The Turbulent Rise of Adaptive (Wicked) Problems

“Wicked problems tend to shift disconcertingly with every attempt to solve them.  Moreover, the solutions are never right or wrong, just better or worse.”  –Marty Neumeier The Designful Company

We have carried around this notion that design is just about the construction and or use of products, but what we are quickly learning is that design and design thinking is spilling over as an imperative ingredient in determining the creation of the systems, processes and structures that guide and fuel how our organizations work and operate.

Which is not to say that design was not a necessary component of creating effective organizations in the past, but rather, it has become a much more necessary leadership element to combat not only the expanding percentage of the disengaged…but the heightened rate at which new data and learning is being created. We have created a world in which what was seen as a best practice today, is often viewed as an obsolete strategy tomorrow. A turbulent and volatile pace of change that can lead to further frustration and deeper disengagement.

Which is why design thinking has become such a vital necessity mind-set and skill-set for today’s organizational leaders.

As we face these exponential increases in disengagement and data across the organizational landscape, we need creative leaders who can not only reengage the disengaged, but curate and converge this overwhelming pipeline of data into individual and organizational learning that cascades across the entirety of the organization.

Leaders that can transform the current organizational landscape to keep pace with the velocity of change through improved behaviors, more agile action, and better designed processes and systems. Which will be vital if we are to expand the overall capacity of our individuals to handle the extreme shifts our organizations will face in the near future.

We have lived insulated in an organizational leadership vacuum filled with technical problems and challenges for a very long time, a time that is quickly coming to a close. The problems and challenges that are facing in today’s world are tilting the scales from the technical to the adaptive in very rapid fashion. Problems and challenges that Marty Neumeier refers to in The Designful Company as “wicked problems.” For which he adds, “The world’s wicked problems crowd us like piranha.”

It is this shift, from technical to adaptive, that will require a leadership mind shift not only in how we do our work, but the ways in which we support our people and lead our organizations…

We can no longer believe that the ‘best practices’ of the past are prepared to solve the adaptive problems and challenges we will face in the future. And face them we must, for the organizational structures and systems that we have in place will be ineffective in sheltering and insulating us from these problems and challenges.

The band-aids of the past will be ripped off quicker and quicker as we find that these adaptive problems and challenges become much more urgent and pervasive across our organizations. Until we are willing to approach them in new, creative and innovative ways, they will continue to plague, damage and diminish our organizational cultures and environments.

As Neumeier shares in The Designful Company, “Best practices are obsolete at birth; stability is fantasy, talent trumps obedience, imagination beats knowledge, and empathy trounces logic.” Which highlights the understanding that we live a new world, a new organizational landscape, that is shifting, changing and transforming at an exponential rate, which will require new ways of learning, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, and new ways of leading. Especially, in light of this new breed of “wicked problems” that are infiltrating our organizations. For which Neumeier adds, “The only question is whether you can change…fast enough to take full advantage of it.”

And that is the question, can we? Can we effectively navigate the chaos to find the opportunity that lies before us?

And to do this we will need leaders who are social architects, leaders who can design and curate our way forward in a much more creative, innovative and effective manner. We can no longer work at the leadership Neumeier sees as, “getting better and better at a management model that’s getting wronger and wronger.”

We need leaders prepared to face the adaptive, “wicked problems” that continue to plague and conspire against individual and organizational capacity and growth. It is not just necessary, it is required for individual and organizational relevance in the future.

“We need systems thinkers equipped not only with strong leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities, but the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to build the systems and cultures that can create the schools and districts that our students and teachers not only need, but truly deserve.”  –The Changing Face of Modern Leadership


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