Wicked, Wicked IT Strategy Problems

Some IT problems can't be solved - these are wicked problems.
Some IT problems can’t be solved – these are wicked problems.

Some problems just can’t be solved. As an IT guy with an engineering background, I find this hard to believe – it goes against my grain. I mean, back in school I encountered lots of problems that at first blush appeared to be impossible to solve. However, once I had gotten a little deeper into whatever class I was taking at the time things started to become more clear. New tools that I had learned could be used to solve what had previously appeared to be unsolvable problems. In the world of IT, the IT department can even help keep a company out of an economic stall and so I though that there was no problem that an IT department couldn’t solve. It turns out that real life is not nearly so neat.

Dr. John Camillus has spent the past 15 years studying how companies create their own strategies. During this time he has uncovered what he likes to call “wicked” business problems – strategy issues that are difficult because our traditional processes for solving problems just can’t resolve them. IT departments face these types of problems internally as well as facing them as part of a company’s overall strategy planning process. Wicked problems can be especially trying for IT departments because they seem to resist being solved by our standard techniques of gathering more metrics, revisiting the core issues and creating a more detailed definition of them, or even the time honored technique of breaking the big problems that we can’t solve down into smaller problems that we hope that we can solve. Dr. Camillus says that not only do our traditional ways of dealing with problems not work on wicked problems, but they can also make things far worse.

Dr. Camillus recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he discussed wicked business problems. In it he stated that organizations, like an IT department, will most likely encounter a wicked problem when they are facing either a period of constant change or have encountered challenges that are bigger then they have ever seen before. Within an IT department, it won’t just be the technological complexity that make a problem a wicked problem, but rather all of the social issues that come along with it that will turn it into a wicked problem.

How can you tell if your problem is a wicked problem? It would be nice if wicked problems came labeled as such. However, they don’t. Having the ability to identify a wicked IT problem early on can save any IT leader a significant amount of time and grief. You won’t be able to tell just by looking at the problem itself, but rather you have to take a look at what surrounds the problem. Specifically, if a problem is causing confusion, discord among your IT team, and there has been a distinct lack of progress in creating a solution for it so far, then there is a good chance that you are looking at a wicked problem.

Just to make sure that you really do have a wicked problem and not one of those more common really, really hard IT problems, there are some additional criteria that you need to check before you can call an IT problems a wicked problem:

  1. Too Many People Are Involved: A problem that has too many people who are impacted by it starts to look like a wicked problem very quickly. Each person who has a different vested interest and is working on a different set of priorities will contribute to making a difficult problem into an unsolvable wicked one.
  2. The Cause Of The Problem Is Not Clear: There is no single cause for the IT issue that you are dealing with. Generally there are multiple sources that have fed the problem including competition, issues with employees & staffing, company strengths that have become decrements, and a traditional domestic vs. international focus can also compound the problem.
  3. The Problem Is Shaped Like A Blob: This is an especially tricky characteristic to deal with – the problem seems to change shape everytime you try to deal with it. This makes it hard to “get a grip” on the problem and so you may not have any idea as to where to start.
  4. You’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before: How can you solve a problem that doesn’t look like any other problem that you’ve ever seen before? When you face a problem that you’ve never seen before, the question of what tools or techniques to use to solve it becomes even more critical.
  5. There Are No Signs Showing You The Right Direction: Most problems come with some sort of indication of what the correct next thing to do in order to solve it is. However, wicked problems have no such indicators. You are truly on you own here.

So what’s an IT leader to do once he/she has spotted a wicked problem? One key thing that Dr Camillus has learned is that wicked IT problems can not be solved. Instead, you need to find ways to mange them. How to do that is what we’ll talk about next time…

Have you encountered any wicked IT problems? Did you know it was going to be a wicked problem right off the bat or did it take awhile to discover this? What did you do about it? Were you ever able to solve it or does this problem still exist? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.