Wicked Problems: Understanding Through Practice

State of Mind 1: Understanding Through Practice

(Sorry about the delay on posting this one, work has been rather hectic.) 

pole_vault.jpgWhen I was in high school I did hurdles on the track team. Unfortunately, we had only ancient wooden hurdles that were so heavy they didn’t budge at all when you whacked them with your trailing knee - not exactly conducive to experimentation. Everybody played it safe as they didn’t want to keep getting hurt.

But it was the pole vaulters who were always looked upon as the crazy ones. The thing about it is that you have to try it in order to do it - you can't read a book about pole vaulting and then walk up and do it. You have to give it a run, and then fall. A lot. But there are things you can do to mitigate the consequences of failure - ways you can simulate. You can start with very small jumps, holding the pole just part of the way up and not doing the full bend. You put big cushions around you to soften the blow.

Experimentation in wicked problems is vital, as it’s only through experimentation that you understand what the problem is you’re trying to solve. You have to try solutions in order to understand the problem. And there needs to be an environment that allows experimentation to happen in a way that makes people safe to not get it right the first time - unlike my hurdles. It’s only by failing in practice that you get to win for real.

Experimentation does not necessarily imply that you must take products all the way to market to see if they sink or swim. Prototypes and market research can assist here, but broader strategies can be effective. For example, let others do the experimentation for you, then either be a fast-follower or acquire them. Johnson & Johnson has proven exceptionally astute at the acquisition path, allowing it to bring cutting-edge, high-risk/high-payoff innovations in-house at the point they are tipping over to established effectiveness. But it’s not without its own risks: you may miss first-mover advantage, and a competitor with better peripheral vision might be you to the acquisition punch.

If you experiment by putting out probe products to test the waters, others may catch on to the shape of the wicked problem before you do. Or at the least you may tip your hand about what you're up to, and you lose the advantage that the recognition of the wicked problem gives you. However, if the problem is truly wicked, chances are it's going to take others a while to catch on.

Next up: High Panic Threshold