BlogThe Future of HR: Unraveling Wicked Problems

May 10, 20170

I recently presented at Disrupt HR Chicago on the topic “Wicked Problems in HR.”  You can find the full
presentation here and the video here.

Acquiring the competency to unravel wicked problems is vital to our survival as a function.  We are living in an age where businesses are innovating to unravel world problems.  HR needs to follow suit.  At a first glance, this concept may seem irrelevant to you but read on if you truly believe that HR has the potential to make a huge difference in the world.

Let’s first start with defining a wicked problem. Rittel and Webber, two urban planners, first coined the term in 1973.  For a problem to be considered wicked, it needs to be interdependent, incomplete and contradictory.  I first became acquainted with wicked problems in the early 2000’s while devising leadership development strategies that would address them.  I helped leaders think differently in order to solve this new generation of problems.

Today, I am immersed in the HR wicked problems that we are creating as a function.  Think gender wage gap, job skills gap, discrimination, inclusion, you name it.  These wicked problems are not immediately solvable but as HR professionals, we are not even managing them.  In fact, in some cases, organizations incentivize us to perpetuate them.  When was the last time you offered a male with the same qualifications as his female counterpart more money because he came “highly recommended?”  Or, the last time that you poached talent for an immediate need instead of cultivating talent internally?  If you are an HR leader, it is likely that I described two of your actions over the last month.  The fact of the matter is that while we have great intentions, business pressure lures us into perpetuating wicked problems.

The good news is that there is hope.  I will call them the C’s.  If you want to be an HR wicked problem solver, then build your approach around these four areas:

  1. Collaboration:  As HR Professionals, we often think collaboration means collaborating within your organization.  However, to understand and unravel wicked problems, it is vital that we collaborate OUTSIDE our organizations.  Going to that one conference a year will not cut it.  What will is ongoing collaboration with a group of professionals within your industry and beyond.
  2. Congruence:  Some of you reading this blog post may be experiencing extreme guilt that only immediate action can cure.  The idea of YOU perpetuating wicked problems is invoking some intense emotions.  Before you attempt to tackle wicked problems in your organization, take a breath and survey your current environment.  Are your solutions compatible with your current organizational culture?  If not, identify other actions.  Remember, traditional problem solving (presenting one problem and measuring a solution) will not work.
  3. Continuity:  Speaking of incentives, most of us are rewarded for short-term gains (i.e. bonuses) not generating long-term value.  Wicked problems are on a leisurely timeline.  Requiring ongoing investment, they may take decades to solve.   The path is bumpy, not smooth.  However, confronting them will generate long-term gains in the end.
  4. Calculation:  When approaching wicked problems, expect trial and error, lots of it.  If you are not willing to take risks, experience failure and pick-up and start all over (not necessarily in that order) then you do not have what it takes to be an HR Wicked problem solver.  Every successful wicked problem approach embodies innovation.  Innovation requires a trial
    and error approach and, according to the hype cycle, you will not reap immediate benefits.  Honor this with patience and persistence.

Now that you have a wicked problems background, go out, identify yours, and find other HR leaders that share your pain.  You are not in this alone.  Happy unraveling!

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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.