Solving "Wicked Problems" - the Road to a Better World?

What makes a problem "wicked" rather than just daunting, formidable or really, really tough? Wicked problems are ones in which we operate with incomplete or contradictory and rapidly-changing information with a large number of stakeholders and with connections to many other problems. How to provide nutritious, satisfying and sufficient food for 9 billion of our neighbors in a sustainable and affordable way is an example of a wicked problem. By DNV GL Chief Sustainability Officer Bjørn K. Haugland; and Professor Kevin Noone, Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry (ACES), Stockholm University.

It's clear that dealing with wicked problems will require a far greater degree of collaboration and cooperation than most of us are used to applying in our day jobs. We will need to assemble new constellations in which not only stars shine, but where everyone can contribute to illumination. What is equally true, but perhaps less clear is that fixing these constellations in the sky requires trust, and trust needs time, resources and a supportive environment to develop.

We often tend towards homogenization out of tradition and proclivity. Our colleagues have similar backgrounds and training, we develop a professional pathos that identifies us as a group as opposed to them who use a different jargon or have a different viewpoint. This kind of tribal compartmentalization is incompatible with solving wicked problems. Even in cases in which silo building is explicitly undesired, we often find ourselves falling into the geometry of separate cylinders almost unconsciously. How can we avoid this trap?

We recognize that diversity is a good thing, regardless whether your organization is a Fortune 500 business, a world-class university, a basketball team or a small mom-and-pop restaurant. Team diversity is a necessary but insufficient condition for successfully tackling wicked problems. In addition our diverse teams will need a safe, authorized, repeated space in which to build trust, learn each other's languages, find each others' talents, and together develop a strategy for dealing with complex, interconnected and rapidly changing problem landscapes. The safe aspect means that participants in the space are free to express their curiosity and can attempt to alleviate their ignorance without fear of appearing on YouTube with a "clueless" sign hung around their necks. The authorized aspect signifies that the participants are sufficiently high in the food chains of their organizations that they have a fair degree of decision-making power and responsibility; they can make things happen. The repeated aspect means that the participants will encounter each other often enough that trust building - with its own intrinsic gestation time - can happen.

Given the number of wicked problems we have to deal with today, such as climate change, mass migration and the food crisis, we all want these teams to be in place immediately and without costs for building or maintaining them. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.

What is the way forward?

It seems to us that there are two main issues we need to address. One is creating and resourcing the "safe, authorized, repeated space". The second is providing incentives for the diverse, talented, driven people to occupy this space and invest enough of themselves so that they can flourish there - and turn the space itself into a creative, collaborative environment for true innovation. We'll save discussing the creating and resourcing aspects for a later blog, and assume that we have been successful at it. Once we've created the space, how do we incentivize people to fully engage in it?

We can start by mapping out the disincentives that exist to doing something risky and out of the ordinary. All professional sectors have metrics by which people are judged. They can be sales quotas achieved, reports written, degrees granted, goals scored or pizzas served. If an individual is to fully occupy and contribute to the safe, authorized, repeated space and help solve wicked problems, it means that they will not be able to fulfill these metrics to the same extent as their colleagues who are not involved in the endeavor. We either need to create a better set of success metrics within all of our respective professions, or we can create an additional reward structure for the folks who dare to step outside their silos. The latter pathway may be the simpler one. We don't have the perfect solution to this better set of metrics, but we do have some ideas about some of its characteristics.
  1. The metric would be a "dashboard" of indices, rather than a single number.
  2. The indices would capture both quantitative and qualitative information. It's relatively easy to measure production (such as the number of blog entries published), but more difficult to measure aspects of quality. Measuring the degree to which an individual contributes to making and enhancing a creative, supportive environment is even tougher, but equally important nonetheless.
  3. The metric would be universally recognized. This implies that the metric would be hosted, administered or at least overseen by an organization perceived as trustworthy, transparent and impartial.
  4. An individual scoring high on the metric would be celebrated and rewarded both within and beyond her organization.
This list of characteristics is not exhaustive.

Together with UN Global Compact and Monday Morning Global Institute, DNV GL prepares an annual outlook for how to turn global risks into opportunities through the Global Opportunity Report. Global risks assemble the characteristics of wicked problems. They represent challenges in which we operate with incomplete or contradictory and rapidly-changing information with a large number of stakeholders and with connections to many other problems.

You may have more and better ideas about what this new metric should contain. If so, we would be happy to hear from you; please let us know what you think. Help us create a better world by making visible and rewarding contributions to solving wicked problems.