What’s the Process to Solve Wicked Problems?

Problem Solving, Problems,

Have you ever had a wicked problem, one that seemed really difficult to solve? One that challenged your conventional thinking? When you talked to your colleagues about it, they said “Good luck!” and walked away from you? Those are the kinds of problems we get hired to solve— so I’ve developed a process for solving wicked problems.

  1. Establish that a problem that needs a solution exists. Sometimes the “problem” is only a problem because we framed it as a problem. Often, it isn’t a problem at all—it’s an opportunity disguised as a problem and re-framing the problem reveals its true nature.
  2. Justify the need for YOU to solve it. I’ll admit it—I’m a mercenary. I get paid to solve problems, but I only work on problems that are aligned with our business strategy, has measurable benefits baked into the solution, and the solution will be implemented.
  3. Contextualize the problem. Document the different solutions you’ve tried along with the results of the attempts. Then document the solution approaches others tried. Look for similar problems in unrelated fields—has anyone found a solution that could be adapted to your set of circumstances? What are the internal and external constraints on solution implementation? Always find out as much information first-hand and develop an intimate understanding of the context.
  4. Define the problem in a written problem statement. We ask ourselves a lot of questions at this part of the process. We start with “Is this one problem or many problems?” and end with “How will solutions be evaluated and success measured?” We have about a dozen points between those questions that we pay attention to. We have found those to be critical to the problem-solving process.
  5. Answer the questions. All the questions created in Step 4 need answers. Work from the most crucial to the least crucial.
  6. Have colleagues outside the solution team review your work. It’s important that you don’t develop solutions in a silo or echo chamber.

The keys to solving wicked problems is the ability to think clearly and to follow a process designed to solve wicked problems.