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Team tools for wicked problems.

"Wicked" problems defy conventional problem-solving techniques - and most employee teams are not trained to deal with wicked problems. Here's how one of America's most innovative companies helps employees meet the challenge.

In many companies, teams are now an integral element of TQM programs, cross-functional strategies, and reengineering. In short, teams are "in."

Yet despite its rising popularity, the "team approach" is hardly problem-free. Among the most common complaints: too many meetings, too many missed opportunities, too much inaction, and, finally, too many poor solutions.

The problem for many organizations is fairly simple. They are approaching team-based activity with outmoded ideas about both team processes and the relationship between information, knowledge, and value. Consider that any team activity - be it in total quality management or new product development - requires that team members leverage information and knowledge to create value. And when high value requires processing information and knowledge in new and unfamiliar ways, the old notions of teamwork yield less than optimum results.

Our language about organizations and work clearly show that information is not an end in itself, but the raw material for organizational activities of value. We are not information workers, but knowledge workers. We ply our trades in learning organizations or intelligent enterprises, not information organizations. But even with this formulation, we have no clear idea of what the future holds. Individuals will have to determine how they should deal with vast stores of new information - how they can process and thereby transmute it to something of value.

For teams the challenge is even more complex. How can teams do more than share information - how can they move teamwork beyond a series of exercises in communication that do nothing more than keep everybody apprised of what everybody else is doing? Where and how is value added?


We can begin to understand how teams can use information and knowledge to create value by distinguishing between tame problems and wicked problems. This distinction was first noted by Horst Rittel, a German physicist who, in the heyday of operations research, turned his attention to architecture and city planning. For Rittel, physics was what Thomas Kuhn, the American philosopher-scientist, had called "normal science" and thus tame - paradigmatic, difficult perhaps, but with consistent ways of attacking problems. City planning, on the other hand, was wicked.

Rittel saw tame problems as those with known algorithms for arriving at correct solutions. Tame problems allow us to work "inside the box." They are manageable; they come with a proper focus, appropriate definitions, and relevant information. To be sure, tame problems can still be challenging. Getting the proper and complete information can be difficult, or those who attack the problem may not be familiar with the conventional algorithms.

Wicked problems, however, come with built-in complexities that make them doubly difficult. Wicked problems present no known algorithms for solution; simply identifying the problem can turn into a major task. Wicked problems force us to work "outside the box." Sometimes we hit upon a "solution" that merely serves to prove that we failed to define the problem to begin with. Wicked problems involve us in a "dialogue" that includes our definition of the problem, the algorithm we try to invent or employ, the information we consider relevant, the solution we find, and the outcomes we ultimately achieve.

Wicked problems necessarily have an iterative nature to them, as we cycle through the phases of problem definition, information gathering, solution, and outcome. It can be said that we do not really "solve" wicked problems; rather, we "design" more or less effective solutions based on how we define the problem.


Herein lies the crunch - the collision between a team's limited vision of problem-solving processes and the nature of the problem the team is being called upon to handle.

Various commentators have identified the team movement's two strongest benefits as: (1) the greater diversity of experience, perspectives, and knowledge that can be brought to bear on problems; and (2) the capacity for teams, over time, to become self-directed and capable of managing significant cross-disciplinary business concerns. Because a team is composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds, it can ostensively assimilate and process multiple inputs (whether internal or external to the larger organization) more rapidly than those who work through traditional hierarchical channels of communication. And, given the rapidity with which environments change, it often becomes necessary for teams to go one step further - to set strategies based on the information processed.

In the pyramidal organization, we could imagine a model that put strategy at the top, tactics in the middle, and implementation at the bottom. The rate of change in the environment now exceeds the pyramid's capacity to carry information. No longer can implementers wait around to be told what to do. No longer can strategists afford the luxury of months or even years of analyzing data and considering alternatives. Strategy, tactics, and implementation are collapsed together as virtually indivisible activities that every team has to manage. Top management provides the overall vision, and everybody else works from the trenches.

In the days when the pyramidal model dominated, companies considered wicked problems "tamed" once strategy was set. Middle managers could move on to solving other problems. Every skilled and well-trained manager confronted problems by employing a proven rational and systematic problem-solving method, such as the Dewey Reflective Problem-Solving Process or some more modern variant. The manager generally followed six steps: (1) define the problem, (2) generate a number of alternative solutions, (3) specify criteria by which the solutions can be evaluated, (4) apply criteria to evaluate solutions and settle upon one to be implemented, (5) implement the solution, and (6) seek feedback on the effectiveness of implementation.

This problem-solving method proved powerful and far more successful than throwing all available resources behind the first reasonable plan of action suggested and ignoring other considerations (such as workable alternatives). Unfortunately, it is not equally effective for all problems. It is particularly appropriate for the tame problems that were once the typical lot of management. But it is decidedly inappropriate for wicked problems, which defy linear resolution. Wicked problems defy even the first step of linear problem-solving methods - that is, they defy definition.

