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Are Customer Experience and Brand Research Problems Wicked?

Published November 17, 2009

For anyone who’s involved in customer experience management, brand research and consulting projects and/or other complex, cross silo and segment business issues, the concept of the “Wicked Problem” is a fascinating one.

Wicked_MCXCoined by Horst Rittel, a Wicked Problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. In brief, Wicked Problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the definition of the problem continues to evolve as new hypothesis are developed and put forth.

As stated by famed educator and Dr. Laurence J. Peter (who also formulated the Peter Principle) “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

Because the understanding of the Wicked Problem evolves the longer you work to solve it, finding an acceptable solution requires powerful processes for getting everyone on the same page. According to Rittel, Wicked Problems always occur in a social context – the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem. For instance, in our experience, the more complicated the brand, the greater the diversity and the higher the stakes for each individual involved in the process.

Some specific aspects of “problem wickedness” include:

  1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of “The Problem.” The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Since there is no definitive “The Problem,” there is also no definitive “The Solution.”
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, simply “better,” “worse,” “good enough,” or “not good enough.”
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel. There are so many factors and conditions that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation,” and every attempt has consequences. You can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions.
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions. Therefore, it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgment to determine which are valid, and which should be pursued and implemented.

Indeed, it sounds like virtually all brand research, marketing and customer experience related projects for complex organizations are about solving what are inherently wicked problems. And this, of course, is what makes our business – the business of solving the “wicked” problems that exist between organizations and their customers– both so fascinating, and so difficult. Because at the end of the day, it is our passion, our talent and our intellect that drives our creativity, and our experience that drives our judgment. Of course, we always back this up with research – customer experience research, employee research and competitor research – because the best creativity can be wasted if you’re unable to measure your success, and improve upon it.

Unfortunately, the concept of the Wicked Problem underscores something that we’ve always known, and experience anew each time we start a new engagement. Though processes and systems for solving Wicked Problems do help – Touchpoint Mapping and Brand Mapping have been proven many times – every solution is fresh, new and entirely relevant only to the situation at hand.

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