Time is the Enemy

For companies operating in a competitive environment, time is the enemy. But time is missing from conventional formulations of wicked problems.

The usual descriptive factors of a wicked problem look like this (more detail)

  1. There is no definitive statement of the problem, in fact there is broad disagreement on it
  2. There is no definitive solution, and no “stopping rule” that says when you’re finished/successful
  3. The only way to really understand the problem is by creating solutions and trying them out
  4. Solutions to wicked problems are not clearly right or wrong
  5. The constraints of the problem constantly change

As I have been thinking more about wicked problems and how they apply in strategic business contexts, this missing element of time has become more of a issue. It drives so much of how businesses behave: time is money, and so companies want to move fast to be efficient. But more importantly, they are in a race to find desirable solutions for their customers. This means also racing to understand the boundaries of the wicked problem.

Furthermore, I contend that cracking wicked problems provides companies a major, sustained competitive edge. There are at least a couple of reasons for this:

  • Wicked problems are systemic in nature. This makes solutions hard to do and hard to reproduce - Apple has had a 5 year sustained competitive advantage from its cracking of the digital music wicked problem.
  • Wicked problems are abstract and hard to see. Often they can only be detected by symptoms that are not obviously connected. So even if you crack them it’s not obvious to your competition right away what you’ve done. This is what Google is doing right now - no-one knows exactly how it will all come together, but it’s clear something is taking shape. Once they are done, it will seem obvious, but for now it is fuzzy.

In all these cases businesses are torn between the need to move rapidly to crack open the wicked problem and capitalize on it, and on the other to move slowly so that they are understanding the problem properly and not jumping to conclusions. This tension creates risk, which in turn heightens the social fragmentation in the organization. Time is therefore the enemy in wicked problems, and we need to update our definition of them to include it.