How to innovate in the context of wicked problems
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

This Friday, people all around the world will come together for Climathon, to generate ideas for how cities can tackle the climate crisis. The challenges for Dublin’s Climathon are:

  1. Transport and Air Quality, and

  2. Water Management and Extreme Weather events.

While designing the day, we are working with the challenge of guiding groups through the process of solving wicked problems.

What’s a wicked problem?

Well, it is not just difficult, complicated or challenging. More than that, it is complex, because it involves a range of stakeholders who all need to act for transformative change to happen. The caveat is that all stakeholders bring their individual or group perspectives: Often they blame each other, and are not ready to take responsibility for their own contribution to the problem.

To solve a wicked problem, innovators need to get more than one actor moving.

This requires the whole of a system to be brought into the room. But what if we don’t have representatives of all parties available, or willing, to meet and co-create together? In this case, we as the innovators must go out, to observe and interview the stakeholders in their respective environments. Design Thinking calls this part of the innovation process “Empathise”: walking in the shoes of those who affect or are affected by the problem we’re setting out to solve.

To solve a wicked problem, we must create an overview of the system, and where possible, reflect that overview back to the system.

For everyone in the system IS the system.

Allowing everyone to see the whole system visualised can be transformative, because it shines a light on a blind spot of our time:

We consistently and collectively create results that nobody wants.

“Seeing the system” for what it is demands opening ourselves to new perspectives and ideas, and potentially to ones that we do not want to have to consider, because they counter our world view.

Hence, our approach for the Dublin Climathon is to encourage participants to become absolutely clear about whose pain points they wish to address, AND to connect and engage with all actors affecting and affected by the problem. This allows them to understand the issues from diverse perspectives.

Great ideas are sparked by friction. Friction happens when perspectives meet, particularly when they clash.

Great ideas are not sparked by an observer’s fixed mindset of “I know what the problem is, and I have a solution. Want to buy it?”

What are the key skills needed for staying attuned to the future that wants to emerge with our help?

Otto Scharmer has laid them out in his Theory U for us:

  • Curiosity and Generative Listening,

  • Compassion for ourselves and others, for the contradictions we all live with (and deny),

  • Courage to step into the unknown emerging future.

Curiosity, compassion and courage will allow us to explore our systems together and to solve our shared, wicked problems.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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