If you’re a leader then your job is to solve problems and exploit opportunities. It might be global warming, or it might be finding killer new service offerings for your business unit.
This blog is about how we approach a type of problem of type ‘Wicked’, why we’re often not very good at this in business, and how information architecture can provide a way out.
How to solve global warming was something I thought about a lot a few years ago as a student of climate science, it’s a tricky problem. So, because I’m an architect at heart, I abstracted…. “What’s the pattern I can apply to problems like this”, I thought. If I can’t solve the problem itself then I should take a step back and determine how this kind of problem can be solved.
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
On UK TV there was a talent show that tried to find a lead actress for the musical ‘The Sound of Music’ and here’s how they did it; define what a good lead singer needs to do (sing, act, dance, be nice), then set some tests to see if they can do it (auditions), measure it (with public opinion and judges) and pick the best one. This was a ‘Tame’ problem and characterised by:
- The problem is definition is clear, accepted, and stable.
- There’s a stopping point, we know when it’s solved.
- There is usually a right answer.
- Similar problems have been solved before.
- Solutions can be abandoned and we can try again.
Great. We’re good at tame problems; it’s what we’re all taught to do in school and they’re the basis of science. The problem can still be difficult, like landing a man on the moon, but it’s still essentially tame; follow tried and tested solution approaches and you’ll get there.
How about global warming?
A Wicked problem is entirely different…
- There’s no commonly agreed problem statement
- There is no stopping rule; when is it solved?
- There’s no right or wrong solution
- The problem is unique, it’s never been solved before
- One shot – attempting a solution changes the problem itself
Some are even ‘Super Wicked’…
- Time is running out
- There is no central authority
- Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
Does this sound familiar? Classic examples of this are often found in the social sciences, world peace, alleviating poverty.. etc. The following business problems also have wicked characteristics for example…
- How do you create innovation?
- How do I ensure global compliance with operational reporting?
- How do I attract the best and brightest?
But we often fail. I believe this is because we treat wicked problems as if they’re tame. Leaders are typically smart people who excelled at tame problem solving in school and operational roles. They typically think the challenge is clear, that we can reason to the solution, and that we have the authority to effect the necessary actions. We’re then surprised when in an unstable business environment the tame approach doesn’t work at all.
The solution then?
Nobody can agree actually – the problem itself is something of a wicked problem. But some themes do emerge and information is central to all of them
1. Promote Collaboration
More stakeholder engagement, more discussion, more transparency and, out of this collaboration and a multitude of ideas, a consensus that is roughly right emerges. Essentially crowd sourcing an answer.
See: internet, freedom of speech, democratic accountability, free education.
2. Enable Evolution
Decentralise the decision and let the answer emerge from a competitive evolutionary system. Create a game where the rules mean that the best answer will win.
See: Apple’s app store, choice & innovation in capitalist society, natural selection.
For example, the wicked problem of how to create a brilliant smartphone is being beaten by open competition and feedback on phone apps on top of a standardised open system. The phones and software keep getting better.
The role of information architecture is to allow everyone in an organisation to make better decisions to do their job better. This is done by collecting, organising, and presenting information; which is the very foundation of collaboration and innovation. Information also enables measurement, which in turn enables feedback and improvement through competition as well.
The best way any organisation can tackle problems with wicked characteristics is to think carefully about how information is used and the systems that support its creation, organisation, and use. Doing so will create the right circumstances for collaboration and evolution, get this right and you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.