In fact, as managers and team members increasingly find themselves juggling strategic, tactical, and implementation issues, they also confront more wicked problems. Linear problem-solving methods, with the attendant assumptions they make about problem definition, information, and solution, are often insufficient for the task.

Herein lies some of the mystery about what information means and how it serves to have value. With tame problems, all the work of designing the operating algorithm has been accomplished. Consequently, the information triggers predetermined actions, and the value of the information depends on the speed and precision with which the appropriate actions are triggered. This is inside-the-box thinking, and most of what we know about team processes and team problem-solving fits quite nicely.

Not so with wicked problems. Here the value of any piece of information remains unknown until the desired outcome is achieved. In wicked problem situations, the context is ultimately ambiguous - so no matter how right, wrong, costly, or contingent our information may be, we do not know its value until we can judge its consequence for the outcome.

It is only through an iterative process that moves between problem definition, potential solutions, actions, and outcomes, that the value of information becomes known. Ultimately, our ability to survive in an increasingly competitive business environment will depend on our capacity to effectively and efficiently leverage information and knowledge in designs that do create value.


"This business (like so many businesses today) is constantly faced with problems that have no apparent solution, in spite of hours and hours of discussion and arguing back and forth. We seem to go in circles and end up back where we started time and time again.... Is there a route out of that infinite do loop?" - A Gore business leader

W. L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex[TM], is an exceptional company known for organizing small teams around business opportunities. The watchwords at Gore are commitment, empowerment, and innovation; the goal is to provide value to the customer. The culture focuses on a structure that rewards risk-taking, expects personal responsibility, and promotes high levels of trust and collaboration.

Over the past several years at Gore, an emergent coordinating/decision-making structure has been evolving in the form of "core groups." These small groups, composed of three to eighteen employees (Gore uses the term "associates"), work across disciplines, plants, and even countries. Thus, they provide the direction for focused business opportunities that cut across the highly decentralized Gore structure. Core groups have generally worked exceedingly well as communication forums to keep everyone informed about who is doing what. But core groups have faced more of a challenge in trying to deal effectively with a number of vexing problems - from forecasting and planning to developing strategies for distribution and market positioning, and from developing product concepts to teambuilding, reorganizing, and troubleshooting HR and culture issues.

Although Gore's associates receive substantial training in effective communication, decision-making, and problem-solving techniques, and although there is no doubt that they generally end up with quality solutions to the problems they confront, certain predictable difficulties have emerged. These include:

1. The tendency to get locked into a particular definition of the problem, or to a particular solution, too early.

2. The tendency for associates to have widely different recall, after a meeting is over, of key issues, key decisions, and proposed courses of action - this despite the fact that almost everyone keeps fairly meticulous notes.

3. The tendency to get caught between trying to operate as a small team capable of making consensus decisions easily, or involving a larger team, thus gaining a broader perspective but increasing the difficulty in reaching a consensus.

4. The tendency for associates to become impatient and so emotionally embroiled in some of the group's issues that they forget effective team processes.

On reflection, it appeared that the source of the difficulties lay in the mismatch between the kinds of problems the core groups were dealing with and the ways they went about dealing with them. Simply put, they were using tame team processes to solve wicked problems. What was needed was a problem-solving methodology that did not have six linear steps, but multiple touchstones that could guide teams through an iterative problem-solving process. The identified components or touchstones, offered here as a list, are overlapping and highly integrated, and are not presented in any order of priority. They are:

* Promoting a spirit of inquiry.

* Creating shared displays for design.

* Managing "the surround" - the whole context of learning and knowledge generation and exchange among team members.

* Managing the polarity between teams and individuals.

* Instituting practices for on-line reflection on team processes and off-line learning from team processes.

Promoting a spirit of inquiry. Too often it seems that, whether through impatience or personal styles, a team tends to seek closure too quickly or to bog down with adversarial arguing of one position over another. As a consequence, potentially relevant information may not make its way into the team's collective understanding of the issues at hand, or alternative ways of approaching solutions get prematurely shoved aside. In fact, the way most people typically approach problems almost guarantees that they will limit their access to the knowledge, information, experience, and wisdom of other team members. To work effectively on wicked problems, teams must gain the greatest possible collective understandings related to the problem at hand.

Chris Argyris, a longtime observer of teams, describes the typical process of group decision making. He argues that we tend to advocate our own positions without inviting inquiry into them, and that we tend to draw inferences about the motivations and assumptions of others without inviting inquiry into those. Moreover, we actively discourage such inquiry, and we collude with one another in casting situations as win-lose (my alternative or yours). The consequence is that we create self-sealing defensive routines where issues become "undiscussable," and their very "undiscussability" itself is undiscussable. We are entangled in a situation that makes learning almost impossible.

Peter Drucker offers a compelling alternative vision in his discussion of decision making in Japan. "The Westerner and the Japanese mean something different when they talk of 'making a decision.' In the West, all the emphasis is on the answer to the question. Indeed, our books on decision making try to develop systematic approaches to giving an answer. To the Japanese, however, the important element in decision making is defining the question."

