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Problems, Conflicts and Decisions

Decisions, decisions… At the confluence of conflict management, problem solving, and decision-making lies something called “the wicked problem.” In risk management it is essential to know when you are dealing with super-problems that are beyond your normal powers to resolve and that will test your training and expertise to the limit. Here we summarize the advice of PMI blogger Lynda Bourne, who offers advice for identifying and confronting the wicked problem.

Be Reasonable!

Normally, there is a rational, procedural way to solve most problems in the workplace. In a sterile, purely academic environment, one could approach a problem in a series of steps: Step 1: Investigate, Step 2: Define the Problem, etc. Unfortunately, there is often no room for formal decision making in scenarios of conflict management. Emotions abound:

At its center, every conflict has people acting (or reacting) emotionally, and conflict management is focused on reducing the effect of emotions to allow the people in conflict to start acting rationally. Any effective solution to a conflict involves defining the problem, defining a solution space (e.g., a formal mediation), understanding the options, choosing a solution and then implementing the solution. The only difference is how these steps are implemented or imposed. 

Wicked Problems

Unfortunately, some matters cannot be tempered by bringing in a powerful judge or arbiter to settle the dispute, searching for compromises and stressing common ground, or searching for mutually beneficial outcomes. What we call wicked problems are those that continuously change and avoid any attempt to be exclusively defined. Each time a decision is made, an action taken, the nature of the wicked problem is altered, sometimes radically. When the problem is wicked, there will be situations that present no right answer, any decision will incur some kind of loss, the linkages of cause and effect are intricate and multifold, information is limited, and of course, time is of the essence.

Some traits of a wicked problem to consider as a general guide are the level of emotion in stakeholders involved in the decision, the nature of that decision, the nature of the problem, and your own sense of courage about moving forward intuitively.

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About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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