Wicked Problem Solvers

Wicked Problem Solvers: Lessons from successful cross-industry teams
HBR, June 2016, p53
By Amy C. Edmondson

Innovative, wicked problem solving, cross-industry, collaborative teams suffer from a great many ills and are only rarely successful. This article covers some of these ills and does so well. Building and running cross-industry collaborative teams is intended as a means to innovation and for solving wicked problems, defined as those that have incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements. This is about teams so other aspects of solving wicked problems have been neglected and it is assumed that the dimensions of the solution to the problem require multiple areas of expertise and technology. If you want to build the city of the future you will need more than city planners to design it and construction engineers to build it. You will need specialists in roadways, lighting, solar energy collection, LEED architecture, housing construction, building construction, railroads, park design, construction and landscaping, and more. They will all need to talk to one another even though each profession uses different concepts and ways of expressing them. Thus, problems will arise and each part of the team will need to learn from the others and mistakes and better ways of designing and building will be found. The requirements will change and evolve as these newer and better ways come to light.

The article concentrates on bringing together the necessarily broad expertise in a team and discusses four key practices to enhance team cooperation: fostering an adaptable vision, enabling psychological safety, enable knowledge sharing, and promoting execution as learning. The article also stresses the need to create a milieu that encourages experimentation and failure. The four recommended practices are what is necessary to generate the continuous change among the members of the team. Fostering an adaptable vision allows the vision to shift in response to the inevitable changes that come from the execution of the project. If the team members become fixated on a steady vision and the vision changes then they will become dispirited and the project will suffer. Enabling psychological safety is the practice that opens the project for change. Psychological safety encourages people to surface problems early without worrying about retribution so that the problems can be solved while they are relatively inexpensive. Enabling knowledge sharing enhances communication between the diverse fields of individual team members by helping them learn each other’s technical languages. Promoting execution as learning is about building small test cases before making large investments. This use of test cases allows many of the major issues to be discovered, and the design adjusted to eliminate them, before committing the design to the full scope of the project. The article points out that none of these practices should be unfamiliar to students of teams and thus assumes this level of knowledge on the part of the reader. The article then covers only the distance from knowledge of teams to knowledge of cross-industry teams.

The leadership team that puts this all together at the scale of most wicked problems must have some outstanding talents and this is not mentioned in the article. The leader must hold a complex of opposing ideas, a system concept, and understand the interplay between them to uncover potential problems and issues between the team members. It takes lots of training and experience in working with large teams to have a successful cross-industry project.