I have been dealing with ill defined problems for quite some time. In this post, I will try to capture the essence of my approach to wicked problems in a five step process.

1. ELEMENTS – THE BUILDING BLOCKS: mentally walk through or discuss scenarios associated with the problem and note key elements that pertain to the problem space as they emerge. At this point, elements can be loosely defined: it is better to have a larger list of elements that are vaguely defined than a smaller list of clearly defined elements.

2. LOGICAL CLARITY: conceptually strengthen the problem’s elements so as to reduce logical ambiguity. Explore and resolve overlaps, hierarchy. Categorize as much as possible. Reduce the original list of elements to the smallest possible set.

3. CAUSAL RELATIONSHIPS: walk through problem scenarios again, this time exploring the causal relationships between elements. This represents the “static” structural characterization of the problem.

4. MODEL: architect a model to capture the problem’s dynamics (the main difference between a static and dynamic characterization of the problem is the time dimension that exposes the evolution of the problem’s elements and their relationships). Validate the model by exercising a few “what-ifs” derived from the original scenarios. Based on the type of model that fits, categorize the problem type if possible.

5. EXPLORE: apply initial questions pertaining to the problem to the model and explore non-obvious insights. Exploring implications should increase the understanding of the problem.

In summary, the approach to wicked problem solving is: ELEMENTS – RELATIONSHIPS – DYNAMICS. The more complex the problem, the more sophisticated the model, and more iterations likely required.

A key trick is that the process may not be followed sequentially; that is, one could jump between the various steps as necessary (for example, while working on the model in step #4, one may need to jump back to step #2 to additionally clarify a particular element, or to step #3 to re-evaluate a particular relationship).

Finally, the entire process requires a diversity of mental skills: creative thinking for scenario walk-through; critical thinking for logical strengthening; design thinking for model architecture.