Transformation as a Wicked Problem

In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber published “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in the journal Policy Science (volume 4, pp. 155-169).  In this article, they characterized “wicked problems” as follows:

  • —  There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
  • —  Wicked problems have no stopping rule – there is always a better solution
  • —  Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad
  • —  There is no immediate nor ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
  • —  Wicked problem are not amenable to trial and error solutions
  • —  There is no innumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions and permissible operations
  • —  Every wicked problem is essentially unique
  • —  Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem
  • —  Discrepancies in representations can be explained in numerous ways – the choice of explanation determines the nature of problem’s resolution
  • —  Problem solvers are liable for the consequences of the actions their solutions generate.

It can be useful to look at enterprise transformation as a wicked problem.   Rather than exhaustively discussing every characteristic in the above list, let’s just focus on three – no stopping rule, no trial and error, and liability for consequences.

Transformation is never done.  There may be ebbs and flows of change, but the need for change is persistent.  The nature and level of value desired by markets and other constituencies continually evolve, sometimes very slowly, but other times quite quickly as, for example, technology breakthroughs such as electric lighting are suddenly available.  The key insight here is that you need to get good at changing rather than thinking that change is something you finish.

Transformation is not amenable to nibbling.  You cannot experiment with a wide range of ways of changing and then adopt the winner.  Empirical confirmation that a new value proposition works is certainly valuable.  However, such evidence is only meaningful and useful if you have clear intentions and plans for how to accomplish changes.  Otherwise, all you have is ideas.

Transformation is real.  Good outcomes are sought but bad outcomes are possible, with the enterprise leadership liable for the outcomes.  You can lower the risk by adopting changes that others have perfected, for example, back office and supply chain efficiencies.  But, this just keeps you in the game and will not win the market returns of being the innovator rather than the follower.

Another very important consideration is not in the above list.  You need to balance creativity and continuity.  Creative new value propositions drive market innovations – and creative destruction.  New approaches to value are likely to need new competencies and capacities, while obsoleting older ones.  Organizations usually have limited capacities to absorb such changes.  Yesterdays’ machinists may not be easily transformed into tomorrows’ computer programmers.  People highly skilled at a particular set of tasks cannot quickly become highly skilled at a very different set of tasks.

Thus, a central driver of transformation is that once you become really good at something, there is a significant risk that what you are really good at will eventually no longer be valued.  What you were really good at it – perhaps the best – was likely of great value to the economy and society.  But new innovations will eventually creatively destroy that value proposition.

How long should you cling to hard-won competencies and capacities?  When is it time to shift attention and resources to new value propositions?  There is no “starting rule.”  We can add this to the list of characteristics of wicked problems.  It is not at all clear how you decide that now the wicked problem really has to be addressed.  You can always wait until tomorrow.  Eventually time and resources are no longer available and change is impossible.   This dilemma is certainly wicked.

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