Jerry Rhodes, former director of Rank Xerox and Kepner Tregoe in the UK, recounts a telling experience that came while doing some consulting work with Phillips. He was a member of a team charged with the task of determining what made a good manager at Phillips. Through their research, Rhodes and his colleagues determined that one trait of a "good" manager showed most clearly when individuals or teams became bogged down in a process. A "good" manager could enter into the stream of any project, regardless of how long it had been going on or how familiar the manager was with it, quickly get the drift of where the project was stalled, and then ask just the right questions to get the project rolling again.

W.L. Gore president Bob Gore is similarly known for his skill in asking the right question. "Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing," said one associate. "Here you've been working on a project for six months to a year and you're overlooking what proves to be an obvious question. Bob comes in, and in ten minutes he's asking what everybody else hasn't noticed. So you don't feel great that you missed it, but at least the project is back running again."

Bob Gore once had a discussion with an associate who wanted to lead a Gore-Tex fabrics effort into a new market segment. Gore made almost no statements during the whole 90-minute meeting, but instead asked hundreds of questions - from market forecasts to technical requirements to the associate's "dream" for the business. Afterward, the associate marveled at the thoroughness of Gore's questioning. "You know how people talk about Michael Jordan's hang-time? Well, Bob Gore has the longest intellectual hang-time of anybody I've ever run into!" (The list of questions was subsequently typed up and circulated among associates responsible for developing new market segments.)

Three simple techniques go a long way toward helping teams promote a spirit of inquiry: question brainstorming, "color" questioning, and TQR.

Question brainstorming is the easiest to employ. Nearly all teams have some familiarity with brainstorming. In question brainstorming, the team simply brainstorms questions instead of answers, proposals, characteristics, or whatever it usually brainstorms. The standard rules for brainstorming apply: record all questions, no evaluations, try to tie questions to previous questions, give a time limit. Afterward, the team can sort through the questions and decide which ones need to be pursued to move the project forward.

The second technique for promoting a spirit of inquiry, "color" questioning, is an extension of question brainstorming and also a particular application of the work of Jerry Rhodes. Rhodes' research on managers at Phillips led him to develop a fairly extensive scheme for categorizing the types of questions one might ask. At the core are three types of questions that Rhodes identities as "colours of the mind": "green" for the possibilities of imagination and ingenuity, "red" for description of fact, and "blue" for judgments and opinions of value and need: "what if. . .?", "what is. . .?", and "what should. . .?" questions. Rhodes has found that many of us have a tendency to favor one or two of these "colors," and some of us do so in such disproportion that we are unable to entertain questions outside our predilections. Sometimes teams can get similarly hung up, and they focus on a particular line of questioning that prevents the project from moving forward.

"Color" questioning, then, prompts a team to think of questions from each of the three core categories. At a flip chart, someone prompts, "What are the green questions we should be concerning ourselves with now?" "What blue questions might move us forward?" "Are there some red questions we need to address?" The questions are written in appropriate colors, usually in three columns.

The third technique, TQR (Thinker-Questioner-Reflector), evolved from what in education circles is known as "paired reasoning." Students are paired to work their way through, say, a math problem, with one student guiding the other simply by asking questions that help the problem solver articulate his or her reasoning. Team members take specialized roles (thinker, questioner, or reflector) for brief (five to seven minute) sessions. TQR is most useful when the swirl of discussion outstrips individuals' capacities to keep up with what is going on: either the team members are having trouble understanding where someone is going with an idea, or an individual has a potentially good idea that he or she cannot quite articulate. In normal circumstances, we usually just let the discussion wash over the incipient ideas. (Sometimes these ideas will return days or months later, but often they simply die.)

Team members can use TQR when they want to give or get full hearing for an idea that may not be fully formulated. A speaker or listener calls for a TQR session. The person with the idea is designated the Thinker. One person on the team is designated the Questioner. All others become Reflectors. For a specified period of time, the Thinker thinks out loud, prompted by the questions of the Questioner. Then, the Reflectors can offer any reflections, ideas, extensions or whatever they may pick up from the interchange. At the least, the Thinker now feels heard. Questioners feel they have had the chance to understand. And the team as a whole may find a particularly productive pathway sooner rather than later.

Creating a shared display. Meeting facilitators have long capitalized on the process gains that come from creating a shared display that focuses everyone's attention on where the discussion has been, and the facilitator at the flip chart is now a common sight in most organizations. Unfortunately, take the facilitator away and typically you take away the only person who sees it as his or her responsibility to be at the flip chart. (Everybody else is there to participate.) In their insightful book How to Make Meetings Work, Michael Doyle and David Straus offer practical suggestions that can be followed by "untrained" group members in helping to construct a "group memory" that indeed constitutes a shared display.

