We’re surrounded by them, wicked problems that are complex, diffuse, vague and resist all logical interpretation. Fast changing stakeholders, contextual relevance in any given moment, and perceived past failures dilute any efforts to make a positive difference. Wicked problems divide opinion, unite factions, exclude outsiders – the very people that may have previously unheard, valid ideas.

We can all recognise global wicked problems, global warming and our reliance on hydrocarbons, the demise of bees and our usage of powerful chemical pesticides and fertilisers, conflict across the globe and our economically powerful defence industry. Global problems where there is probably no ‘right answer’, no one answer that satisfies and improves the lot of all stakeholders. Problems that present a myriad of unexpected outcomes from any one small decision or action (whether or not such decisions or actions were perceived and/or intended as largely positive or negative).

The wicked, wicked problem is that we’ve all fallen in love with the solution, the silver bullet that will permanently and completely solve the issue. We know intrinsically that life just doesn’t work that way; life is messy. We’re often faced with situations we failed to predict from actions and decisions made with genuine positive intent – we know that, right?

Wicked problems don’t have to be big (and global) to be wicked! Most of us have at least some wicked problems that directly impact our daily work and lives. We all have something to gain from approaching these problems differently. So how do we resist our natural, animal instincts and redefine success in a way that allows us to make progress day by day, and to learn from our inevitable failures on the journey?

Chaos theory tells us that a small change can effect a greater (and often unexpected or unintended) change elsewhere in a system (think butterfly causing major weather systems on the other side of the globe). There’s a pattern to everything and if we understand that pattern in some small way, we are far more likely to be able to determine and focus our impact. We need to truly appreciate and seek to understand the wicked problem as a system – a complex system of actors, histories, activities, decisions, experiences, knowledge, physics, economics and so on that are all inextricably connected. We’re never going to map the system perfectly, but an attempt to do so greatly improves our ability to identify change levers and isolate outcomes.

We need to talk, widely and deeply, and not just to those who agree with us. Switch off our own personal echo chambers and extend genuine curiosity and courtesy to those who have opinions that challenge our very beliefs and values. Bring together groups of people from different positions in the system to form wicked tribes – focused on the problem and working inclusively to innovate and create ideas that may nudge it in a certain direction.

We must dare to experiment; to play with the problem in a way that extends our understanding of it and lets us fail and learn fast and early from failure.

Cycles of experimentation across contexts, groups and time provide valuable insight that can be applied to the next move. Wicked problems demand dedication, commitment to the cause, the movement, the gradual procession of advancement and retreat. Wicked problems don’t tend to disappear in a puff of smoke at the introduction of a perfect solution. Instead, by their very nature, wicked problems evolve and adapt. If you make friends with a wicked problem it will remain a friend for life and, like a true friend will change in response to your friendship. Fall in love with a wicked problem – you never quite know where it will take you and where you will take it …

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Strategy to reality