Hybrid thinking and wicked problems

Someone just sent me a Gartner report called Introducing Hybrid Thinking for Transformation, Innovation and Strategy that offers the view that:

Hybrid thinking integrates the increasingly popular business concept of design thinking with other ways of thinking in order to take on "wicked problems" in business transformation, innovation and strategy. Design thinking's fundamental emphasis on creating meaningful, human-centered experiences provides the core for hybrid thinking, which is an emerging "discipline of disciplines." Hybrid thinking goes beyond design thinking by integrating other forms of creative thinking to take on the most ambiguous, contradictory and complex problems.

Thinking this way is not is particularly new but it is rapdily gaining ground and does offer intriguing possibilities for thinking about work differently. What's useful about the Gartner piece is the argument that there aren't 'solutions' to problems. There are just various ways of taking on problems that will result in a more successful outcome for the organization than not taking it on.

The concept of 'wicked problems' is central to the authors' arguments and this led me to ask myself of what exactly is a wicked problem? As usual, Wikipedia provided some information on the topic. The term first appeared in a social planning setting, and then transferred to become more widely used in business and organizations.

Wikipedia notes that Jeff Conklin who wrote Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems .

"Seeking to generalize the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy, Conklin identifies the following as defining characteristics of wicked problems:

1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation'
6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions."

Incidentally the cover of the first chapter of the book available from the Cognexus website – has the delightful quote "Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them." Laurence J. Peter

According to Gartner, wicked problems are tackled by hybrid thinking, defined as

… more than just the binary integration of design thinking with a single complementary discipline (for example, design thinking plus Six Sigma thinking or design thinking plus war-fighter thinking). It is the integration, over time, of many disparate disciplines into a unified discipline of disciplines (see Figure 2). In this regard, hybrid thinking is like "scientific thinking," which unifies and integrates a diverse range of disciplines – from physics to psychology.

Towards the end of the paper is an example of a wicked problem – in this instance resolving the financial crisis of 2008/2009 – addressed by hybrid thinking.

One of the most profound paradigm shifts represented by hybrid thinking (when compared with other business and IT disciplines) is the shift toward a primarily biological and ecological paradigm of transformation, innovation and strategy, and away from a predominantly engineering paradigm. This is because wicked problems are more like biological or ecological problems than they are like engineering problems.

A good example of this shift can be found in a recent paper presented by Andrew Haldane, executive director of financial stability for the Bank of England, entitled "Rethinking the Financial Network":
[The financial crises resulted from] the behavior under stress of a complex, adaptive network. Complex because these networks were a cat's-cradle of interconnections, financial and nonfinancial. Adaptive because behavior in these networks was driven by interactions between optimizing, but confused, agents. Seizures in the electricity grid, degradation of ecosystems, the spread of epidemics and the disintegration of the financial system – each is essentially a different branch of the same network family tree. This paper considers the financial system as a complex adaptive system. It applies some of the lessons from other network disciplines – such as ecology, epidemiology, biology and engineering – to the financial sphere.

This paper is one of a series Gartner is producing on the theme of hybrid thinking. If others are as thought provoking it will be easy to make the time to read them.