But ... What are Wicked Issues and Adaptive Actions?

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30th August 2021 by Steve Holyer

Wicked Issues / Sticky Problems

A Wicked Issue or Sticky Problem will likely:

  • keep you awake at night
  • keep coming back, but rarely exactly the same way
    — just when you think you've solved this one, here it's coming up again
  • have many parts or many connections.
  • make you feel stuck because there are too many choices
  • or, make you feel stuck because there are no choices
  • defy clear analysis

Our design friends might call these Wicked Problems.

"A wicked problem is one that has no solution," according to Glenda Eoyang from the Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) Institute.  "You can define it in multiple ways, and each way suggests a different solution."

She continues, "Many different stakeholders cause the problem, and many stakeholders (sometimes the same ones) are required to solve it.  What appears to be a solution may merely mask the problem for a while or generate even worse unintended consequences.  Wicked problems plague the global community today—climate change, violent conflict, hunger, corruption, to name a few. [Your]... issues may not be that far reaching, but they are equally wicked... "

What are the wicked issues that have you stuck that have you stuck?"

Adaptive Actions

Adaptive Action Cycles or Adaptive Action Planning are a way to tame Wicked Issues and Sticky Problems.

An Adaptive Action Cycle has three phases, each phase focus on a type of question.

  • What? This phase is about observations. Your issue is wicked because you're part of a complex adaptive system. It's impossible to view all the moving parts and it's impossible to know how everything connects.  But what can you observe?
  • So What? This phase is about finding patterns in what can be observed.  So what could our observations mean? So what patterns can we see?
  • Now What? Now what small action can we make in attempt to change the patterns and influence the wicked issue? The issues are wicked and systems are complex. Most systems seek to remain stable. Your wicked issue is likely to return in a new way. I don't call these now-what-actions "lessons learned" because as soon as you learn one lesson a condition changes there is more of the lesson to learn. But you've shifted the patterns and changed the system, which is a win! Now what? Now you can start another adaptive action cycle. Your now what leads to your next what.

Glenda says, "In a human system, deep and lasting change can occur when individuals and groups use multiple cycles of connected Adaptive Action to shape their own models of productivity and performance ..."

This adaptive action orientation (especially when actions are shared)  creates what people call the "coherence of the system". This leads to real change both personally and in the larger system.

Are you curious about using Adaptive Actions to tame Wicked Issues or Sticky Problems? You're invited to experience using an adaptive action cycle to tame a  personal wicked issue in our August personal retrospective on August 31.

Join us for our personal retrospective reflection on August 31. Bring your Wicked Issue or Sticky Problem. We'll take you on a focused journey to tame your issue.

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photo ©2018 Josef Dabernig (@dasjo) Zürich Switzerland
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