What Sort Of Problem do You Need To Solve?

tame critical and wicked problems
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To solve a problem first ask: is it a tame, critical or wicked problem?

What is the biggest problem that you or your team is facing now?

How would you define that problem? Maybe you have not even thought to define it, you are simply getting on with trying to solve it. But, research shows, that it is important we understand the nature of the challenge in order to bring the right solutions to bear. 

As John Dewey put it: 

“A problem well-defined is a problem half solved.”

Let me share some wisdom that has really helped me in problem solving.

You may well have heard people talk about ‘wicked’ problems. This phrase comes from a useful classification of types of problems based on work by Keith Grint. He identified that there are three different types of problems: tame, critical, and wicked.

If you can work out the sort of problem you are dealing with, you can then apply the right leadership style or management approach to solve the problem. Having led teams in various contexts – in large institutions, in fast-moving crisis situations, and in small start-ups – I have found this model very helpful for steering my approach to problem-solving.

So, whether you are working on your own, in a small team or as part of a huge organisation, this thought process can be extremely beneficial. Let’s look at each type of problem in turn. I will also provide some examples to explain each one, and consider the approaches that can help you solve them.

What are Tame Problems?

Tame problems may be complicated, but they are challenges that have a tried and tested solution you can use. These are the sort of problems where you can clearly picture the solution and then plan by working back from that end-state.

So, to take a simple example, imagine you had a puppy. That young dog would need house-training. House training is not particularly fun and can be quite hard work, but there are lots of people out there who can give you advice on how to effectively train the dog. If you follow that expertise properly, you should successfully train your pet.

To take a personal, real-life example, when I worked as a Project Manager on The Shard (the tallest building in the UK) the challenge was complex, but the problem was actually tame by this classification. The scale and exact design of the tower were new but the technology and processes to build the structure already existed. Traditional project management was the correct way to approach the problem and the tower was constructed successfully. 

Manage people, create structures, and apply tested processes

Tame does not mean easy, but it does mean you can plan in detail and start to tackle the issue. With adequate planning, you can expect success with a high degree of certainty. Therefore, tame problems require good management. 

It is about choosing the right process and then implementing the plan. Traditional management tools such as Gantt Charts can work well in these circumstances. The manager can also lean on other people’s data to make rational decisions. They can also use other people’s experience and established processes to develop a plan. 

Traditional organisations have been structured to deal with these sorts of problems. Specialist teams can work in their own division without much need to interact with other teams and functions. Managers must ensure effective communication at the interfaces between these teams; but if the problem is well defined and planned for, then these structures can work just fine for solving tame problems.

What are Critical Problems?

Critical problems are self-evident challenges that offer little time for decision making and action. They are urgent and immediate issues.

Let’s go back to the dog example. Now your dog is a bit older, and you are out on a walk. Unexpectedly, your dog attacks another dog. You now have a critical problem – something that needs to be solved fast to reduce the negative outcomes. If you do not act quickly the situation could go from bad to worse. In this instance you need to be firm, directive and – if needed – personally intervene to resolve the problem.

I faced a critical problem while climbing in the Alps with some friends. We had been on a long mountain climb and the weather had got worse as we continued to scale the peak. As we reached the summit the weather finally broke, and we found ourselves in the middle of an electrical storm. I was not the official leader of the team but when the storm hit, the person who had been leading the route became uncertain of what to do. The thunder was deafening, and I knew we had to descend as quickly and safely as possible before someone got hurt. Therefore, I immediately identified a route down, gave some quick instructions and took the lead down the mountain, setting the pace and encouraging the team as we went.

Be a ‘commander’, use the hierarchy and make decisions

Critical problems require command. In other words, they usually need a more directive leadership style to ensure timely decisions and swift action. The depth of experience of the leader will equip them to make quick intuitive decisions.

This type of directive approach can be reassuring to people in a crisis, but be aware, when used in other circumstances it can be condescending or stifling. For critical problems, hierarchical organisational structures, with clear lines of communication and decision making, work well. 

What are Wicked Problems?

Wicked problems are complex problems that have no right or wrong answer. The problem might be a new one (like using artificial intelligence), or an evolving problem (like climate change) or an old problem to which there is just no good solution (such as poverty). The problem also does not have a ‘stopping rule’. In other words, you don’t really ever solve the problem, the problem just changes.

Let’s go back to the animal analogy. You would face a wicked problem if you owned a dog and a cat but could not afford to keep both. The problem is not novel (many other people have faced the same challenge) but there is no single right solution to that issue. You have various courses of action, some that might be more palatable than others. For example, finding a trusted friend to re-house one pet might be preferable to giving one to a stranger, but how do you choose which loved pet to give away? You will mourn the loss either way. And even if you do manage to re-house one pet that does not necessarily solve the underlying problem of income generation. Not being able to look after both pets was just one facet of the wicked problem of cash flow.

Recently, I was involved with a project that asked the question “what is the right amount of profit for a company”. That fascinating question pointed to a wicked problem. Even just the question itself raised a host of related questions such as: what are the ethics relating to what is ‘right’ regarding profit? How do you measure profit? Is profit purely financial or are there other types of capital? Can a company be profitable, ethical and sustainable? Trying to address these challenges required input from a breadth of academics, business leaders and pilot programmes. The leadership challenge was helping to build relationships, communication and agree on outputs to harness the creativity and facilitate the suite of projects born out of the initial question.

Apply leadership, employ ‘clumsy’ solutions, foster relational networks

Wicked problems require mature and transformational leadership. A leader needs to set a clear vision, have an over-arching strategy but flexibility and the confidence to make difficult decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. A high-performing team that can bring a diversity of thought and creativity to the problem will be your best resource. You need a coherent strategy, but you are unlikely to be able to have a long-term and detailed plan. 

You will need to experiment, learn, and adapt as you go and therefore a more agile, rather than a traditional approach to management, will be much more applicable. This allows pragmatic, or so-called ‘clumsy’ solutions, that enables forward progression without having to achieve perfection.

A large organisation will suffer if it works in silos to deal with wicked problems. At the very least there needs to be a matrix of interactions across different teams and functions. Often, it is small, more cellular teams, with diverse approaches and more fluid roles, that can deal best with wicked problems. These sorts of teams are hard to manage – particularly at scale. They are more relational networks than organisations per se.

How would you define your problem now?

So, having looked at the typology how would you define your biggest problem? Is it tame, critical or wicked?

As you look for solutions remember these approaches:

  • Tame Problems – manage an existing process to get the best result
  • Critical Problems – take command and be decisive to win quick
  • Wicked Problems – be flexible, creative, and pragmatic

Good luck with overcoming your challenge!

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