Written by Tim Marshall, LPRINZ, Communication by Design
What are wicked problems? And why should PR and communications practitioners care about them?
Wicked problems are difficult to solve because even defining the problem is hard, and they involve multiple stakeholders – usually with conflicting views, and the information around them is incomplete and the situation is evolving too fast for conventional planning processes.
The opposite of wicked problems are “tame problems” which have clear boundaries, a well-defined and stable problem statement and a defined stopping point once the solution is reached. See this link for a slightly more academic take on Wicked Problems to this clip which is more informal although no less informative. Watch one today if nothing else!
As a PR or communications practitioner it is likely you deal with “wicked problems” and “tame problems” already – although you may not know them by those terms. A quick look at this year’s PRINZ Awards throws up a number with wicked elements:
Southern Cross’s Healthcare Think Tank, a Porter Novelli project, looked to generate conversation among New Zealand’s health care decision-makers about health care costs rising at twice the rate of inflation. The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in 2014 estimated the country had about eight years to change health spending before it causes a Government budget blowout. Managing health care costs is undoubtedly a super gnarly multi-stakeholder issue where the problem definition is being changed by rapidly advancing technologies. See the entry here.
Gisborne’s entry into the Chorus Giga-town competition to win one gigabit per second internet and $700,000 was the subject of ExpressPR’s PRINZ award entry Gig-borne: The city that dared to dream. The Giga-town entry itself was “tame” because the competition had well-defined parameters but the problems it addressed were undoubtedly wicked. “With the lowest internet access in New Zealand and high deprivation statistics, Gisborne was ready for transformation. Winning Gigatown was the goal. But the real prize would be widespread community engagement, [and] improved digital literacy.” See the entry here.
The term “wicked problem” is recognised in the fields of management (see https://hbr.org/2008/05/strategy-as-a-wicked-problem), public service (see http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/archive/publications-archive/tackling-wicked-problems), economics, design and environmental protection to name a few. Experts in these fields agree addressing wicked problems requires stakeholder engagement – which puts them squarely in the domain of PR and communications management – and this is why you should care.
When something is named, defined and accepted – as wicked problems are now – people in the sphere of interest start to think about how they might be approached.
The PRINZ Senior Practitioners’ Event this year brings together people from various disciplines who deal with wicked problems and/or are developing techniques to address them: People like Jane Strange from social innovation laboratory Auckland Co-design lab and big data expert Shaun Hendy from Te Punaha Matatini. Jane, Shaun and Housing New Zealand’s General Manager Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Bryony Hilless will discuss with attendees housing as New Zealand’s “wicked problem du jour”.
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub, who coined the term ‘zombie towns’ in his book Growing Apart – Regional Prosperity in New Zealand, reckons every economic problem is a wicked one, will join a panel of other thought leaders including the MD of Xero, Victoria Crone and CEO of The Icehouse, Andy Hamilton, who will share their thoughts and provoke yours. Wicked Problems senior PRINZ event on Friday 30 October will bring you into the conversation and up-to-speed with techniques being developed in this emerging field.
Register here for the Wicked Problems – Senior Practitioners’ Event – non-members in the industry are welcome.
Note: A senior professional is one with at least 8 years’ experience in the industry or one closely related.
Picture credit: iStock