Unfortunately, even with a flip chart, there is a tendency for the group memory to become such a scattered collection of utterances, proposals, action plans - who knows what - that the display's ultimate value is diminished. If the team is working from a spirit of inquiry, the questions that motivated the discussion can help moderate the chaos, i.e., the recorder can organize answers, utterances, proposals, and so on under the questions that generated them.

Shared displays achieve maximum value when the display is more structured than a simple listing of all ideas, and yet flexible enough to permit the nonlinear thinking and talking essential to dealing with wicked problems. The formats of such displays are called "templates" - a term that connotes the presence of an underlying orientation to what is being displayed, but also signifies something vastly more flexible than a "form."

One extremely useful set of linked templates includes domain maps, mind maps, and cause maps. Domain maps are particularly helpful early on in the process of attacking a wicked problem. A box is drawn in the center of a page, a question is posed in the box (e.g., "What are the main features and characteristics of the problem?"), and all potential answers are inscribed above straight lines that emanate from the box.

One key difference between the domain map and a brainstorm list is that, try as we might otherwise, the brainstorm list has a sense of linearity to it - the domain map does not. A second difference is that the arrangement of ideas on a domain map invites a second-phase activity - looking for relationships among the answers. By drawing circles around related answers, linking them up in a contrasting color, team members start to give texture to their understanding of the domain of the problem.

Sometimes a domain map will evolve into second- and third-order domain maps, where team members will create a domain map of one of the answers offered in the first domain map. In other words, if "X" is an answer to the first question, "What are the main features and characteristics of the problem?", then the team can create a second-order domain map by asking, "What are the main features and characteristics of X?"

As the concepts of the domain map are organized, and as the relationships between the concepts are specified and elaborated, the map evolves into what Joyce Wycoff calls a "mind map." A still more sophisticated kind of map is a cause map, which attempts to capture the causal relationships as the team comes to understand them. One advantage of beginning with the free-form template of the domain map is that it often makes it more possible for a team to be sensitive to - and even to anticipate - the causal loops (where A influences B influences C influences A) that are so common to wicked problems.

As a communication tool, the shared display offers several advantages. First, it can be used to quickly catch others up with our thinking - those who perhaps missed an entire meeting, or who just stepped out briefly for a phone call. Everyone can be reasonably sure that the "flavor" of the thinking of the whole team, and not just one person's interpretation of what was important, has been conveyed. Second, shared displays allow us to capture and present the team's thinking "in process," tracing the route that led the team to its conclusion as well as the conclusion itself. Often it is in the route - the assumptions taken, the bits of information used or not used - and not at the conclusion where others can best contribute to the quality of our thought.

One associate at Gore comments on her experiences in working in Japan with Japanese Gore associates, many of whom do not speak English. At a conference table, she would present a question which would need to be translated into Japanese. The Japanese associates would then furiously discuss the question, quite animatedly, for several minutes. Then the associate who served as translator would turn to her and say, very soberly, "The team agrees." Her reaction? "Wait! What was all that discussion about? It sounded like there was some good stuff in there!" Without being able to access the thinking "in process," she realized that she was unable to extract the full value of the discussion.

Managing the surround. Our ingrained beliefs about learning, generating knowledge and ideas, and even communicating them to others tend to be heavily influenced by the educational experiences of our formative years. Perceptive analysts have noted that for most of us, our educational experiences were subtly framed by what they call a "person-solo" model; learning is primarily an individual activity that takes place "in the head," and social aspects of learning and extra-cognitive factors are overlooked or out of awareness. Collaborating on assignments, except in the most authorized of circumstances, is cheating. In a way, so is using a calculator. The idea that we can and do learn with others, or that we can and do learn by "collaborating" with a technology, challenges the "person-solo" model of education to the point of being morally offensive.

Such a model dominates most of education. Perhaps it served us reasonably well when knowledge-based activities were the purview of more or less separated individuals. But as we move to more team-based knowledge activities, whether in the workplace or in school, we need to reframe our model of learning. A "person-plus" model of learning - one that acknowledges the capacity of individuals to learn through resources (both social and technological) outside themselves - is probably both a more accurate and more useful way to think about learning and knowledge work. "Person-plus" simply acknowledges and calls our attention to the fact that learning is context-sensitive.

Learning depends on all kinds of social and extra-cognitive factors - from the language that we use that makes it more or less easy to think certain thoughts, to the presence or absence of others who challenge our assumptions by bringing different perspectives to bear on the issue at hand, to the brute arrangement of the physical spaces in which we work and learn. An example: Psychologists have discovered that where students take an exam directly affects their ability to recall what they have learned. Students who take an exam in the same classroom where lectures have been given remember more than students who take the exam in a different classroom. No one knows precisely why this is so, but probably there are out-of-awareness associations that tie some of what we learn to the physical context of the room - the lectern, the seats, the colors, sounds, and smells of the lecture hall. A "person-solo" model of learning induces us to not even expect the possibility of context-sensitive learning.

