Overlap10: Wicked Problems

Overlap10: Wicked Problems

About ten days after Overlap10, I have finally started processing what about 50 of us went through over a hot, humid, and intellectually exhilarating weekend around New York city.

The weekend started with the presentation of our greater challenge: solving for Wicked Problems.

Usually, when we have a problem of the ordinary variety, there’s a clear goal or solution that we can direct ourselves and other people towards. Take a light bulb burning out: we know how to frame that problem; we can quickly design and implement a solution. We can make jokes about how many people it takes.

At the other end of the spectrum are Wicked Problems. Think about how to solve for a problem like cleaning Lake Michigan, childhood obesity, poverty, national health care, or moving from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Or in the case of our clients: how to design a brand experience across a continent, or many continents; how to design a communications system for a brand that employs tens of thousand of people, and has tens of millions of customers. How to tackle social media.

These are Wicked Problems: problems that are so wide, and so deep, so deeply cultural and systematic that there is no single answer or single goal that you can adequately articulate — no single end-state that you can really wrap your mind around and call it solved.

I was reminded again of a corporate Wicked Problem when Jared Spool put together this list of airline redesigns. When you look at the Websites as design problems without the organization, the solutions are often self-evident, unfolding before you in a “Why didn’t they think of this?!” way.

But once you put the problems in the context of that global corporation, you see there’s a Wicked Problem that needs solving for the brand first because the Website can only ever truly be a representation of the blend between that culture’s operations, communications, and technology. The Website becomes an output from the organization’s machination rather than an attempt to communicate effectively with the people using it. It is the product of people trying to frame something Wickedly large and organic and living into a single-light bulb solution.

So what do we do with these Wicked Problems? How do we solve for them? This was the purpose of the Overlap, and the topic of the next article.

And as always, let’s continue the conversation here in the comments section or on Twitter @mleis.

[This was originally posted on the DRAFTFCBlog]
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