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Change Management, Problem Solving

“Wicked problems”: there is no RIGHT answer

directionThis week I’ve been talking with a variety of individuals and groups who are trying to trying to develop a workable solution to a complex change management problem based on a health and welfare issue.  This is not a “simple” problem that can be readily defined with an associated “best” or “right” answer.

It is a classic example of a “wicked” problem that need lots of stakeholder engagement, where there is much complexity, with lots of inter-dependencies and there’s no right answer.  There’s simply no single, right approach or solution.  Treating a wicked problem as if it is a simple one is doomed to fail!

When you are trying to solve Wicked Problems, you face a range of barriers which are both cultural and technical. People “in the problem” are likely to have conflicting objectives and there may be hidden agendas that don’t surface readily. Equally, people may not have the technical capability to solve the problem, either through a lack of knowledge of relevant tools, or lack of skill in applying them in a what will inevitably be a culturally challenging environment.

There are some pretty clear lessons to be learned from thinking about the type of problem you face before you launch into trying to solve it.

Firstly, you have to decide how simple or wicked your problem is. The number of stakeholders who want to get involved and their degree of consensus should give you a clue. If it’s a problem that’s been around for a long time, it’s probably not going to be simple to solve, is it?

Secondly, it’s no use being a “one trick pony”; only the simplest of problems are amenable to being solved using basic or single problem solving tools. Be very wary of consultants who have a methodology (Lean, Six Sigma, Simulation, etc. etc.) and will “do it to you”, irrespective of its relevance and fit. Anything complex will require excellent facilitation skills and access to a range of possible problem solving tools which need to be applied intelligently, at the right time, with the right people.

Thirdly, you may need to accept (and get stakeholders to accept) that, for some problems, there will be no right answer. It will be uncomfortable for some people to live with that level of ambiguity, but unless you can, problem solving will probably be a very painful process.

I’ve written an article, based on a 2011 OR Society Conference presentation, plus some of my own thoughts about the different types of problem you may come across and the approaches that are needed to solve them.  Download the full article (pdf) and find out how to recognise the different types and what’s likely to work when trying to solve them.

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