Drawing Your Wicked Problem

There is no single way to come to grips with a wicked problem. Most of my colleagues, though, start by drawing what we call a systems map of it, which identifies its key features and how they connect to each other.

Systems maps can become quite complicated, especially if you want to understand how things change over an extended period of time. If, your goal is simply to see its broad contours, it is not all that hard to draw a decent systems map like this one.

It’s always a good idea to draw a systems map with a group of people, though you can do it on your own. You can construct a systems map on your computer using software packages like Kumu, The Brain, or Mind Meister, but frankly, it is just as easy to draw it in a very low tech way—with a lot of sticky notes and a large white board. If you don’t have access to sticky notes or a white board, improvise by adapting what follows in ways that work for you.

Also, don’t spend too much time trying to draw the most accurate map possible. If nothing else, the map will keep changing because the problem itself will keep changing, too.

Step 1. Give your wicked problem a name, put it in the middle of the page, and draw a box or circle around. Then make a first set of sticky notes each of which briefly (sticky notes are small for a reason) describes one manifestation of the problem. Put those notes up in the center of the white board around the central point you have just named. Arrange the sticky notes into whatever clusters make sense to you.

Step 2. Then, make a second set of sticky notes that (briefly again) list all of the causes of the problem that come to mind. See how (and if ) they fall into clusters and add them on the left of the center box and draw arrows from those causes to the box. Then, turn those arrows into words in which you describe how or why each of those causes helps shape your problem. How, for example, how do differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims contribute to any of the many crises in the Middle East? Why did shortcomings in the American educational system give rise to the spate of standardized testing or the current debate over Common Core standards?

Step 3. Draw arrows between the boxes and circles where they seem to make sense. How did imperialism magnify the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? How did the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act exacerbate tensions between liberals and conservatives that now play themselves out in your child’s classroom.

Step 4Now it’s time to use the right side of the page. This time, do a version of Step 2 in which you list the consequences rather than the causes of “your” wicked problem. Continue another version of Steps 2 and 3 in which you map out the indirect and more distant consequences of your problem on global politics, you child’s education, or whatever topic you chose.