Project Management

What is Wicked Problem Solving?

3 Jun 2021
Tom Wujec
As the world grows more complex, problems are increasingly resistant to traditional problem-solving techniques. Enter Wicked Problem Solving—a powerful system for breaking down and solving the most stubborn challenges. In this post, tech pioneer, TED speaker and entrepreneur Tom Wujec explains how Wicked Problem Solving works and introduces the new course he’s created with PMI.

Image by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash

I’m on a mission to eradicate wickedness.

No, not on a moral crusade. A mission to tame wicked problems—problems that have a high degree of uncertainty and complexity and that are notoriously difficult to solve. Think climate change. Pandemics like COVID-19. A manned mission to Mars.

Wicked problems, however, don’t just involve weighty societal issues. They’re all around us in business—triggered by economic, technological, environmental and political shifts that are making our world increasingly chaotic. Indeed, qualities of wickedness are showing up even in everyday challenges.

As a project professional, you know this all too well and may be encountering wicked problems with increasing frequency. That’s why after 25 years of working with companies and organizations on their wicked problems, I’ve teamed up with PMI to provide a set of tools to help project professionals cut through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of tough challenges to deliver better outcomes.

Think of Wicked Problem Solving as a shared operating system for solving problems and fostering greater collaboration. It’s not a replacement for traditional or agile project management approaches; but it does enhance them. These approaches are like gears and Wicked Problem Solving is akin to the oil or lubricant that makes the gears run more smoothly. And once we know how to tame a wicked problem, we can use the same scalable principles and practical methods to address virtually any class of problem we encounter—from simple to team to strategic.

What are the principles of Wicked Problem Solving?

The principles of Wicked Problem Solving are rooted in cognitive science and incorporate elements of design thinking, lean and agile practices. I’ve learned that we tend to do our best work when we a) organize tasks into a series of “plays,” b) work in collaboration with others and c) apply these principles and plays into a path consistently to address any challenge we face.

A “play” is the basic building block of Wicked Problem Solving. It involves:

  • Leading with a key question – a clear articulation of the problem we’re seeking to solve.
  • Making ideas visible – creating a shared visual representation of the issue to help team members think through the problem. We mean this literally. Wicked Problem Solving is highly visual; we seek to get to the essence of the problem through drawings.
  • Engaging with tasks – laying out an activity to help teams work through and solve the problem.

In effect, plays give us a way to focus attention, make ideas more memorable and provide an approach for engaging with the problem. And there are lots of different plays. They range from simple plays that can be applied to just about any situation to sophisticated plays designed to address more complex problems. An experienced Wicked Problem Solving practitioner can assemble plays like LEGO blocks to break down and solve the most challenging issue.

We've laid all this out in the Wicked Problem Solving course now offered by PMI. Wicked Problem Solving Practitioner is an online course and tool kit developed specifically to hone the creative problem-solving and collaboration skills of changemakers and to bring design thinking to everyday work. The course takes 15-18 hours to complete and contains videos and activities accompanied by either a physical or a virtual tool kit. In addition, it integrates with an online whiteboard collaboration tool called Miro, allowing learners to solve problems collaboratively.

The course is designed to help practitioners answer four key questions:

  • Can I turn what I'm working on into a play?
  • If so, what's the question I need to ask?
  • How can I visualize the problem—i.e. create a drawing or diagram that serves as a shared reference point for the team?
  • And, finally, what activity can we get people to perform to help address the problem?

These core questions are helpful not only in breaking down complex challenges, but in untangling everyday issues like running more successful meetings or engaging in more productive conversations.

The principles of Wicked Problem Solving are easy to learn, and we’ve worked hard to make the course as engaging as possible. At the end of the course, project professionals and changemakers will have a powerful new tool to tame wickedness in their everyday work and engage in higher-level problem solving.

Our goal is to provide a powerful vehicle for career advancement—helping project professionals differentiate themselves, take on more responsibility, drive greater impact and, ultimately, achieve greater success and higher levels of job satisfaction.

Tom Wujec Tom Wujec