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Calm teams cope with wicked problems. There’s some evidence for this below but the real question is how. Calm teams seem to adapt to unstable goals, innovate around inadequate solutions, and be mindful of surprising results. These are general signs of team effectiveness, however. Behind them lies a radical view of what we learn from experiments.

Even though they defy classic problem-solving definitions, wicked problems arise naturally when complexity increases. In fact, complexity is at the root of what makes a problem wicked.

Unstable goals characterize wicked problems – as opposed to the fixed objectives of classic problem-solving approaches like Edwards Deming’s plan-do-check-act learning loops. And the solutions available to wicked problems are characteristically inadequate – instead of the usual alternative tradeoffs suiting differing priorities they offer bleaker sets of tradeoffs suiting no one. Volatile and unpredictable results are a third characteristic – the typical outcome in a wicked problem is surprising.[i]

And yet wicked problems arise naturally when an organization tries to up its game and seek new levels or kinds of results. A simple tool I call the complexity curve shows why. If a business wants to raise sales from a steady stream of $10,000 to $20,000 per week, for example, it’s likely to undergo a transition where weekly sales vary widely between $10,000 and $20,000. As those results become unpredictable, old operating solutions stop working. And as operations shift, fundamental goals may, too.

Complexity rises toward the bend in the curve where results – in this case sales – become more volatile, less predictable, and more consistently surprising. In fact, a good way to define a problem’s complexity is to gauge how surprising are its typical results.[ii] Complexity curves have a wicked bend in the middle.

Wicked problems’ complexity makes calm responses to uncertain goals, solutions, and results more effective than traditional problem solving. This is partly because it limits the effectiveness of the goal clarification, solution definition, and forecasting common to standard problem-solving approaches.

Complexity limits goal clarification because goals become unstable as operations shift in the pursuit of novel results like a big increase in weekly sales. It limits solution definition because existing solutions can’t simplify results. And it limits forecasting capacity as those results become unpredictable.

By the way, there’s a deep reason why existing solutions or operations can’t simplify results as an organization swings into higher gear. It’s because the only way to generate complex or volatile results is from a few equally complex or volatile root causes.[iii] Organizations accustomed to steady results will not have had to learn about the more complex forces that drive chaotic results in a transition.

Why do calm teams cope better with the wicked bend in the complexity curve? Superficially, they seem to adapt to changing goals as if their real mission were always to be as fit as possible to meet the needs around them.[iv] And they show strategic creativity in evolving new-to-world solutions as complex as the results they confront. A lot of experimentation goes into those solutions and they characteristically keep their experiments as lean as possible – something design thinking does not always recommend.[v]

Finally, calm teams are open to surprises, whether those surprises are unexpected results, shifts in organizational objectives, new assumptions about what counts as a good solution, or even unanticipated changes in how team members feel about their work. In short, they are mindful of the problem-solving environment in all its emerging complexity. The loud drone of assumptions about goals, tactics, and results never drowns out the soft whispers of change around them.

This mindfulness is the key to what calm teams do. It runs deeper than mere attentiveness. It involves a radical way of understanding what we learn from experience, be it a conversation with a colleague or trial and error in approaching a wicked problem. It’s not that we add new data to our understanding, like marbles to a marvelous and ever-growing collection. We learn the world is different from the way we were unconsciously putting it together.[vi] In short, we learn we were putting it together.

CALM teams have the advantage of an easy mnemonic. Creativity in devising solutions. Adaptiveness to changes in how we define the goals of the moment. Lean experiments to test the latest solutions. Mindfulness about surprises of all kinds. The Complexity Curve gives a way of remembering where the four practices recur in every cycle. Be mindful it’s the M that matters most.

[i] Camillus, J. “Strategy as a wicked problem” (Harvard Business Review, May 2008).

[ii] “Shannon entropy: a matter of surprise: (Cosmo’s blog, 26 July 2017).

[iii] “The false promise of big data” (GoalScreen blog, 20 Sept 2013).

[iv] “What is search inside yourself?” (SIY Leadership Institute blog, 8 Oct 2018).

[v] Vinsel, L. “The design thinking movement is absurd” (Medium, 26 Nov 2018).

[vi] Ackerman, C. “How to be mindful of our assumptions” (Elephant Journal, 28 Apr 2015).

David Apgar
Founder - Goalscreen

About David Apgar

David has helped entrepreneurs around the world achieve their goals by identifying powerful new drivers of organizational growth. He has advised businesses on best practices at McKinsey and CEB, managed small-business and microfinance funds, and taught at Johns Hopkins and Wharton.

David has a BA from Harvard, an MA from Oxford, and a PhD from Rand's Graduate School. The GoalScreen coaching program and software platform have evolved out of his desire to make it simpler and easier for small businesses and social enterprises to take advantage of the power of assumption testing and impact scoring.

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