  

At the core of collaboration is a win-win view of problem-solving. The collaboration may involve ‘experts’ from diverse fields; partnerships between different stakeholders and with government (the authority); treaties and compacts; and information and related campaigns to influence voluntary, appropriate lifestyle changes.

Key advantages include higher stakeholder commitment, more comprehensive and effective ways forward, and fewer resources having to be used by any one stakeholder. The process costs can be high skills in dialogue and of collaboration ay be limited. Poorly managed attempts can lead to conflict, hardened positions and stalemate.

Unlike tame problems (see tabulated summary on the next page), wicked problems do not have a right or wrong solution; would-be solutions of wicked problems range from good to bad or workable to unworkable and tend to be intractable … they seldom come to a definitive end: the intended outcome may be ‘delayed, diluted or defeated’.[i] While there may be algorithmic elements in the design of the solution(s) to wicked conundrums, the keys are creativity, flexibility and adaptation-on-the-go.

Roger Stewart

18 May 2020

[i] John Sterman. Business Dynamics.  Boston; Irwin McGraw-Hill; 2000

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