A Wish List for Wicked Projects

In April, my friend Peter Macleod inspired me with his MASSLBP Wish List, which he sent out in a newsletter to MASSLBP’s network. Peter was in turn inspired by a Christmas card message: “work for what you wish for”. Expressing the intention, out loud, for all to see, of the kind of work that you want made a lot of sense to me.

Fired up by the success of our recent collaboration at the Collingwood Conference, my frequent collaborator Daniel Rose started a conversation about our dream projects. These are projects that can take full advantage of our capabilities and that also really push us in our practice while making a big difference in the world. We referred to this cheekily as “Project Mongoose”, but really what we’re talking about are Wicked Projects.

Addressing Wicked Problems

What is a wicked project? A wicked project first of all aims to address a wicked problem.  Wicked problems are all around us: climate change, economic transformation, poverty, healthcare, urban transportation and human migration to name just a few. Solving wicked problems is meaningful, purposeful work. They’re complex, intertwined, ambiguous, messy and frustrating. Wicked problems fight back as you try to solve them.

The projects that would make our wish list would be centered on one of these problems. Our role is not to be the content expert in the chosen field. Our role is to bring both proven and novel processes and tools to these projects while working with and learning from some of the smartest people we can find.

A Wicked Project would have the following characteristics:

  • There is a Wicked Problem at the centre
  • The organizations launching the project would be a multi-stakeholder partnership, network or alliance
  • Members would include private, public and non-profit organizations driven by passionate individuals
  • Members have realized that conventional approaches have not been working, that deeper insight, greater engagement, more collaborative action and more iterative processes are required
  • There is consensus in the network that the time is right for new, reinvigorated action – but exactly what action is hotly debated
  • Stakeholder engagement is seen as central to success, not an afterthought, required to gather data, develop insights and create strategies for action
  • Acting requires engaged commitment from a large number of actors, most of whom the project sponsors have no direct control over
  • The project operates simultaneously at a number of scales: national, regional and local
  • Project participants have a genuine willingness to learn and adopt new tools, methods and practices
  • Strategy is seen as a verb, not a noun: a creative, iterative and ongoing process, informed by new evidence sensed at the edges of the system

If you read the above and said to yourself “that’s us!”, then we should talk. Dan and I are looking to speak to as many prospective Wicked Project proponents that we can to explore the methods, processes and practices to tap the collective intelligence of these networks to create profound, meaningful change.

A 52 Week Blogging Project

With this post, I am also launching a 52 week blogging project on the methods, processes and practices being developed around the world to address wicked problems. It’s a way for me to give focus to my own research and learning program, bring new life to what has been of late a pretty dormant blog space here at Remarkk.com and as a way to learn from and share with the many social innovation, human process and systems thinking gurus that have inspired me. Next week, I will focus more on the definition of a wicked problem and its characteristics.

Who should be on my reading list for Wicked Projects? Who are the gurus who inspire you? What are the key processes, methods and tools to tackling wicked problems?

4 thoughts on “A Wish List for Wicked Projects”

  1. A thought would be to start by looking at the debate about social networking and activism sparked by Malcolm Galdwell and the reaction to it, including this post: http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=19008. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in all this about what solving big problems means today, “slacktivism”, etc.I also thought it would be interesting to look at systems theory and other things we’ve learned from IT, like the methods of business analysis and user experience. I think there’s this undefined co-opetition of UX approaches to “the community” and vice-versa, but I find myself wondering if — in the same way that bigger software projects require business and strategic context for UX — community projects, especially bigger, complex, “wicked” ones, wouldn’t also benefit from a more organized approach that captures and tracks “business objectives”, “success criteria” etc. Less ideology, more process might be a help, not a hinderance. Similarly, I wonder what “project management” as a discipline could bring to solving larger social problems. I’ve often observed that we get a lot of highly trained, specialist folks coming to community events or workshops, but then we ask them to act as renaissance people/polymaths instead of actually leveraging what they’re trained to do, in the process making use of their skills and training sub-optimally.

  2. Thanks for the comments Carsten! I think that system dynamics, analysis and design are really key, worthy of several posts among the 52 I am envisioning. Systems thinking and large group dialogue processes seem to be very powerful when put together.

    I am reluctant to lean heavily on current business practice for models. Too often I think our public and social sectors places false confidence in modeling themselves on corporate practices that are in dire need of transformation themselves.
    That being said, I am definitely interested in things like Agile Project Management practice that seem well-suited to creative work in a context of complexity. http://www.openagile.com/ is a project I’d like to learn more about.

    You are right to highlight how our “open creative community” events are great displays of possibility, but fail to tap that creative potential in ways that give those talents an effective outlet. They are high on skill potential, low on commitment. In other gatherings, the opposite is true. How can we connect this potential to solve hard problems? “Social Innovation Camp”:http://www.sicamp.org/ is an attempt to build things with impact by creating project teams with a variety of skills around an idea. It results in a weekend of work, but it takes months in preparation and socialization of the participants.

    While I disagree with much of Gladwell’s hypothesis, the one point he rightly makes is that some types of change require high levels of commitment from a small group of people with strong ties. What I think we need to figure out is how to reconfigure our hierarchies in a way that helps small groups with high commitment leverage the sense-making and collective action power of weak tie networks enabled by social technologies.

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