Financial Planning | Leadership / Management

Businesses battle ‘wicked problems’ with ‘we’ solutions

_small All hail the power of collaboration.

Too often in our professional lives we lock ourselves away in our respective bunkers, put on the blinders and work furiously on our own little problems, convinced that we -- and we alone -- can find the answers, given enough time and coffee.

What we don't realize is that our little problems aren't little at all. They're everyone's problems. Doesn't it make sense, then, that we start tearing down the competitive barriers that separate our organizations and start working on these problems together?

In Maryland, the answer appears to be, "Yes."

Representatives from business organizations throughout the state sat down together at the MACPA's Columbia Center last week to discuss the issues that impact Maryland businesses and take the first steps toward identifying some possible solutions.

And talk about tearing down barriers: The people in the room represented such business powerhouses as Financial Executives International, the Small Business Administration, the state Department of Business and Economic Development, the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, the Maryland Bankers Association, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce.

It was an impressive lineup, but even more impressive was the fact that they took a day out of their busy schedules to work together on their "wicked problems."

And just what is a wicked problem? It's often described as one that changes with every attempt to solve it. A wicked problem is so big, so complex that it evolves with the very act of trying to solve it. Association innovator and social technology strategist Jeff De Cagna of Principled Innovation (pictured above) used health care reform as an example: Everyone who tries to address the issue brings his or her own agenda to the table, and the problem itself metamorphizes as a result. It's as though the problem becomes unsolvable.

The wicked problems facing Maryland's business groups certainly fit the bill. Among those identified by the group:

  • How do we equip our society to embrace and manage ongoing and rapid-fire change?
  • How can we make Maryland the nation's No. 1 innovation state?
  • How do we connect and engage people?
  • How can we empower people to take ownership?
  • How do we increase transparency?

In each case, outside forces -- changes in technology, the workforce or the economy, for example -- change the very nature of the problem.

Then there are the everyday things that get in the way -- time, money, lack of vision, the business-as-usual mentality. As De Cagna puts it, "We play small so we don't have to worry about the issues involved in playing big."

Ain't it the truth?

Still, the Maryland group has a few things going for it, including professional expertise; access to business, government and thought leaders; an engaged constituency; and, as evidenced by their attendance, a desire to be part of the solution.

The exciting part was just getting these folks together in the same room. The expertise on hand was astounding, and if we can continue to collaborate with them, solutions to some of these wicked problems might finally be at hand.

Lurking beneath the surface of the discussion was the role social media might play in the process. Social media are collaborative tools, right? So why can't we use them to collaborate on business- and economy-related solutions?

"These technologies are disruptive in a couple of ways," De Cagna said. "They're disruptive positively in that they give us more options and capacity. They're disruptive negatively because they're forcing us to reconsider our assumptions of how we do business, and that creates stress."

Which might not be a negative, after all. What we do might not be changing, but thanks to social media, how we do it certainly is. As these technologies continue to evolve, our job will be to figure out a way to evolve with them.

If we don't, we'll have even more wicked problems to handle.


Bill Sheridan