Choosing the Best Problems to Solve, Wickedly

Solving problems is nothing new, and for many of us it is a source of satisfaction and even joy. Given that, why not choose to solve problems that help you and your business grow more rapidly?

One approach to this is to recognize that some problems are Tame, some Wicked. Taking advantage of these is a combination of fun (and don’t you and your team deserve grins?) and enhancing growth.


Tame and Wicked

I’m using Tame and Wicked as technical terms:

- “Problem” is something that you are trying to solve, as in “what is 2+2?” There is no negative or positive connotation, you just want a solution.

- Tame problems are those that have clear answers that do not change. 2 + 2 will equal 4 pretty much every time you apply it.

- A Wicked problem is one that has an answer that changes, often because you answered it. One example of Wicked problems is pricing. When you set prices the market may change and your solution is immediately obsolete. Pricing can be a Wicked problem.

Our core values shouldn’t change, that is Tame. How we express them sometimes changes because we expressed them previously. That can be Wicked.

In our daily life we often want more Tame problems, more "facts" upon which we can rely. How to dial the phone does not change because you dialed one previously. The rules for booking future revenue shouldn’t change because you booked revenue this quarter. The stability of these answers is reassuring.

There are many times when just answering a problem changes the problem. In football or baseball, how you address a defensive coverage problem may change how the other team acts. That changes your problem at the same time. You have a Wicked problem. They are complex and even after you answer them, they are challenging.


What is Wicked?

We rely on Tame problems for daily activity. However the most interesting problems are often Wicked.

- Satisfying individual customers? This is a Wicked problem. What worked yesterday will often not work today exactly because it did work yesterday.

- Employee compensation? You might want that to be a Tame problem, but it is a constantly moving target. It is a Wicked problem. The answer changes because you worked the problem.

- Who and how to promote? As soon as you do, you change the dynamics in your team. This is also a Wicked problem.


Why Do You Want to be Wicked?

Should you care if problems are Tame or Wicked? Yes. Wicked problems are a great place to learn. If problem solving is something that you enjoy, then they can help you add more grins to your day.

When you see a problem where the answer will change, that is your opportunity to move past react mode and into act mode. Then you can focus on what you can learn by answering the problem.

This gives you leverage to accelerate your growth. Each Wicked problem that you approach has two opportunities. One is to answer it and then be ready to answer it differently the next time. The other opportunity is to see what you can learn, and then use that across your business.

Wicked problems can be a competitive advantage. When you embrace them, you gain competitive advantage because you are solving problems better and faster. Your business (and personal) velocity increases. You get two things done in the same time slot. This is because you are simultaneously solving the problem and then learning from that solution.


Learning and Growing from Wicked Problems

Here is a real example, with the names changed. Jane has a management slot to fill on her team, and several good candidates whom she could promote into it. The assignment is going to be difficult. In order to help ensure the success of Jane’s entire team she feels that she needs to get this right.

Jane has not yet announced her choice, but she is leaning towards a candidate who will make the assignment successful from day one. However, that candidate (Hank) does not have seniority and is not the best at his current job.

When she makes that announcement, she will have solved one problem (whom to appoint) and changed how following promotions are perceived. Jane has more assignments to make, and each one will now be a different problem because she is promoting Hank.

Why? Because as soon as she announces Hank, all the other potential candidates for future promotions will change how they present themselves to Jane.

This promotion is a Wicked problem, the next promotions are going to be different because of how she is handling this one. That difference gives Jane a chance to learn about her team and herself. It also gives Jane a chance to ask her team to learn as well.

What they will learn is just as important as the promotion. Hank is one event, but the lessons will reverberate further and last longer than that.


Embrace the Wicked as Well as the Tame

When you engage in Wicked problems, there is never a best answer. It’s going to change. You don’t need to wait for one, just move on and make another answer.

As you do that ask yourself and your team what you might learn from that change in answers. How can you use it to improve the next answer?

And then, choose to do so. You will speed the growth of your time and your business. And you will probably have more grins as well. Tame problems are the most common, but Wicked problems can be the best for your growth. Embrace them.