Wicked problems: using a collaborative approach to find effective solutions

Using a collaborative approach to resolve complex project problems

Many programmes present complex problems that are difficult to resolve, but some throw up truly 'wicked problems' that project management professionals find it impossible to make any headway on. These wicked problems (a description coined by US academics H. W. J. Rittel and M. M. Webber) are often difficult to define and are informed by a web of conflicting views from many stakeholders typically from across organisational boundaries.

The nature of wicked problems means that conventional approaches to problem solving, which follow a linear process from problem to solution, result in unintended consequences and complications. In fact, it is not unusual for project management professionals to find that conventional approaches make the problem worse. Traditional approaches also constrain the opportunity to develop more-innovative solutions that address the complexity of the situation.

Project management professionals can address wicked problems most effectively by adopting a collaborative approach that focuses on the underlying causes of the problem.

Such an approach to resolving wicked problems bears three key characteristics: a commitment to engage stakeholders, analysis based on both qualitative and quantitative techniques, and a focus on outcomes and benefits.

Stakeholders engage in a collaborative journey of consultation and engagement

With wicked problems there is invariably a wide range of opinions on the nature of the problem and the ‘right’ solution. By bringing all the affected parties together, project management professionals can build a sense of shared ownership so that commitment to solutions and their delivery becomes much more likely.

Cause and effect are understood through qualitative and quantitative analysis and modelling

Traditional analysis is insufficient for the complexity of wicked problems. Project management professionals can achieve a richer understanding of the situation by combining qualitative cause-and-effect maps developed with reference to all stakeholders with focused use of quantitative methods.

Decision-making is continuously aligned and focused on outcomes and benefits

Throughout the problem-solving process, project management professionals should combine the outputs of consultation and engagement with those from analysis and modelling in a logical decision making framework so that decision making can be aligned to outcomes and benefits.

PA helped Transport for London (TfL) resolve a wicked problem on a major programme, where one of the key barriers to persuading people to switch from cars to public transport was the fear of crime and violence. We helped the TfL stakeholders reach a definition of what success, in terms of passengers’ attitudes and behaviours, would look like and then created an analysis framework to evaluate the choices open to TfL.

By combining a 'hard', objective model of the problem with subjective evidence from stakeholders PA was able to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the challenges TfL faced, which served as a strong foundation for the formulation of a robust policy and its implementation. As a result of the initiatives launched, TfL saw a 13% increase in the use of buses and significant improvements in passenger perceptions of service, safety and reliability.

To find out how PA can help your business resolve wicked problems for successful project delivery, please contact us now.

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.