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Your Company Culture Is a Wicked Problem

Culture is not a solvable problem – it will keep you busy forever.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 8, 2021

Stop trying to fix it – culture is a never-ending job

How good is your company culture? That's a tricky question. Workplace culture is a wicked problem – it's too dynamic and complex to be addressed in right-or-wrong terms.

Take Google's culture as an example. What information would you use to assess how good it is? The fact that the tech titan won the Best Global Company Culture 2021 award? Or would you instead consider that former employees sued Google for betraying its "do no evil" motto? You can also ponder the story of an employee who was fired for complaining on Facebook about a broken bottle, but then got her job back – with retro pay and a new Google water bottle.

For many people, Google is the poster child of workplace culture. For others, it has long lost its north star. How can both be right and wrong? That's the beauty of culture. It's more complex and slippery than most realize – the epitome of a wicked problem.

Peter Senge wrote: "Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines."

Culture happens anytime and anywhere, but it's also elusive – even invisible. This paradox is why culture is a wicked problem. Instead of trying to fix it, leaders must learn to deal with its complex and contradictory nature.

What Is a Wicked Problem?

There are two types of problems: Tame and Wicked. Understanding the difference will change your thinking.

The first are problems you can solve. Wicked problems, however, will always keep you busy working at them.

Tame problems are easy to spot and solve. Everyone can agree on what's the issue at hand. A tame problem may be complicated but resolvable, with a clear end in sight.

Solving tame problems is like solving a puzzle. There's always an answer. Apply the proper problem-solving method and the best solution will naturally emerge.

On the other hand, wicked problems are (almost) impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They never end. Once you solve one aspect, a new issue arises.

Social planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term "wicked problem" to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of social problems. Unlike the "tame" problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions.

The design theorists described wicked problems as persistent, pervasive, or slippery – they seem insoluble. The term "wicked" refers to resistance to resolution rather than evil.

Next time you face a serious problem, ask this critical question: Is this problem wicked or tame?

The answer will determine everything that follows.

Global warming, overpopulation, wealth distribution, and hunger – these are typical examples of wicked problems. Complex issues are everywhere. As Marty Neumeier wrote in The Designful Company: "The world's wicked problems crowd us like piranha."

Wicked problems are the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which can be solved in a finite time period by applying known methods. There's no such thing as a "right" or "wrong" solution for wicked problems. Instead, we must think in terms of "good," "better," or "best."

A Wicked Problem is not just complicated, but complex. There is no clear relationship between cause and effect.

Rittel and Webber identified 10 characteristics of wicked problems, including the following:

1. Multiple root causes

There is always more than one explanation and people struggle to agree on what's causing it. Leaders usually see resistance to change as a people problem. But what about the system? How can you reframe the loss of change into a win?

2. Interconnected

Each wicked problem can be linked to other problems or might be the symptoms of another problem. How can we expect people to make decisions if you don't distribute authority? Or expect them to innovate if the organization punishes those who make mistakes?

3. No 'stopping rule'

The situation continues to evolve and change. There's always more to be done. Culture evolution is a continuum – forget about the ideal destination.

4. Success is subjective

There are no 'true' or 'false' solutions, only 'better' and 'worse.' Is a hybrid workplace effective or not? Do the pros outweigh the cons? What do we mean by success?

5. Many possible solutions

There's no silver bullet that fully resolves wicked problems. Should you focus on leaders' behavior? Should we experiment with one team first? Could recent hires be more open to experimentation?

As the world becomes more unpredictable, dynamic, and interdependent, our problems turn out more complex – they become "wicked."

Jean-Marie Dru said it best, "Disruption is rooted in life itself. Life's essence lies in accidents and interruptions, in conflict and tension."

The traditional change management approach to problem-solving is rooted in a linear and simplified worldview. It follows a sequential puzzle-solving method. However, most company culture problems are wicked; they require a distinctive approach.

Solving wicked problems requires focusing on the system, not symptoms. You have to tackle the web of interrelationships, norms, mindsets, and behaviors that shape culture. Action and iteration are more important than getting stuck – prioritize improvement even over perfection.

That’s how the British cycling team ended a half-century Olympic drought. They aimed for small gains. From athletes nutrition and training to bike seats and ergonomics – everything was optimized 1%. The compounded improvements transformed the system.

Sometimes, the best solution is just a small improvement.

