Presented by PMI
As the world becomes increasingly digital and more chaotic, many business problems are becoming more complex, fluid and charged — making them harder to solve. They’re what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined as “wicked problems” — the challenges that are impossible to solve with simple frameworks, because the challenges are evolving dilemmas.
They require creative and robust strategies that extend beyond typical brainstorm sessions, says Tom Wujec, executive facilitator, author, technologist and TED speaker.
Leveraging the PMI Wicked Problem Solving playbook
To help businesses and individuals better solve any problems — from simple to complex to truly “wicked” — Project Management Institute (PMI) partnered with Wujec to develop an online, self-paced course and downloadable toolkit called PMI Wicked Problem Solving®. The course and toolkit provide professionals with a simple, yet extendable operating system for identifying and overcoming problems, allowing them not just to solve complex problems, but to lead teams more effectively and innovate more consistently and creatively.
“PMI Wicked Problem Solving was developed to help professionals, consultants and leaders sharpen their creative problem-solving and collaboration skills, and bring design thinking principles to everyday work,” Wujec says. “It helps teams illuminate the gaps between current and desired states, between problems and solutions, and between issues and next steps, and guiding teams to effectively bridge those gaps.”
The course offers a comprehensive series of video lessons that illustrate how to solve a vast range of problems by selecting and running “plays.” Plays form the fundamental building block of the problem-solving and collaboration program. Professionals learn how to construct plays, how to select the best ones to address specific problems, and how to run them solo or with teams to work through problems. Essentially, this helps people pick the optimal thinking frameworks to address the problems at hand.
The course includes a visually rich workbook and a fast-access practical playbook featuring dozens of plays and playsets. It also includes decks of cards used to configure plays, which use three key principles: leading with questions, making ideas visible and engaging with forward steps.
“Virtually any challenge, from implementing emerging technology to improving agility, can be clarified by selecting and running plays,” Wujec says. “The visual frameworks are a forcing function to help teams get engaged and aligned. They get on the same page, which can fit on a white board or fill a 50-foot board room wall.”
Here’s a look at three plays from PMI Wicked Problem Solving that any project manager can immediately use to break through creative clutter.
Finding a solution in three steps
There’s a broad array of plays to mix and match, ranging from simple ones that can be applied to just about any situation, to sophisticated plays designed to address more complex problems. “A fantastically powerful playset is the Question Blitz, Make a Map and Leap Play,” Wujec says They are simple, effective, and when run well, can be really fun to use.
1. The Question Blitz play
Unlike brainstorming, which collects assertions, questions create invitations to explore.
“The difference in energy between a question blitz and a brainstorm is pretty dramatic,” Wujec says. “Questions generate curiosity and inspire us to wonder. Wonder, driven by practical experience as well as intuition, ignites elevated thinking.”
The Question Blitz is simple: Team members post five to seven questions on a shared visual workspace, either digitally or with sticky notes. The result is a pool of questions — a marketplace of ideas — that expose different perspectives. Sort them into categories to generate a 360-degree view of the problem.
For example, if you’re kicking off a product refresh, the questions might surface engineering issues, market issues, communication issues, backend issues, the “why are we doing this?” issue, the “can we do this more quickly?” issue, and so on. From there, sort the issues into a meaningful order. The impact is profound: participants feel their points of view are seen, heard and acted upon.
2. The Make a Map play
The Make a Map play helps teams see processes and structures. Virtually any process or structure can be arranged in a map using territories, nodes and links. Territories represent parts of the system — for example, customers’ needs, a product offering, an organizational vision. Nodes are data objects placed into the territories, and links show the logical connections between the nodes and territories.
“This play creates a window to the key aspects of the project or the issue,” Wujec says. “Depending on what the question blitz reveals, project managers can choose the right maps to resolve problems, clear up practical issues like schedule clashes and produce better outcomes.”
There are maps for almost every kind of business function: mission, vision, strategy, design, innovation, marketing, brand, sales and so on. Once the map is chosen, populate it to create an accurate snapshot of the problem, explore and chart the flows between territories, find blocks and eliminate them.
3. The Leap play
The Leap play succinctly illustrates the big picture. Here the team asks the key question,
“What is the shift that the team wants to create?” Or in other words, where are we now, and where do we need to be?
“This helps a team to get a much more cohesive view of the challenges and how to move forward,” Wujec says. “It’s a simple play that can actually be used in a huge range of contexts. We’ve used it to help leadership sessions implement product strategy, new naming systems and more.”
There are four steps: First is identifying the current state. That means illustrating the external state of the issue by identifying key data points and the internal state by determining how the team is feeling about it. Next is envisioning the future state — both the external metrics of success and the psychological state of success, or how everyone will feel when the goal is achieved. The third step is key: identifying the challenges or obstacles that are preventing the future state from occurring, or how they could become a problem.
“In designing change and how to bridge the gap, it’s often very critical to figure out what the deeper blocks are — not just the everyday structural obstacles but the human-centered blocks,” he adds.
The last step is envisioning the leap: looking at the problem and barriers laid out and imagining what needs to happen to move from the current state to the desired state.
“This play gives you a clear view into both sides of the equation, to identify the gaps and clearly articulate the underlying issues,” Wujec says. “It’s how you design truly effective forward steps, and it gives you the opportunity to look back and reflect on the process.”
By putting a series of plays like this into action, professionals and their teams can visualize their problems and ideas — either physically or virtually — which can provide a clearer path toward a solution.
Dig deeper: For more information about PMI Wicked Problem Solving, visit www.wickedproblemsolver.com.
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