The Full Human Potential
Wicked-Problem Approach Using Focus Groups
“Wicked” problems such as global warming, drug abuse and terrorism often contain a mix of technical, economic, social, and political elements, making them extremely difficult to solve. Such problems are usually ill defined and often set aside as “too hard to do.” A general problem-solving method—labeled “the wicked problem approach”—can be used to effectively address such problems.
The approach described below was used to determine how cities could best respond to biological terrorist attacks.[i] This approach is unusual in wicked problem approaches in that it does not use stakeholders, but instead uses people who do not have a strong personal interest in the subject. The idea is to arrive at an objectively determined best solution in the form of strategies that are then made available to stakeholders to implement using either a mapping or a Lean Six Sigma technique for implementation.
This wicked problem approach is designed to tap the full human potential to resolve highly complex problems. The power of the approach comes from the intense, self-motivated work of a group of people who focus their efforts directly on the problem of interest. To achieve this level of effort, the group works in the environment described by Peter Senge as a “learning organization,” found in some of the best US corporations, “where it is safe for people to create visions, where inquiry and commitment to the truth are the norm, and where challenging the status quo is expected.”[ii] In fact, the approach is designed to transform an ad hoc group of people into a learning organization.
Like the scientific method, this approach seeks truth by first, postulating solutions and then realistically testing, validating, and improving them. It is as close to the scientific method as possible for problems that span technical, economic, social and political areas. Thus, the approach combines the power of a learning organization with the rigor of the scientific method. Participants are induced to think and work as hard as possible on the problem; the approach does not provide a crutch to make thinking easy.
Solutions to wicked problems need to be best practical solutions that are feasible and effective, economically sustainable, and politically implementable. Best practical solutions may initiate positive effects that build over time, self-correct, or create an environment in which the problem simply cannot exist.
To apply this approach, knowledgeable people with a keen interest in solving a particular problem are brought together to form a problem-solving team. To be objective, team members should not include those with strong personal interests in the outcome. Team members divide the problem into its different aspects and diagram it so that everyone begins with a common understanding. The team then breaks up into subgroups to address the different aspects of the problem. The subgroups brainstorm alternative solutions and conduct investigations to better understand the problem and to develop the solutions. Then, each subgroup shares its ideas with the full team to see how all of the subgroups’ ideas can work together. The team repeats this process until they achieve an integrated, workable solution to the problem. Other subject matter experts are brought in to inform the problem-solving team throughout this process. In addition to their relevant knowledge, these experts may have strong opinions and biases about the issue being addressed, which is fine as long as the problem-solving team understands their backgrounds and affiliations.
After a practical solution is formulated, the team devises a way to test it. The team may first test the solution in components and then test it as an entire system, which is usually accomplished at a small pilot scale because of cost and risk. Tests results are used to validate and improve the solution. The team then documents the solution for implementation by the responsible political entity. By this unconstrained process, practical solutions to complex problems can be achieved.
Best practical solutions are usually a compromise between effectiveness, cost, and political factors. The problem-solving team must estimate these three factors for each alternative solution and select a best practical solution that is effective enough to solve the problem, has an affordable cost, and can be implemented. Throughout the process, the team works in an open, honest atmosphere free from outside political pressures. Then, the responsible entity receives and takes the solution through a process that they can manage to reach a final compromise for implementation.
This flexible and simple approach can be applied to any complex problem by using the following steps:
1. Identify a small group of problem facilitators to plan and to coordinate the problem-solving effort. The problem facilitators should be objective, self-motivated people who have a keen interest in finding a solution to the problem at hand.
2. Diagram the problem in three tiers:
· Top tier – overall goal or vision of desired outcome.
· Middle tier – elements of problem impacting/threatening overall goal.
· Lower tier – possible solution elements to achieve the overall goal.
3. Plan and schedule problem-solving events such as workshops or field visits. Determine how to include learning in each event by using subject matter experts or demonstrations. Identify requisite knowledge areas that the problem-solving team needs in order to understand all aspects of the problem. Recruit team participants who have the needed knowledge. Inform participants beforehand that they must be both open minded and committed to participate throughout the effort because knowledge builds with each event.
4. Perform a systematic, iterative attack on the problem with the assembled participants.
· Present the problem in a clear and realistic manner with a diagram and by using scenarios, model sites, or expert descriptions, as needed.
· Focus the team directly on the problem by dividing the participants into subgroups that correspond to each of the solution and problem elements. The subgroups then address all elements simultaneously, share results, and repeat the process until they develop an integrated solution. Problem facilitators should encourage everyone to fully participate—brilliant ideas can (and will!) come from anyone at anytime.
· Build learning into each event with relevant tutorials by subject matter experts, physical depictions, site visits, etc.
· Hold to the event schedule so that the work can progress in an orderly way and not bog down. Have confidence that participants will think about the problem and make progress between scheduled workshops and other events. If roadblocks do occur, then expand the information base by bringing in additional subject matter experts in order to understand other aspects of the problem or to identify alternative solutions.
· Document results from each event in order to build on prior findings. Problem facilitators should use the time between events to improve problem presentation, bring in additional resources, or restructure subgroups.
· Keep participants unconstrained in applying knowledge, tools, creative intuition, and common sense to the problem. Be alert to good ideas and alter direction so that the team pursues the path of steepest ascent in attacking the problem. Ask participants to leave their rank, agency affiliation, and loyalties at the door, and to treat each other as equals in order to have an open, honest atmosphere.
5. Test solution. The same group of participants should define an appropriate testing strategy and then oversee solution testing and refinement. Initial tests may involve solution components that are most uncertain or critical. Final system tests should evaluate the entire solution at a pilot scale or by simulation or other appropriate manner to demonstrate that the solution components will work together effectively.
6. Document solution. Truth-based solutions to wicked problems must usually be passed to a political system for implementation. Participants need to use their creativity to document the solution in a manner that facilitates this transition.
Here is a preliminary structure of the tiers of information and impediments needed to approach the problem of climate change.
Given the numbers of smart people in our country and their detailed knowledge in every conceivable subject matter, the human potential to solve complex problems is essentially unbounded. Probably our greatest and most underutilized natural resource is the human mind. This wicked-problem approach offers one way to tap that potential.
[i] Hutchinson, Richard W., Stephen L. English and Mohamed A. Mughal, “A General Problem Solving Approach for Wicked Problems: Theory and Application to Chemical Weapons Verification and Biological Terrorism,” Group Decision and Negotiation, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, 2002, Issue 4, July, No. 11, p 257-279
[ii] Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Doubleday Currency, New York, NY, 1990, p 172