Learning for Collective Action: How to Address Wicked Problems

The social problems we face are increasingly “wicked.” Wicked problems are characterized by their high degree of complexity. Imagine a stone dropping in a pond. The stone creates a ripple then the ripples multiply as they reach the shore and return, creating endless geometric forms. Cause and effect are one and the same. This example represents feedback or the dynamic, interrelated relationship endemic of wicked problems. The problem space is wide with disruptions, triggering further disruptions far afield. Complexity grows because the ripple effect is not necessarily related linearly but organized into feedback loops where cause and effect continue to feed each other.

Wicked problems are also characterized by a high degree of uncertainty. Knowledge about the problem is fragmented, incomplete, and often divergent. Standard thinking and interventions fail because they do not capture the complexity. In fact, the true nature of the problem and why and how it exists is often contested. We fail to see the ways that our social, political, and economic worlds are enmeshed and interrelated—like the example above, where the ripple effects are far more baffling and unexpected than the simple and perfect concentric circles when we first dropped that stone in still water.

There is no real “fix” and certainly no single fix to wicked problems. However, the social and economic consequences of both action and inaction are significant. Most of the big and seemingly intractable social problems of our time qualify as wicked problems. The struggle to eradicate poverty both locally and worldwide and to ensure equity in health, mental health, and education are both examples, among many others.

What Do We Do About Wicked Problems?

We know the standard responses have failed to deal with these problems’ complexity and uncertainty. Professionals, institutions, and systems trying to work alone or in isolation from each other have characterized much of the current response. For example, consider health and mental health equity. Health and mental health professions and related systems are largely trying to figure out how to ensure access to care and quality of care apart from other societal systems. However, we know that social determinants play a significant role in health disparities, including things like educational attainment, wealth and employment status, physical environment, and social environment, among others; they spiderweb beyond the boundaries of the health and mental health professions and related systems. Each of these determinants involves a different set of professions, institutions, and systems responsible for addressing them.

Pick a wicked problem, and you could quickly come up with a comparable set of challenges and implicated institutions and systems. What is known about wicked problems is that they largely do not behave in the neat and ordered ways in which we organize our social, economic, and political institutions. Any hope of doing something—anything—about wicked problems at the local, national, or international levels means working together in unprecedented ways. The problem of wicked problems is largely a problem of collective action.

How Do We Work Together?

Throughout human history, in every corner of the world, we have risen or fallen based on our success in working together. By nature, we are social animals and have had to rely on each other in some form or another to make it here today. And yet, working together successfully and effectively often eludes us. We can all think of examples from our personal and professional lives where this has been the case. We talk a lot about the importance of teams, though few of us have examples of or have been part of effective ones; teams where you not only trust and respect your fellow teammates but where you organize and coordinate your talents in such a way that it allows you take on big tasks, all the while improving and learning in ways that facilitate innovation and grow the collective wisdom of the group.

Of course, wicked problems, by definition, are problems with no existing or single fix. The demand on teams is not only to implement an intervention (which, when done well, is a taxing and difficult collective action problem) but to continuously learn together to create something entirely new. For example, right now, the scientific community organized around a common mission to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. A community is rapidly learning together. Though vaccine development is difficult, the challenge to find the vaccine will be dwarfed by the future complexities of manufacturing and equitably disseminating it across the globe. That problem will be wicked and present a second call to action to bring together diverse professions, institutions, and systems. Unfortunately, unlike the scientific community, in these diverse coalitions, people speak different disciplinary and experiential languages, have very different ideas about the origins of problems that complicate agreement on the problem space for which none of them are clearly responsible, and have differing ideas about how to solve the problem. Two frameworks offer hope:

Collective Impact

Collective impact is a structured form of collaboration and partnership that brings multiple stakeholders across sectors together to achieve social change. To effectively work together, collective impact tells us that five things are important:

  1. Communication: The building blocks of any formal partnership are relationships between stakeholders. The first step toward relationship-building is to identify and engage stakeholders in dialogue to discuss issues and opportunities and decide what other stakeholders should be invited to the conversation, which remains an ongoing effort. