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Cultural change as a wicked problem

by Decebal Leonard Marin

There are two types of problems: “tame problems” and “wicked problems”. Understanding the difference between them helps us to adjust our behavior and choose the right approach.

“Tame problems” are problems that can be solved by choosing the right algorithm. As complicated as it is, the problem and the outcome are clearly defined, and a standard solution methodology can be applied. Chess and math problems fall into this category.

“Wicked problems” are problems that can never be completely solved and do not have an end point. These have incomplete and sometimes contradictory requirements and once you solve an issue, a new problem arises.

The idea of ​​”wicked problems” was first introduced by Churchman (1967) in the context of management theory, but was later developed and defined by Rittel and Webber (1973) through ten features. These are:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Every attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem.
  2. Wicked problems do not have a rule or an end point at which they are solved. The resolution process ends when resources are exhausted, stakeholders loose interest or political realities change.
  3. The solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but better or worse. Choosing a reasonable solution to a wicked problem is a matter of judgment and agreement from all stakeholders.
  4. There are no tests to verify the solutions developed for wicked problems. The adopted solutions generate consequences about which it is impossible to know what will happen next.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a unique solution. Because there is no possibility to learn by trial and error, every trial counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of operations that can be incorporated into the solution plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique, unprecedented. For this reason, experience does not help us to approach it.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. A wicked problem is a set of interconnected problems and constraints that change over time, embedded in a dynamic social context and do not have a single root cause.
  9. The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in several ways. There are many stakeholders with different and changing ideas about what can be considered a problem, its causes and how to solve it.
  10. Those who present solutions to wicked problems have no right to make mistakes and are responsible for the consequences of the solutions they generate.

At the social level, poverty, food security, social justice, traffic in crowded cities are classic examples of wicked problems.

At the company level, examples of wicked issues problems include safety, leadership, and last but not least, organizational culture.

Organizational culture is conventionally defined as the set of beliefs, assumptions, values, norms, artifacts, symbols, heroes, rituals, and language patterns shared by all members of an organization.

Statistics show that between 50% and 75% of cultural change initiatives fail. One of the reasons is that leaders and consultants want to solve this wicked problem with tools specific to tame problems.

Of a wicked nature, the effectiveness of resetting the organizational culture depends on taking into account several aspects. Of these, the following play a key role:

1. Expanding perspective. Combining knowledge and perspectives from completely different disciplines and fields increases the chances of finding a good enough solution. Extending perspective, critical thinking, discovering new questions help us to overcome the limits of the approaches generated by current knowledge and hypotheses.

2. Systemic thinking. This involves understanding the complexity, context, and all the factors that guide formal and informal behavior in the organization. The use of the ONA – Organizational Network Analysis methodology allows the mapping of formal and informal relationships, collaboration patterns and the identification of the most influential employees, who can contribute to accelerating cultural change.

3. Collaborate. Identifying all the parties affected by the evolution of the problem, understanding the different perspectives and embarking on a collaborative consultation journey makes the difference in implementation. Generating reasonable solutions and agreeing with all key stakeholders is often a major challenge, in which the involvement of a professional facilitator helps.

4. The metaphor of the infinite game. If we understand cultural change as an infinite game, we can experiment, learn and build together reasonable solutions for all involved. Unlike the finished games where we talk about clearly defined results and impact, here the goal is to maintain the game and to be responsible for the consequences of the adopted solutions.

5. Changing the pattern. When the focus shifts from problem searching to pattern identification, we can progress more easily. Generating small print interventions generates new opportunities and brings us useful information about the system. Among the methods of understanding complex problems is design thinking. The developed answers can be tested quickly with the help of the sprinting methodology.

6. Operationalization of change. This is probably the most interesting and difficult part. It involves identifying critical behaviors for change, designing formal and informal peer-to-peer collaboration, building a new narrative. The experience and ability of the consultants involved to understand how social networks work makes a difference.

Adapting to the hybrid way of working, the cultural changes that accompany the efforts of organizational development in the new normality need the constant attention of those who are in charge of the companies.

Failure to correctly identify the nature of the problems they face and addressing “wicked problems” through methods that solve specific “tame problems” blocks evolution or even worsens the situation.Unfortunately, regardless of the nature of the problem, most of the managers I met prefer linear cause-effect approaches, patterns, and practices specific to tame problems.