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Ask OCE — February 8, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 4

What Are Wicked Problems?

NASA employees are routinely called upon to solve problems that require high levels of creativity and coordination from project teams. There are no off-the-shelf solutions for landing a robotic rover on Mars. The project manager’s grand task, of course, is to harness and optimize the creativity of the team’s members while adhering to the discipline of a schedule and budget.

Dr. Jeffrey Conklin, Director of the CogNexus Institute, has spent over two decades studying precisely these kinds of management challenges. In his new book Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), Conklin describes the dynamics in play when project teams confront what he calls wicked problems.

What is a wicked problem? Conklin draws his definition from the work of the late urban planner Horst Rittel, who coined the term over thirty years ago:
  1. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You simply run out of time or money.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong. They are "better," "worse," "good enough," or "not good enough."
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation."
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.
Sound familiar? The wicked problem model describes a lot of the most complex challenges that NASA undertakes. Conklin uses a case study to explain the difficulty of managing a project team facing a wicked problem.

In the 1980s the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) looked into how people solve problems. They conducted an experiment in which a number of designers were tasked with designing an elevator control system for an office building. All the participants were experienced and expert integrated circuit designers, but none had ever worked on elevator systems.

So what happened? Researchers observed that the designers worked simultaneously on understanding the problem and formulating a solution, often moving rapidly back and forth between the two. They tried to understand it both by reading the requirements and by performing mental simulations of the problem. Their solutions were sorted into three categories: high, medium, and low, which Conklin describes as roughly analogous to an architect’s sketch, working drawings, and a detailed blueprint and materials list for a house.

Conklin then spells out the traditional approach to project problem solving that is familiar to anyone at NASA: working from the problem to the solution in a linear fashion. This can be understood as three-step process: 1) understand the problem, including gathering and analyzing requirements from customers or users; 2) formulate a solution; and 3) implement that solution. The classic model to depict this process is waterfall graph that progresses through clearly delineated steps or phases to a successful conclusion.

It all sounds good, except that the researchers conducting the experiment discovered that the waterfall model doesn’t actually reflect the human thinking process when a wicked problem is in play. In the elevator experiment, designers started by trying to understand the problem, but some then immediately jumped into formulating potential solutions, and then back to refining their understanding of the problem. They asked themselves hypothetical questions as they imagined how the system would work. (Suppose I'm on the second floor and the elevator is on a higher floor. What happens if I push the "up" arrow?) Their individual work processes were anything but regimented. "Rather than being orderly and linear, the line plotting the course of their thinking looks more like a seismograph for a major earthquake," Conklin writes.

These designers were skilled professionals, not undisciplined amateurs. Their behavior did not stem from a lack of training. Instead, they seized on breakthrough ideas that allowed them to make the most headway possible by making what Conklin describes as "opportunity-driven leaps in the focus of attention." Those unpredictable leaps are the direct result of creativity and rapid learning.

"Faced with a novel and complex problem, human beings do not simply start by gathering and analyzing data," Conklin concludes. "These experienced designers illustrated that problem understanding can only come from creating possible solutions and considering how they will work. Indeed, the problem often can best be described in terms of solution elements. A requirement in the problem statement calling for 'high reliability' was quickly translated into the idea of using a network of distributed processors – a high-level solution that drove the rest of the design process."

So where does that leave the project manager? The short answer — what Conklin calls "the Holy Grail of effective collaboration" — lies in "creating shared understanding about the problem, and shared commitment to the possible solutions."