LearnFwd: Wicked Problems, Wicked Questions

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.

Now we have some hope of making progress.

                                                – Niels Bohr, physicist

We run into paradoxes daily — in our work lives, in our families, in our governments — those seemingly absurd statements, expectations or propositions which manage to be somehow both self-contradictory and true.

We live with paradoxes — also called “wicked problems” by social scientists — all around us, but often they are not visible or clearly stated. One way to make visible the layers and tensions of a wicked problem is to express it via a “wicked question” — a question that highlights two apparently contradictory goals, both of which must be pursued in order to make progress on the challenge at hand.

“How is it that we want to raise our children to be loyal and attached to our family, and for them to be independent individuals, simultaneously?”

Nothing is more complex, or more rewarding, than having and raising children, and the wicked question stated above is one that I have grappled with daily since the moment I became a parent, nearly 20 years ago. Many of us have an intense desire for our children to stay attached to us, but also desire, at the same time, for them to explore and develop their independence in order that they can navigate (as my late teen kids call it) “adulting.” I navigate this paradox daily, but am not often conscious of doing so.

Wicked problems are often ill-defined (there is no prescribed way forward), involve stakeholders with different perspectives, and have no “right” or “optimal” solution. Thus, they cannot be solved by the application of standard or known methods; they demand creative solutions. Complex challenges, the heart of our work here at EmcArts, are typically wicked problems.

Within the arts and culture sector, as we work to nurture healthy and artistically vibrant community organizations and programs, we often run into various versions of this wicked question:

“How is it that we can advance our own artistic point of view, and embrace the community’s creative perspectives, simultaneously?

This question contains many built-in tensions, and like any truly wicked question, you can’t choose to believe or pursue just one side. Good wicked questions have that visible, irreconcilable tension deeply built in.

Wicked questions capture the central, underlying tension that stands at the core of a wicked problem — the tension between equally necessary but apparently irreconcilable goals, each of which must be achieved in order for progress to be made. The existence of this tension beneath the surface of a complex challenge is one test of it being genuinely complex. The built-in paradox demands that we not settle for resolving only one side of the dilemma, but rather search for an imaginative reframing of the problem that moves us beyond the tension toward a new understanding of its potential.

Wicked questions, which often bring out and articulate unstated aspects of something, can be a way to fine-tune the articulation of the challenge that you’re trying to work on. It’s a format that assists us in surfacing and noticing the layers and dynamics that exist within your chosen challenge.

What opposing-yet-complementary strategies do you need to pursue simultaneously in order to respond successfully to your complex challenge?

“How is it that we are/want to/need to _________________________ and _________________________ simultaneously?”

At your next strategy meeting, try taking 15 to 20 minutes in small groups (3 to 5) to see if you can articulate some truly wicked questions. You can find a helpful worksheet here. Then share out each group’s questions, considering if they are truly simultaneous needs, or if they are actually either/or choices. By using this framework, you’ll likely be able to identify some tensions that need to be addressed, but may be hard to see and identify at first. And then, in the words of Niels Bohr, perhaps you’ll “have some hope of making progress.”

Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.