Drawing Your Wicked Problem

There is no single way to come to grips with a wicked problem. Most of our 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.

If you are new to either wicked problems or systems thinking, you might want to at least skim the summary of Hauss’s Security 2.0 before going you start drawing.

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 on paper, the bigger the piece the better—like butcher block or a large flip chart. It’s always a good idea to draw a systems map with a group of people, though you can do it on your own.

Also, don’t spend too much time trying to draw the most accurate map possible—at least not yet. If we decide to work on this wicked problem together, you and we will modify and improve this initial chart many times. It literally is a first draft.

Besides, 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 it the way Rob Ricigliano did with level of peace in this example.

Step 2. Make a list of all 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 No Child Left Behind Act 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 4. Take each of those boxes and ask yourself what caused them and add boxes and arrows for each of those factors. Thus, why are there Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the first place? Why did the No Child Left Behind Act get passed? You can keep doing this exercise until you run out of paper—which is why we suggest using butcher block.

Step 5. Now 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 3 and 4 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.

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