A "person-plus" model invites us to proactively arrange our contexts to suit our learning and knowledge work. (Perhaps the apparent productivity of "skunkworks" - or start-up teams who are holed away in some cramped space - is due more to the richness and intensity of their contexts, where the very walls seem to drip with passionate conversations and insights, and not so much to the presumed motivational effect of their hunger for more status-oriented trappings like carpeted offices.)

David Perkins, one of the formulators of the person-plus perspective, offers two principles for understanding learning and knowledge work:

1. The surround - the immediate physical, social, and symbolic resources outside of the person - participates in cognition, not just as a source of input and receiver of output but as a vehicle of thought. The surround in a real sense does part of the thinking [italics added].

2. The residue left by thinking - what is learned - lingers not just in the mind of the learner but in the arrangement of the surround as well, yet it is just as genuinely learning for all that. The surround in a real sense holds part of the learning.

Some of this information on person-plus and surround may seem consonant with what is going on in organizations today. Look at the phenomenal levels of investment in specialized meeting rooms and in computers and communication technology. No doubt these enriched contexts are steps in the right direction. But many report that the investments often seem to provide marginal returns on team productivity.

Several elements contribute to this problem. First is the belief in what Perkins calls the "fingertip effect" - if we just put the technology at people's fingertips, they will use it. Not true. Much of the technology on people's desks today - from phones to computers to palm-sized electronic calendars - is vastly underused. Users often lack an awareness of the technology's capability, as well as training in applications at the time when the application would answer the user's need.

A second problem is our tendency to see the surround as fixed and not subject to our manipulations. Anyone even moderately familiar with a number of different organizations will recognize this scenario: In their training sessions, team members learn that sitting in a circle increases eye contact and thus facilitates effective interaction. The team then proceeds to meet in a room with chairs arranged in rows. The team members fail to manage their surround (i.e., rearrange the chairs) because they perceive some fixedness - even though this fixedness is self-imposed. At the core, regardless of how much intellectual sense person-plus makes to us, we surrender to the grip of the person-solo model.

Making teams aware of person-solo and person-plus through discussion, and then inviting them to consider their capacity - even responsibility - to manage their surrounds, can unleash productive creativity in how teams manage context. One team at Gore, committed to the notion of shared displays, used both flip charts and an electronic whiteboard to record discussions. The whiteboard had a copying arm that generated copies of whatever was written down so that a record of the ideas could be kept. But every time the team moved on, the whiteboard would have to be erased. The result: Whatever was erased lost the team's attention, even though individuals would now have copies of the material. The flip chart sheets, on the other hand, were taped over all available wall space in the meeting room, allowing the team to keep ideas available for attention and modification. But flip charts do not provide individual copies. Someone suggested typing up notes from the flip charts that would then subsequently be sent to team members. After a discussion on managing the surround, however, the team came up with the idea of doing most of its work on flip charts, and then taping the flip chart pages to the whiteboard and copying them. That way, they had both the immediate individual copies and the flip chart sheets that could be referred to for ongoing team attention.

Managing the polarity between teams and individuals. Because of their diversity of perspectives, teams are well-suited for dealing with the complexities of wicked problems. Not all wicked problems are solved efficiently, however, when team members work only as a team. In fact, teams are more efficient when members can work as individuals on different elements of a problem and integrate insights into an overall team-designed solution. At the same time, the overall team "frame" that develops within which individuals do their work must be amenable to modification as individual discoveries and insights necessitate. Teams must set the frames for efficient individual activity, and they must also use individual wisdom to help set effective team frames.

The tension in the interplay between individuals and teams is only one of the countless tensions within organizations. Other well-known tensions include those between centralization and decentralization, technology push and market pull, and short-term and long-term thinking. These tensions have been described, variously, as contradictions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes of organizational life. Barry Johnson, who calls them "polarities," has developed an extensive and insightful model for identifying, understanding, and dealing with them.

The four basic features of Johnson's polarity model are as follows:

1. Both poles of any polarity have upsides and downsides.

2. Crusading impulses cause us to move from the downside of one pole to the upside of the other pole; similarly, there are tradition-bearing impulses that make us stay with the upside of one pole and avoid the downside of the other pole.

3. From the perspective of either impulse, the pluses and minuses of a situation are accurate, but not complete. Organizational conflict results when we try to solve problems instead of managing polarity.

4. By their nature, polarities have a looping dynamic to them. Depending on the power distribution in the organization, and the organization's capacity to handle polarity situations, the organization will experience functional, healthy, and unhealthy polarity loops.

Consider the polarity between individuals and teams. Working through this particular polarity has proved especially useful to Gore groups grappling with wicked problems. Teams are confronted with the question of how "tight" a team is going to be. Teams can be "baseball" teams in which each member plays a position relatively independent of one another. Or they can be "basketball" teams, which makes members much more interdependent. According to Johnson, how team members choose to spend their time (basically alone or basically together) can be thought of as opposite poles of a polarity of differentiation/integration.

Both poles have upsides. Upsides of basically working alone (differentiation) can include clear accountability and the efficiencies of division of labor. Upsides of working together (integration) might be a sense of synergy and having everyone "on the same page."

