Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, from Jeff Conklin

wicked problemsThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from an interview with Jeff Conklin, Founder of CogNexus Institute, published in the Winter 2009 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Discuss the relation between ‘problem understanding’ and ‘solution formulation’.

Today there is increasing awareness that a shared understanding of a given problem cannot be taken for granted, and that the absence of buy-in about a problem’s definition, scope and goals can kill a project just as surely as faulty implementation. Organizations are beginning to embrace the idea that these two aspects of projects – problem understanding and solution formulation–are not distinct phases, but rather different kinds of conversations that must be woven together from beginning to end.

Problem structuring is a critical aspect of the design process that takes into account the diversity of goals, assumptions and meanings among stakeholders. At the heart of this new understanding of organizational life is the recognition that project work is fundamentally social, and that communication among stakeholders must be managed and nurtured in order for the social network to cohere into a functioning entity.

Problem understanding is actually the more important and evasive part of the process. The social complexity aspect of it is that you have different stakeholders with strongly-held beliefs about what the problem is. Dealing with wicked problems is not simply a matter of coming up with the best answer; first it’s about engaging stakeholders in a robust and healthy process of making sense of the problem’s dimensions.

Any way you slice it, it entails heavy lifting, and you have to roll up your sleeves and have the hard conversations in order to expose where shared understanding is missing.