Wicked Problems

att02777.jpg“Wicked Problem” is a label given to a problem that is basically a giant incomprehensible hairball of contradictions and complexity. Personally, I don’t feel prepared to do anything more than dabble in solving these gargantuan challenges. Governments, heads of state, and the United Nations tackle these kinds of things. For example, here’s a list of the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN to be achieved by 2015:

  • End poverty
  • End hunger
  • Achieve women’s equity
  • Reduce iInfant mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Achieve environmental sustainability
  • Universal primary education
  • Global partnerships

Mere human beings have made huge impacts on such problems, but even for a scrappy person like myself, it’s just too daunting. I can barely form the words on this list, let alone imagine solving these problems. If I think about them too long I get a strong urge to curl up in front of the TV and watch re-runs of “I Love Lucy”. So I usually just give money to such causes so that souls who ARE bold enough to tackle them are at least a bit better funded.

But, there are some people who do tackle incredibly ferocious challenges. Mapping the madness of the mob can be a helpful starting point for sorting out extremely complicated problems. Dr. Robert Horn, a personal friend and the father of visual communication, makes a career of mapping social messes as a starting point for solving them. His elaborate murals capture the complex web of stakeholders and their concerns in a visual way that invites dialogue and helps everyone get a sense that at LEAST the problem can be described, if not solved. Check out the map of energy security and global climate – it will make your head spin! Some teensy weensy little problems he’s working on are the genetically modified foods debate and scenarios for dealing with possible avian flu pandemics. Makes my goal of making the world more scrappy seem rather insignificant, and managing a normal project a cake walk.

Well, that’s a wrap! Next year my theme is “Whacky about Wikis and Crazy about Collaboration.” After reading Wikinomics I figure that maybe even wicked problems will yield to the power of the collective IQ.

May the New Year bring you surprises and delights!

Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management, regularly one of the top 100 project management books in English in the USA, Japan, Germany, France, sometimes Canada, but usually NOT in the UK, for some reason. Help me solve this problem (except by dropping “scrappy” or using proper English) and I’ll send you a free book.


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