The Nature of Wicked Problems

07 Sep 2010|Darrel Rhea

Roseanne Haggerty has been one of the most successful people in the world in addressing homelessness. Haggerty founded Common Ground, which has changed the lives of many thousands of people. While she will be the first to point out how they are only beginning to scratch the surface of the problem Common Ground addresses, her accomplishments are spreading across the US and the world.

What accounts for such positive outcomes? Her realization that while homelessness is a serious problem, it is really a symptom of other vexing problems such as the lack of healthcare, poverty, unemployment, mental health, addiction, and crime.

Homelessness is typical of other wicked problems in that it has fuzzy overlapping boundaries. To solve homelessness, you have to attack the underlying issues in a number of ways at the same time. Common Ground’s housing programs offer up a wide range of support by creating a coalition of dozens of agencies that give the homeless what they need to turn around their lives. They involve the community directly in ways that transform the volunteers as much as the homeless they serve. This community-building creates empathy and a personal connection with change. It is as practical, cost-efficient and as effective as it is heart warming and moving.

Wicked problems have multiple and complex roots. The way to solve a wicked problem is not to seek to simplify the issue – it is to embrace the complexity. Roseanne saw that it wasn’t just a housing or real estate problem, and she had the courage to draw together government social services, non-profits, businesses and the whole community to create a more holistic solution. Last night at dinner she demonstrated she was continuing to think even more broadly as she explained her plans for innovating a new approach and reaching for even more impact. Her fearless willingness to cross boundaries and enroll others in a solution is inspiring.

Wicked problems exist in most organizations. What’s yours?

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