Wicked Problems

Today's business problems can be impossible to define, let alone solve. A look at the abilities and approaches that can help us navigate the hazy territory of today's marketplace.

Everywhere you turn there is talk of innovation: books, conferences, websites, seminars. But too much of this chatter makes innovation out to be the end rather than the means. Innovation is a way of approaching business, whether you are looking to evolve your offerings incrementally, expand into new markets and fields of competition, or envision your business in a fundamentally new way. But simply throwing innovation at these issues is not enough. Such challenges are themselves symptoms of deeper underlying problems: "wicked problems." These require a new approach.

To illustrate these challenges, let's draw a sports analogy.

In his day, Babe Ruth was an outstanding player, clearly head and shoulders above the rest. His natural abilities propelled him to mythic levels of accomplishment and skill. But if he were playing baseball today, chances are he'd be a mid–pack player. Why? Because the game has moved on. Raw talent alone just isn't enough on today's ball–field.

Late evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould was also a baseball nut, and applied his evolutionary thinking to the game. He posited that as a sport emerges, the average level of skill is low. This allows players with high degrees of natural talent to easily distinguish themselves from the rest, rising to almost god–like status in the eyes of their fans. But as the sport matures, skills are learned and passed along, training and fitness improve, and the average level of play increases. Players with natural talent still have an advantage, but it's greatly diminished. The "tricks of the trade" can now be learned, rather than intuited.

The same is true for business. Within a given product category, whether it's cars, wireless service, healthcare, or airlines, the "natural talent" for innovation offers a huge initial advantage. But gradually this degree of innovation is learned, propagated, and routinized, and the standard level of competition within the category rises. The advantage of the naturally talented companies is diminished.

Today, innovation is broadly understood and practiced across businesses of all stripes – not universally, to be sure, but vastly more than even a decade ago. It might not be going too far to say that we are, in fact, in a state of innovation surplus. Companies either generate a large number of ideas internally or outsource their thinking to external channels – consultancies, inventors, think tanks, and acquisitions. Innovation itself is no longer a competitive advantage – it is the standard. What matters now is being a good judge of an idea's efficacy.