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S3T Friday, May 19: The Upside of Wicked Problems

S3T Friday, May 19: The Upside of Wicked Problems
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🔊 Listen to this Newsletter on the S3T Podcast

Welcome to the S3T Friday Edition! Each Friday the S3T Newsletter and Podcast gives you a new capability to add to your change leadership skillset. I'm Ralph Perrine and I started S3T because I recognized that change leadership has become the most critical new skill of the 21st Century.

Last week's newsletter and podcast introduced 6 handy ways to resolve most conflicts. Together these 6 methods give you a systematic toolkit for identifying and resolving the common disconnects behind most of the conflicts you and your team will encounter.

We also ended that segment by noting that there is one type of conflict that can be very difficult to resolve: conflicts that are caused by more than mere disconnects or misunderstandings. These kinds of conflicts are caused by dilemmas. These kinds of conflicts are usually tangled up in truly complex issues and most likely cannot be solved using any of the six methods we talked about last week. In fact, they can't be solved by any known solutions.

You can compare these two kinds of conflicts as follows:

  • Apparent Conflicts: conflicts rooted in disconnects or misunderstandings. Once you illuminate the disconnect, the parties realize there really isn't a true conflict.
  • True Conflicts: conflicts rooted in dilemmas and multidimensional problems.

So this week we’re going to talk about how you and your team can address conflicts that are rooted in dilemmas.  These dilemmas pit people's interests against each other's and create entangled concerns that are hard to understand.  

What NOT to do

First a moment for self-awareness: When you find yourself in a true conflict, there will be an overwhelming temptation to personalize the situation - taking things personally and thinking in terms of us vs. them:

  • "Why won't they listen to us??"
  • "They are wasting our time!"

These are natural responses, but making a key switch can unlock success: In cases of true conflicts, you don't focus on the people. Focus on the problem.

Why? Directing your energy at the people involved will tend to exacerbate and reinforce the problem. Focus on attacking or changing the problem, not on attacking and changing the people.

Why is it so important to focus on the problem? Because if you've tried the 6 methods of conflict resolution, and found that the conflict really relates to a true dilemma, then you are most likely facing a Wicked Problem.

Wicked Problems vs Tame Problems

Problems based on dilemmas (not mere disconnects) are a specific kind of problem that Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called Wicked Problems in their 1973 paper. Wicked problems are problems that can't be solved via previously worked-out methods or techniques.  

  • A "tame" non-wicked problem: a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It has a solution.
  • A Wicked Problem: a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle mixed with lead paint and set on fire.

Wicked problems are multi-dimensional and often can't be fully understood by one group or one researcher. They require us to build trust, learn new ways to collaborate, and find a way forward in spite of ambiguity and lack of textbook guidance.

The 21st century has an epidemic of Wicked Problems. Hence the need for change leadership (I highly recommend the study of Wicked Problems).  

A Pattern that Works

There are no easy frameworks or techniques, or step-by-step approaches for solving wicked problems. But there are examples of repetitive patterns that enable progress in solving or alleviating wicked problems. That pattern can be summed up here:  

  • Bring everyone together - do not leave anyone out.
  • Increase the frequency of communication.
  • Focus on actions that can be done in the near term: today, this week, this month.
  • Meet frequently to check progress.

These 4 steps sound too simple to be true, but they can be powerfully effective.

A real-world example

Omaha has significantly reduced gun violence, homicides, and police complaints thanks to Omaha 360 a collaborative effort that follows this pattern. The collaboration brings all local government and community stakeholders together on a regular basis to listen, share updates, and decide what issues to focus on in the next 7-10 days.

Over the long term, these actions proved effective.  

This profile shares an overview of the working processes, and this Omaha 360 web page has contact information. Boston, Kansas City other others are launching efforts based on the Omaha 360 model.


In this edition we've learned about Wicked Problems and why they can be difficult and nearly impossible to solve. We also learned about an effective pattern that helps everyone better understand and engage the problem, take regular actions, then quickly regroup and check for improvement, and continue learning together.

Knowing this, you're now equipped to handle not only conflicts that are caused by disconnects, but now you are ready to deal with conflicts that are rooted in the kinds of dilemmas caused by Wicked Problems.

Conventional wisdom presumes that problems must be solved in an organized manner by people who are all thinking the same way. But real-world experience proves something different:

When you're dealing with Wicked Problems there is an upside to the fact that everyone has a different approach and different viewpoints. Bringing that diverse group together on a regular basis builds trust, raises awareness, and focuses a more diverse set of skills on attacking the problem, not the people.  

Have a great weekend!


Be ready for another great S3T Sunday Edition! Where will you read, think and renew your focus this weekend?

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