Similarly, we can identify downsides of each pole. The downsides of working alone might be too much random effort or the inability to build on the work of others. The downsides of working together all of the time can include group think and a limited ability to experiment. Exhibit 1 shows how both upsides and downsides can be mapped.

Teams reacting to this sort of polarity fall into a common scenario. Seeing the downside of the status quo (e.g., too much random effort), some members will mount a crusade for a "solution" - i.e., working together. "Who wouldn't want to trade random effort for more synergy?" Unfortunately, these crusaders will typically run smack into "resistance" from the tradition-bearing impulse. "What! Trade our clear accountability for some kind of groupthink? No way!" The battle lines are drawn.

According to Johnson, neither side sees that both views are accurate, but incomplete. Instead of striving for completeness, they get into a conflict over accuracy. And because both sides are "right" (i.e., accurate), they typically tend to conclude that the other side is misguided, ill-informed, motivated by bad intentions, or any other rationalization that allows a "we're right, they're wrong" conclusion.

Johnson believes that the tensions of polarities with their crusading impulses and tradition-bearing impulses create a predictable dynamic he calls the "polarity loop." Over time, situations will progress from the downsides of the status quo to the upsides of the crusade. But as the team experiences the downsides of the crusade, some members will mount what may be thought of as a "new" crusade, driving the situation back to the upside of what had been the status quo. This is illustrated in Exhibit 2.

That this dynamic maps out as an infinity loop is fine with Johnson. In effect, it describes what in our everyday language we call a "swinging pendulum." What is more important is the additional insight Johnson gives into the dynamics of that swing. The polarity loop mapped in Exhibit 2 might be called functional, because the organization experiencing this dynamic will be experiencing upsides and downsides of both poles. Unfortunately, given the distributions of power that exist in conflict situations, crusades get cut short. Resistance is too strong, and instead of a functional polarity loop, the organization spends more time in the downsides of one or both poles, as shown in Exhibit 3.

To avoid these unhealthy polarity loops, organizational members must resist the temptation to see polarity situations as problems to be solved, and instead understand that crusaders and tradition-bearers have valid points. The question then shifts from "How do we avoid one pole of the polarity?" to "How do we maximize the amount of time we spend in the upsides of both poles?" For organizations that understand polarity management, dealing with polar tensions is transformed from unproductive conflict to collaborative adaptation. At Gore, tradition-bearers come to trust that the crusaders will support a return to the status quo pole when the appropriate time comes. Crusaders, likewise, come to trust that tradition-bearers will accept change when appropriate. Like an accomplished skier, the organization navigates its way swiftly by shifting weight and direction from one pole to the next.

In the team-based approach to wicked problems at Gore, two polarities in particular become important for the team to manage. The first, obviously, is the polarity between individual effort and collective effort. Clearly there are upsides to a focus on the contributions individuals can make as individuals - especially when the problem at hand benefits from specialized knowledge bases and division of labor. Just as clearly, there are upsides to working on the problem collectively as a team - especially from pooling knowledge and diverse perspectives.

Similarly, both poles have downsides. Individual focus can lead to inefficiencies as each person has to discover for him- or herself knowledge that could more easily be learned from others. Working collectively all the time can lead to slow and delayed learning because all discoveries have to take place sequentially.

A second common polarity for teams to manage in working on wicked problems is the polarity of strategizing-analyzing-planning, on the one hand, and trying-experimenting-doing, on the other. Again, both poles have upsides and downsides.

The experience at Gore suggests that when teams map out the polarities they confront, they are much more aware of where they are at any given moment. They are more inclined to perceive (rather than deny) the "pain" of the downside of whichever pole they are in, and they are much more inclined to move rapidly to the opposite pole. Unproductive collective work leads quickly to independent investigation. Unproductive experimenting leads more quickly to analysis and planning.

Reflecting on-line and off-line. A key to both short-term and long-term success of any team-based approach to wicked problem solving is the team's capacity to reflect on its processes, to learn from its reflections, and to change its processes as needed to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Team members must be able to do this in the midst of discussion, as well as when the team has moved into individual modes of working. Only when the team is capable of modifying its own processes is it truly "learning how to learn."

Donald Schon has written thoughtfully on reflective practice as it fits into a variety of settings and occupations. He believes that pedagogy's role is to teach people to solve tame problems (what he calls being "problem solvers"). What is less developed is a way of teaching people to design solutions to wicked problems (what he calls being "problem framers"). His argument is that learning to be a problem framer and solution designer comes from developing a practice of reflection. In this mode, we engage in a conversation with the problem: we try out different kinds of understandings by "telling" the problem about hypothetical actions we might take, and seeing how the problem "answers back." Clearly this is the spirit of inquiry in action. Schon focuses mostly on how master practitioners model this reflective conversation and engage their students in it.

