Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wicked Business Problems

"Companies can manage strategy's wickedness not by being more systematic but by using social planning processes."

John Camillus, "Strategy as a Wicked Problem," Harvard Business Review, May, 2008.

What a hoot for business strategists to adopt tools from the planning and policy worlds. Wal-Mart has got itself in a pickle and needs help. Hmmm! Wal-Mart, wicked? "Social planning processes" to the rescue. Camillus even invokes Charles Lindblom's "science of muddling through."

The notion of wicked problems derives from the classic article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, "Dilemmas of a General Theory of Planning." They identified a domain of problems characterized by complexity, uncertain causal relations, and value conflicts. The usual planning bag of tricks for more routine problem-solving does not work for wicked problems. Solving these kinds of problems requires action research, exploration and prototyping, trial and error, consensus building, and reflective practice.

To be fair, the other image of wicked problems was coined at about the same time, maybe even earlier, by an operations researcher and business strategist, Russell Ackoff. He called them "messes." I prefer this more prosaic phrasing but I think it's a bit upsetting for tidy strategists. Messes seem more domestic compared to the Broadway ring of "wicked" that beckons heroic intervention. Moreover, messes can be creative environments to muck around in, not just situations to be banished with solutions.

In the end, Camillus offers examples of companies extricating themselves from the cobwebs of wicked problems -- issuing new mission statements and strategy plans on the way to robust market share. I wish he had returned to the Wal-Mart examples of how a company with an over-the-top low cost strategy repositions itself in new global markets and a saturated domestic market and deals with the social and political problems of low wages and environmental impacts. I agree, a wicked problem.

For me, business-related wicked problems concern the Wal-Mart dilemmas -- growth and equity, profits and social/environmental impacts, or worker and consumer benefits. I'm pleased that John Camillus has explored this common ground.


Josh said...

This is refreshing to see. I've grown accustomed to seeing nonprofits and foundations mimicking businesses but the opposite is much more rare.

Colin Austin said...

Good article. Dealing with messy situations is something that nonprofits have learned to do. Maybe businesses can think more broadly about strategies that address social and environmental problems. The elusive "triple-bottom line"? On the other hand, intense marketing and lobbying also do the trick. I recently reread "Fast Food Nation" so I am a little jaded.