Making Progress on Wicked Problems

This week, we’re revisiting Naomi, a public sector leader facing a truly wicked problem. 

She’s just lost half her team as the result of a big reduction in force in her agency.  She’s working long hours, as are the remaining members of her team. She knows none of them can continue this pace but she hasn’t figured out a way forward. She’s afraid her standards of quality and timeliness are going to slip.

The piece ends as she’s starting a staff meeting with half the conference table empty, a reminder of the team member who are gone. Her purpose is to get input on redesigning the organization to cope with all the changes and to improve the quality of services as well.

“Okay, guys, we’ve got to do some really out of the box thinking here,” she said enthusiastically.

Her team stared at her blankly.

“You know, we really need to think creatively and innovatively about this problem,” she restated.

“I’m sure you all know that out of the box thinking means thinking differently, or from a new perspective. What I didn’t know is that the phrase is thought to come from the ‘Nine Dots’ Puzzle. In order to solve it, people had to do some creative thinking.  That’s what we need to do here.”

Everyone still looked blank; now they were starting to look pained.

Don said, “I’m not a creative person. I don’t know about this out of the box thinking. Why can’t we just keep doing what we’re doing now until our bosses figure out how to get us out of this mess? There must be other departments in this agency that are struggling the way we are!”

Melissa said, “Look, I’ve been trying to figure this out so hard I have a headache. I have no idea how to think about this thing.”

Naomi signed, “Maybe we could brainstorm solutions? You know, throw out as many ideas as we can without judging?”

Still no enthusiasm. She realized there needed to be a step before brainstorming.

“Okay, let’s see if we can figure out what our assumptions are. Maybe the box is our assumptions. If we can make our assumptions explicit we might be able to identify some possibilities to explore further.

For example, Don, the idea that someone in charge is responsible to figure out what to do is one assumption. Maybe we need to question that. What are some of our other assumptions?”


People sometimes refer to innovativeness as “out of the box thinking.”

But how are we supposed to do that? It all sounds so woo woo.

One starting point for “thinking outside the box” is to question assumptions. As Naomi realized, maybe “the box” is our assumptions.

When we become conscious of the assumptions we’re making, it paves the way for innovative thinking.

Here are some examples of assumptions to get you started:

  • There’s nothing I can do.
  •  It’s not my problem.
  • I have to solve this myself.
  • There is a right answer.
  • Everyone sees the situation the way I do.
  • My standards are set in stone.
  • Existing roles and relationships must stay the same.

What assumptions do you hold about your wicked problem? And how do they limit the possibilities for a truly innovative response?