Unfortunately, most people currently in the workplace have probably lost touch with whatever mentors they had who could model reflective practice for them. This does not mean, however, that individuals cannot create reflective conversations for themselves. One highly effective technique is keeping a reflective journal. In such a journal, team members simply orient their papers in landscape format, then keep notes, observations, to-do lists, and so on, on the left-hand side of the page. They revisit their journal periodically and engage in a "conversation" with their own journal on the right-hand side of the page. They ask themselves questions, argue with their own conclusions, and build models based on linkages between entries from one part of the journal to those elsewhere. The reflective journal is an extremely powerful tool for doing off-line reflection on the processes of team work.

A second form of reflection - on-line reflection - is also extremely useful because it helps teams call attention to their processes, particularly ineffective ones, in the ongoing flow of team work. Two related techniques have been developed to help teams raise process issues: Roger von Oech's Creative Whack Pack, and the practice of having teams custom-tailor icons for their own use.

Von Oech's Creative Whack Pack is a deck of 64 cards, each of which begins with a process admonition or suggestion (along with a clever graphic and some elaboration on the admonition) and ends with a question. For example, one card proclaims, "Get out of the Dogma House" and shows a man on all fours under a doghouse roof. "Nothing clouds your decision-making abilities like dogma," begins the discussion on the card, and it ends with the question, "What dogma is clouding your thinking?" Von Oech has provided a number of suggestions on how to use the cards. At Gore, the cards are dealt out, eight to twelve cards per team member. Each person selects three cards that represent orientations to group processes he or she might not ordinarily consider. Members return the other cards but keep their chosen cards in front of them during meetings. They can use the cards at appropriate times during the meeting by signaling that they want to "whack." By reading their cards to the team, they call attention to process issues that warrant reflection. The Creative Whack Pack not only encourages team members to reflect on and be responsible for process, but also gives them a tool to help them do what they ordinarily are not likely to do. Moreover, the questions on each card help maintain a spirit of inquiry.

Unlike the Creative Whack Pack (which is oriented to individual use and encourages reflection on aspects of process frequently overlooked), icon-making is a team-oriented technique for reflecting on-line on team processes. Borrowing from the ubiquitous computer icons that display various tools available to a user, process icons are pictures designed by team members to represent process tools or problems that require the team's attention. As icons, they are drawn simply - no great effort here. They are taped on the wall above the whiteboard or flip chart, where they will easily catch the attention of team members. When a team member starts to feel uneasy about a process, he or she can scan the list of icons and call for the tool that seems most appropriate at the time.

A fairly typical icon in Gore teams has been the polarity icon, and team members often call on it to signal their sense that it is time to switch from individual mode to team mode (or vice versa). Domain map icons are also common. Sometimes a team makes icons to represent particularly recalcitrant process problems. One team, for example, knew that some members tended to pursue a line of discussion that would get increasingly detailed and consequently lose the attention of other members. The discussions would reach a point of what the team called "marginal utility." To solve the problem, the team created an icon of a graph, with a curve beginning high, dropping off, and then asymptotically approaching zero. Members would point to it whenever someone in the team noticed the discussion was becoming only marginally productive.

One advantage of icons is that they help teams make the transition from something members have learned (typically in some sort of communication training program) to something members do. Ultimately, icons allow teams to monitor their own processes without having to rely on a facilitator.

Team Tools for Wicked Problems In Action: One Example

One Gore team, responsible for a major market segment in its business area, identified a particular problem that had eluded resolution for about a year and a half. The team had tried to address the issue any number of times, but had been unable to achieve any lasting consensus.

After a training session on wicked problems, the team decided to apply new tools to its specific problem. One of the leaders of the team announced that he had drawn a domain map of the problem, displaying identifiable characteristics and features of the problem. Doing this had given him an increased appreciation for the complexity of the issue at hand. Before he revealed his domain map to the team, everyone else on the team individually constructed domain maps. Team members then pooled their maps, and the complexity of the leader's domain map was multiplied eight-fold. "No wonder we've never gotten any resolution to this problem," the leader said.

With the collective domain map in front of them, the team members then created a polarity map to display the upside and downside features of "status quo" and "change." Most of the members identified themselves as going into the downside of status quo, although a few felt they were already moving toward the upside of change. But the polarity exercise helped solidify a common appreciation for the experience of the problem.

The team then spent time individually brainstorming "color" question, each team member trying to generate relevant "what if...?," "what is...?", and "what should...?" questions. In a short period of time, hundreds of questions were generated and displayed on flip charts. A limited number of questions were then identified as most important to answer at this stage of the process, and individual team members committed themselves to getting answers to those questions before a subsequent meeting set for one month later.

In the interim, team members used various tools to try to get at the presumed relevant information - reflection, additional domain maps, more questions. At the follow-up meeting, team members presented the results of their investigations and continued to use tools as appropriate - particularly icons that could be invoked to guide the group's process. Much to the surprise of the team members, they reached consensus on a solution they were willing to implement - one that each member believed in and was willing to defend to others throughout the organization. (Perhaps even more of a surprise, the meeting ended 20 minutes early.)

