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Why Project Professionals Need Wicked Problem Solving

By Dave Stadler                                                                                      April 6, 2021

In society and in business, the challenges we face are growing in complexity and no longer lend themselves to standard problem-solving techniques. Where can we turn for fresh thinking? Dave Stadler makes the case for Wicked Problem Solving.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”


That quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, neatly summarizes why PMI has partnered with tech pioneer Tom Wujec to create the premier course on solving “wicked” problems—problems with a high degree of uncertainty, complexity and difficulty.


Not all problems we encounter as project professionals can be described as wicked. But a basic premise of Wicked Problem Solving (WPS) is that once we know how to tame a wicked problem, we can use the same scalable principles and practical methods to address most problems that come our way. Wicked Problem Solving, in effect, embodies that higher-level thinking that Einstein is talking about, and it can be an important new resource in a project professional’s arsenal.


Tom Wujec is the perfect guide to the Wicked Problem-Solving world. Before joining forces with PMI, Tom spent 25 years mentoring and working with leading global organizations to address their wicked problems. Building on the thinking of early social science pioneers, he developed a methodology for tackling wicked problems and created a toolkit that allows project leaders to apply Wicked Problem-Solving thinking to the practical problems we face.


His work couldn’t be timelier. We live in uncertain times, and the problems we face are growing in complexity and in scale. In addition to macro societal challenges like climate change and demographic shifts, organizations are under increasing pressure to transform themselves—a challenge intensified by the COVID crisis.


As project professionals, you may be on the front lines of these transformation initiatives, while also coping with a range of practical challenges, such as remote collaboration with teams, language and time zone barriers, siloed organizations and increasingly specialized roles. To address these challenges, we need highly flexible tools that enable us to work across the full spectrum of problem-solving—from basic to highly complex.


Wicked Problem Solving offers just such flexibility. It involves organizing tasks into a series of “plays”—time-bound courses of action that state the problem, create a visual model of the issue and define actions the team can undertake to collaboratively solve the problem.


These plays are the basic building blocks of Wicked Problem Solving. In the hands of an experienced practitioner, they can be assembled like LEGO blocks to break down and solve the most complex challenges. Quick selection and preparation of plays reduces prep time and drastically increases the efficacy of meetings and workshops.


Indeed, in a recent PMI blog post, Tom described Wicked Problem Solving as a “shared operating system for solving problems and fostering greater collaboration.” It’s important to note that the two ideas—problem solving and collaboration—are closely linked. Tom maintains that we do our best work when we collaborate with others.


PMI, of course, has long recognized the importance of collaboration: it is one of the “power skills” that project professionals value most. But through those “plays,” Wicked Problem Solving also incorporates the best of design thinking, agile and Lean ways of working—all of which are increasingly important approaches in the project management field.


All of this is captured in Wicked Problem-Solving Practitioner, the 10-hour online course and toolkit that we have developed together with Tom. The course consists of 20 core video lessons that outline the principles and practical techniques of Wicked Problem Solving. There’s also a workbook that expands on the video program, a playbook that lays out the wide range of plays that can be used to address challenges and three decks of Wicked Problem-Solving Principal cards for configuring plays. There’s even an online whiteboard collaboration tool, Miro, that allows learners to become digital facilitators who solve problems collaboratively.


Wicked Problem Solving isn’t meant to replace project management methodologies like waterfall or agile. As Tom likes to say, these methodologies are the gears, and Wicked Problem Solving is the lubricant that makes the gears run more smoothly. Wicked Problem Solving offers a proven way to work through the challenges we face every day. It provides new tools to diagnose and navigate complexity. More importantly, it allows us to bring higher-level thinking to the issues at hand—a way to process problems in a manner that rises above the thinking that created the problem in the first place. Einstein would be proud.

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