Use Action Learning to solve wicked problems

Action Learning is well suited to solving Wicked Problems.

What are wicked problems? Do they have a bad character? Are they up to no good? Are they steeped in sin?

Alas! None of these.

If it is a problem because no solution is self-evident, then it is only half wicked.

Should someone require a cardiac bypass, the surgeon knows what procedure to follow. So complicated as it may be to perform, it is still a problem where the solution is self evident. I.e. How to perform the bypass is well known to trained surgeons. This problem therefore, is not even half wicked.

On the other hand if it requires a fair amount of figuring out on what needs to be done, before it can actually be done, then the problem qualifies as half wicked. A patient with undiagnosed chest pain, has a half wicked problem on hand.

Let us now focus on the half wicked problems again. The ones where the solution is not self evident.

If no one one person knows entirely what the problem fully is, then it makes it fully wicked. What if, it requires several doctors from different specialities, to put their expertise together, to diagnose the chest pain? Then it is a wicked problem!

Remember the story of 7 blind men of Hindustan, who encountered an elephant for the first time. Though trivial, it is a wicked problem, because none of them by themselves could figure out fully, what an elephant was!

In organisational reality also, often times, we are like the blind men, who are able to sense only a part of the problem, based on what we particularly encounter. The complete perspective emerges only when a group of different people work together.

Action Learning is well suited to solving such problems.

Here are some examples of wicked problems at work


  • They say, never miss a good crisis. Almost always, a crisis carries hidden opportunities.
  • How to recognise and chase an opportunity, without a crisis. Unlike a crisis, an opportunity, by itself, is seldom well defined and the urgency is always missing. More so, different people see it differently.
  • How to solve Heuristic Problems. We call it a heuristic, because the way to solve it depends on circumstances. Many problems in business come up again and and again, but the particular solution depends on the circumstances. How to apportion the budget funds or how to structure a business proposal - are both examples of heuristic situations. Further more, the solution, almost always, is cross-functional. Almost always, it can be solved in multiple different ways.
  • What skills to build for a role that changes dynamically and is non-routine. Whether one is a program manager, a solution architect or a general manager. The only certainty is that there is uncertainty. There is no way, one can be prepared for everything, in advance. The question is, how does one build skills for such roles? How do you give a jumpstart, when the person is just starting out or is new to the organisation’s way of doing things?

Action Learning is well suited to addressing these. The Wicked Problems!

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