Welcome to the World of Wicked Problems

The World is becoming a wicked place. And not in the way you think (although that may be the case as well).

I’m referring to the explosion of wicked problems. Wicked problems are thorny, complex, dynamic problems that defy black and white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no – the answer always seems to be maybe. There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is “good enough – for now.”

I believe the ability to deal with wicked problems will be the single biggest factor in separating winners from losers in the future. Dealing with wicked problems requires a different tool set than the one we’ve always used in the past. It requires open, nimble minds. It requires the ability to break complexity into components that can yield individual insights, then synthesizing those insights together into a workable process. Most importantly, however, it requires a willingness to start all over again when that process is finally put in place. And you have to do that with a totally open mind; jettisoning any baggage you might be carrying from the past iteration. In short, it requires an approach I’ve referred to in the past as Bayesian Strategy.

A world full of wicked problems also requires a new kind of leadership. In the past, we wanted leaders who had all the answers. But in a world of wicked problems, there are no answers. In this world, we need leaders who understand the value of adaptability and iteration. Open minds are critical. Beliefs take a back seat to curiosity and imagination.

I’ve had a recent history of taking beliefs to task. Beliefs are cognitive short cuts we use to avoid thinking. In a fairly stable and predictable world, beliefs served a purpose. They are the intellectual equivalent of habits. If the same actions (or thoughts) always yield the same results, why bother with rational analysis? It’s a waste of energy. If we can predict what the end looks like, stopping to rationalize looks an awful lot like wavering or being indecisive.

But predictability is becoming increasingly rare. With wicked problems, we need to be willing to tear apart our view of the world and test it for validity. We need to unpack our beliefs and be willing to sacrifice them if empirical evidence shows them to be false. We need to introduce scientific rigor into our thought process.

This comes down to the difference between complexity and complication. Sending a man to the moon and sequencing the human genome were both complicated problems. Currently, climate change would fall into the same bucket. In each case, there was a lot to be done, but we knew what we had to do. We just needed to marshall the resources to do it. We could predict what the end would look like. This was a world where we needed unwavering leadership and a belief in a commonly understood end-state. To be successful, we just had to get sh*t done.

Creating a sustainable future for advertising and publishing are both complex problems. This makes them wicked. And they’re not alone. Wicked problems are emerging everywhere: educational reform, transportation infrastructures, global economic dynamics, national security, even the future of democracy. In each area, technology and its gravitational pull on society are dealing a handful of wild cards into the deck. We have no idea what success might look like. We are trying to find answers in a whirling, emergent environment, where rules are constantly in flux.

Here, we have to take a different approach. It’s not a straight line. It’s an endless loop.

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