As one team member noted, "Understanding the difference between tame problems and wicked problems really made a difference. We've been coming at all problems as though they were tame problems. No wonder we've been so frustrated." Another pointed out that the tools made it possible to listen to other points of view, but "took the negative emotionality out of the decision making." The team now meets every month or so for a somewhat extended period of time to use the tools to attack some of the many wicked problems their business faces.


The attempt here has been to lay out the outlines of an approach to making teams more effective and more efficient in their capacity to leverage information and knowledge in designing high value solutions to the wicked problems they face. Because wicked problems are nonlinear, any approach to tackle them must be every bit as nonlinear. Although the components of team tools have been described here in list form, at Gore they have been displayed iconically as a star model.


The model helps do two things: it keeps team members' minds on the dual goals of efficient and effective designs of value, and it calls attention to the interrelationships - and therefore the possibilities - among the team tools. So, for example, shared displays are ways of managing the surround, and polarity maps are ways of reflecting on process. The Creative Whack Pack ties spirit of inquiry to reflection, as does using the "color" questions in the reflective journal. The icon of the polarity map noted above represents combining polarity tools, shared display tools, and reflection tools. Similarly, making icons of templates and templates of icons helps to manage the polarity between individually focused work and team-focused work. The star model itself can be used as a "master icon" to help the team find the enriching links among components and tools.

Margaret Wheatley argues that the new physics provokes a new organizational conception that requires new models of managing and leading. The Newtonian world of tame problems is being supplanted by what appears to be chaos. But as Wheatley points out, there is an order - if not necessarily a predictability - to the chaos; we just have to develop the multi-dimensionality to perceive it. Team tools for wicked problems can help create a practical model for teams to access that multi-dimensionality.


Peter Drucker's Management: Tasks and Responsibilities (Harper & Row, 1974) provides an early consideration of knowledge work. Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990) and James Brian Quinn's Intelligent Enterprise (Free Press, 1992) give conceptual and empirical excursions into learning organizations. The "Special Issue on Learning Organizations," from Organizational Dynamics (Autumn 1993) also addresses learning organizations, and the articles by William Isaacs and Edgar Schein on dialogue usefully elaborate the need and some ways for promoting a spirit of inquiry in organizations. Fifth Generation Management (Bard Productions, 1990) by Charles Savage considers organizational learning in the context of teams. Real Time Strategy: Improvising Team-Based Planning for a Fast Changing World (John Wiley & Sons, 1993) by Lee Tom Perry, Randall G. Stott, and W. Norman Smallwood provides fascinating insights into the consequences of team orientations for strategy and planning. Margaret Wheatley offers a view of management in a world of chaos and uncertainty in her Leadership and the New Sciences (Berret-Koehler, 1992).

The classic definition of wicked problems and tame problems comes from Horst Rittel and Webber in "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences, 1973. Others certainly have sliced the world in a somewhat similar fashion.

For those interested in W. L. Gore & Associates, I have written an article "Communication in the Empowering Organization," Communication Yearbook 11 (Sage, 1989). A highly interesting article about Gore is "The Ameba Concept: Organizing Around Opportunity at Gore," by Heinrich Flick (a Gore associate), written in 1990 and available from the author.

The ideas developed into the star model of team tools for wicked problems are drawn from various writers in management, education, and psychology. The section on the spirit of inquiry is heavily influenced by Chris Argyris, particularly Reasoning, Action, and Learning (Jossey-Bass, 1982) and Strategy, Change, and Defensive Routines (Pitman, 1985). Two books by Jerry Rhodes are also useful: The Colours of Your Mind (William Collins, 1988) and Conceptual Toolmaking (Basil Blackwell, 1991). The section on shared display is influenced by Michael Doyle and David Straus' How to Make Meetings Work (Wyden, 1976). Mindmapping techniques are described by Joyce Wycoff in Mindmapping (Berkley, 1991). Additional mapping techniques are described by Colin Eden, Sue Jones, and David Sims in Messing About in Problems (Pergamon Press, 1983). The section on managing the surround is drawn from Smart Schools (Free Press, 1992) by David Perkins. The discussion on polarity management comes from Barry Johnson's Polarity Management (HRD Press, 1992). The discussion on reflection is drawn from Donald Schon's The Reflective Practitioner (Basic Books, 1983).

Michael Pacanowsky is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A number of his articles on the relationship of communication to organizational culture have been published in Communication Monographs, Quarterly Journal of Speech, and The Journal of Applied Communication Research. He is the co-editor of a book on the alternative approaches to the study of communication in organizations entitled Communication and Organizations: An Interpretive Approach (Sage, 1983). Dr. Pacanowsky, who received his Ph.D. from Stanford, has had an extensive ten-year research and consulting relationship with W.L. Gore & Associates, which has exposed him to the kinds of problems faced by leadership and business teams in a team-based innovation-oriented organization. His current research endeavors to expand the toolset of team tools and to extend their application to other organizational sites.
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Author:Pacanowsky, Michael
Publication:Organizational Dynamics
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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