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The Many Flavors of Wicked Problems

If you’ve spent much time on our blog, you’ve likely heard the phrase “wicked problem” a number of times.  At HNI, we use this term to describe the deeper, more complex issues that are really at the heart of risk for businesses. different flavors

Leaders are constantly called on to solve problems.  99% of the time, these problems miss the point.  There is usually something much bigger behind the fires they’re being asked to put out, and many make the mistake of focusing on the symptoms, not the root cause: the WICKED problem.

If you hack away at the symptoms of a Wicked Problem, fresh problems will constantly be flaring up.  And putting out fires is the exact opposite of implementing new ideas.  More of one equals less of the other.  You have to attack the Wicked Problems themselves in order to leave a lasting effect.

Wicked Problems can’t solved by simply writing a check [or purchasing an insurance policy].  To solve wicked problems, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently.  Maybe it’s you.  Maybe it’s your team.  Usually, it’s a combination of people in any given company that contribute to a wicked problem [and its eventual solution, if you’re willing to take it head on.]

Some examples may help illustrate what we mean by problems that are truly wicked.  In general, there are 4 categories of wicked problems we generally see in businesses: 1) Leadership 2) Brand 3) Culture 4) Financial. 

Leadership wicked problems:

·         Lack of succession/perpetuation plan

·         Strategy formation / Blue Ocean Strategy

·         Change Management

·         Cultivating effective second in commends

·         Streamlining and improving core business processes

·         Achieving smart, focused growth

Brand wicked problems:

·         Radical differentiation in the minds of your customers

·         Brand and sales messaging

·         Social transformation internally and externally

·         Changes in the marketplace and customer demands that may be out of your hands

Culture wicked problems:

·         Employee Engagement

·         Struggling to recruit and retain top talent

·         Managing the generational gap

·         Getting employees to act like owners

·         Getting buy-in into safety and wellness

·         Keeping up with the social transformation taking place in the business world

Financial wicked problems:

·         Rising costs of employee benefits [and managing health care reform]

·         Failure to understand your total cost of risk

·         Insufficient cash flow to drive growth

·         Unaddressed expense areas

No matter which area of the business a wicked problem resides, it generally is in some way connected back to culture.  People are the wickedest problem of all.  I don’t mean this negatively – it’s just that our employees are incredibly complex and diverse individuals, and influencing their behavior is one of the most difficult things to achieve. 

What about you?  What is your wickedest problem? 

You may want to start by asking your people – it’s often interesting to see how their answers compare to your own.

Topics: Construction Transportation Leadership / Strategy Manufacturing