Strategy as a wicked problem by John Camillus: elements of the user centered design process in business

Although I’d written on John Camillus’ 2008 HBR article “Strategy as a Wicked Problem” (PDF) back when it was first published (primarily due to being excited to see it in print since John taught me Strategy, my MBA major back in B school almost a decade ago) I was reminded of it recently when I saw Vanderbeeken’s Core77 post on Finland’s brand positioning strategy ~ “Finland solves wicked problems“. If you’re curious enough to click through and read it, then scroll down to the comments, because the last one made actually hits the very nail on the head that I was going to bring up from the Camillus paper.  Here’s the snippet from the comment first and then we’ll explore what John’s saying a little in his article:

I’m pretty sure that wicked problems can’t be ’solved’ that’s why they’re called wicked problems. Tame problems can be ’solved’. If a wicked problem can be tamed then it wasn’t a wicked problem. ~ Hugh’s comment on Core77

I’d take the thought a step further from the comment I’ve quoted and say instead “If a wicked problem can be tamed, could it then be solved?” At this point, we don’t know. John talks about ways and means to tame wicked problems, or at least to grapple with and grasp them.  Lets take a look at what he has to say on strategy planning, and keep in mind that this is, of course, from the corporate perspective:

Companies tend to ignore one complication along the way: They can’t develop models of the increasingly complex environment in which they operate. As a result, contemporary strategic-planning processes don’t help enterprises cope with the big problems they face. Several CEOs admit that they are confronted with issues that cannot be resolved merely by gathering additional data, defining issues more clearly, or breaking them down into small problems. Their planning techniques don’t generate fresh ideas, and implementing the solutions those processes come up with is fraught with political peril.

That’s because, I believe, many strategy issues aren’t just tough or persistent – they’re “wicked.” Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them, according to Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, […]. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is  tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer, […]. Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty – these are classic examples of wicked problems.

They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

So, taking this into consideration, what does John suggest? First, he says that often executives are not even aware of the fact that the problem they may face is a wicked one rather than a tameable one. There’s a nice checklist of 10 key identifiers for wicked problems btw, and he suggests that if they identify it as such they must then change the way they approach the entire problem solving process entirely, turning it upside its head into “taming” or “managing” the situation, staying on top it and responding to it, rather than continue to throw resources at the mystical “solving” it.  Or maybe I said that last bit ;p He also makes a key point that I’ve framed before, in the context of applying the “design thinking” iterative problem solving approach to branding, that a company must first identify and then stay true to its core values and identity. To quote:

While a company dealing with a wicked problem has to experiment with many strategies, it must stay true to a sense of purpose. Mission statements are the foundations of strategy, but in a fast-changing world, companies change their “concept of business,” “scope of activities,” or “statement of purpose” more often than they used to. A company’s identity, which serves as a touchstone against which it can evaluate its choices, is often a more enduring statement of strategic intent. An organization’s identity, like that of an individual, comprises the following:

Values. What is fundamentally important to the company?
Competencies. What does the company do better than others do?
Aspirations. How does the company envision and measure success?

And he ends with the point that this then becomes a touchstone by which organizations can scour the landscape ahead and make decisions on which step to take and in which direction, which could be manifold but always in accordance with one’s sense of purpose.

I am tempted to stop here for a moment to explore whether one then could conceivably identify oneself as a “solver of wicked problems” or whether that may then put oneself into an infinite feedback loop? ;p But before I do that, I want to highlight the aspect of John Camillus’ work in this regard that I believe to embody the most critical point in this whole context.

PPG Industries develops strategies after seeking and documenting stakeholders’ assumptions, preferences, and alternate views. It evaluates the appropriateness of the strategies it draws up against its statement of identity and continually scans the environment and tests assumptions to see if it needs to change course. The assessment of possible scenarios helps PPG formulate new options, and its managers apply Pareto analysis to identify a small number of actions that are likely to have a large impact.

To me that smells like a variation of the user centered design process, or rather its fundamental concept being applied to strategy (or if you want to quibble, business).  With a particular focus on the wicked problems that PPG may face.  I’d highly recommend going through John’s entire article if you’re at all interested in how, without actually using the concepts and jargon of the design industry, the basic elements for dealing with the unknown or emerging future (and innovation, in response, if I may conjecture) are all mapped out here.

Looking back at everything now, in context of what I’ve explored about wicked problems and the challenges they pose, both in terms of solving and in terms of how to tame them, I can’t help but reflect upon the comment made in the Core77 post about Finland’s positioning as “solves wicked problems”. How powerful it would be to tame these wicked problems, the suggestions that John makes are so user centered in their approach. If tamed, who knows they may even, eventually, be solved, but in the short term, the emerging future that is unknown, the steps to taming them seem like something that would not be a challenge to those already accustomed to taking a systems approach in their problem solving. After all, have you ever heard of big, hairy problems like lions and tigers being “solved”?

Perhaps this aspect is something to think about.

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