Why Culture Is a Wicked Problem

"The narrow gauge mindset of the past is insufficient for today's wicked problems. We can no longer play the music as written. Instead, we have to invent a whole new scale." — Marty Neumeier

Over the past few years, I've been studying how companies create powerful cultures. Most leaders recognize that culture precedes performance – and want to future-proof theirs. As many CEOs tell me, "I want to move my culture from point A to point B." However, they miss the point that culture is hard to control.

Even worse, executives tend to ignore the complications and unexpected turns along the way. Culture is not static, but dynamic. The culture that got you here won't get you there. Organizations need to reset their culture to deal with an increasingly hybrid and complex workplace.

Several CEOs admit that they feel stuck – and frustrated – with building an agile and innovative culture. That's because they treat culture as a tame problem. They're looking for a solution that will change things overnight. Unfortunately, hiring agile coaches won't make systemic issues go away – leaders must meet wicked problems head to head.  

Wickedness isn't a degree of difficulty, but nature.

Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can't resolve them. That's why 70% of cultural change initiatives fail. Both consultants and leaders approach them as a tame problem – one with a clear end. They fail to realize that building an innovative or digital-first culture is a never-ending job.

Every wicked problem has multiple root causes. You can't fix diversity and inclusion by itself, for example. Multiple building blocks of culture need to be improved, such as psychological safety, behaviors that are rewarded or punished, or norms and rules – to name a few.

Tom Ritchey said it best: "Wicked problems are messy, devious, and reactive – they fight back when you try to resolve them."

Culture is not a solvable problem, but one that will keep leaders busy forever. You can't move culture from point A to point B. It's a complex system with too many moving pieces. Think about the Google examples I shared before – all those contradictions drive its culture in different directions.

Moreover, you can't solve all your culture problems – there's no definite solution.

Oxford professor Keith Grint wrote, "Because there's often no stopping points with wicked problems – the point at which the problem is solved – we often end up having to admit that we cannot solve wicked problems."

Yet, the pressure to act decisively drives leaders to address wicked problems as if they were tame.

Unfortunately, as Grint explains, "Wicked problems often embody the inverse of this – we cannot solve them. We need to be very wary of acting decisively because we cannot know what to do. If we knew what to do, it would be a tame problem, not a wicked problem."

Culture evolution is, at its most basic, deeply human work. When examined through the lens of a wicked problem, it's easy to move beyond made-up constructs such as employee engagement, alignment, or retention. There's something bigger: you must focus on the system, not meaningless metrics.

How to Solve Wicked Culture Problems

Most managers place an unhealthy emphasis on tame problems. They're constantly putting out fires at work. Modern leadership is about facing wicked problems – the issues that are literally unmanageable.  

As Robert Flood wrote on Creative Problem Solving, "Most problems in organizations are 'wicked problems,' but most problem-solving methods are suitable for simple, well-structured problems."

Here are some thoughts to address culture as a wicked problem: focus on the journey, not the destination.

Stop trying to fix your culture

Identify your wicked cultural problems. Acknowledge the ones you cannot solve, but only work on. Giving up the expectation of fixing your culture is vital.

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

For wicked problems, there are no easy fixes or best practices that will work for every company, every time. You have to create, test, and iterate solutions constantly. Wicked problems usually mutate – so should the solution.

Tap into Collective Wisdom

Leaders cannot deal with complex, unsolvable problems on their own. Culture evolution is everyone's job. Unlock infinite possible solutions by bringing together people with diverse perspectives.

Welcome Mistakes

Don't approach wicked problems in "right-or-wrong" terms. Increase your mistake-tolerance. Make it safer for people to adopt a trial-and-error approach. Don't punish those who don't get it right the first time.

Don't Look for Preexisting Solutions

Each workplace culture is unique – and so are its problems. Avoid the temptation to copy others. Stop trying to build a culture like Netflix's or extrapolating what you did in a previous organization to your current one.

Focus on Improvement

For wicked problems, there is no finish line. Focus on the journey – the destination is a moving target. There is no idealized state to arrive at, but always more to be done.

Culture as a Wicked Problem

Solving wicked problems requires challenging your thinking.

After being appointed as dean of the University of Southern California, Michael Quick challenged the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and students by asking what USC's contribution should be?

He answered his own question by inviting everyone to focus on solving wicked problems. "Poverty, food and water security, obesity, social justice, cancer, sustainability, climate change, terrorism, cyber security, aging, and dementia," Quick said, "These are the big, complex problems facing the 21st century."

Building an agile, collaborative, and innovative culture is also a wicked problem. It's complex and almost unsolvable. Wicked problems will keep you busy forever – they are never fully resolved.

There are no right or wrong answers to improve your workplace culture – only better and worse. Stop trying to fix culture. Choose progress even over perfection.

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