Making the Impossible Possible: (2) Solving the Wicked Problem

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager, Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Dagmar Cole

In Part 1, the Business Analyst (BA) learned how to nudge a negative team to a mental state where they are ready to tackle the impossible. Now that the team is in a positive, creative, and collaborative mood, how does the BA solve the impossible?

In the town of Gordium, there was an ox-cart with many ropes and complex knots considered to be impossible to untangle, which became known as the "Gordian Knot," referring to anything impossible. Legend was that the individual who untangled the Gordian Knot would become ruler of Asia. Many tried to untie the Gordian knot — all failed. Alexander the Great wanted to be the ruler of Asia and decided it did not make a difference how the knot was untied; with a single stroke of his sword, he sliced the knot in half. Problem solved!

The critical point in this story is that not all problems can be approached the same way. There is a hierarchy of problem types: 'critical', 'tame', and 'wicked'. Critical problems are a crisis that must be dealt with immediately; tame problems have a right or wrong answer. Both can be solved using past experience. However, like the Gordian knot, the wicked problem is complex, with intertwining issues that have not been previously encountered — no right or wrong, no true or false; it's the impossible problem.

How is a BA to solve an impossible problem? The BA needs to mimic Alexander the Great and cut through the tangle of conflicting business rules to move forward. Design thinking is the optimal method for identifying a resolution for a wicked problem. Design thinking uses five principles:

  1. Empathy
  2. Definition
  3. Ideation
  4. Prototyping
  5. Testing

Develop an empathetic understanding of the wicked problem by removing all your assumptions. Place yourself in the user's position and document the issues from their perspective. Once the different views and issues are identified, then develop a human-centric problem statement by using the Point of View template:

Move into ideation by asking the team, "How would we…?" Discuss the options from each stakeholder's perspective; this involves a tremendous number of Post-it notes and at least three walls. Select the top three options and develop basic prototypes. New rules will be identified; other rules will be eliminated or modified. Design thinking is non-linear and iterative Agile Scrum methodology is ideal; be prepared for many iterations until an option is selected.

Remember, with a wicked problem there is no solution, just an agreed-upon, temporary resolution.

In the words of Nelson Mandela:

"It always seems impossible until it is done."

In the next installment, learn how to document the analysis and alternative selected.

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Standard citation for this article:

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Dagmar Cole, "Making the Impossible Possible: (2) Solving the Wicked Problem" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 20, No. 6, (Jun. 2019)

About our Contributor:

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager,

Dagmar Cole has over twenty years of experience working in all facets of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Her interest in applying quantitative management techniques to software began at George Mason University. While majoring in Decision Science, she published a paper on Software Quality Assurance. Later, she published her master's thesis in strategic information systems planning at Marymount University.

As a business analyst and project manager, Dagmar continues her quest to apply quantitative techniques to the SDLC. She is an active member of the Fort Worth Chapter of IIBA and was a speaker at the IIBA BBC 2015 conference. She also has extensive training in conflict resolution and is returning to the IIBA BBC conference in 2016 to discuss conflict resolution.

Read All Articles by Dagmar Cole

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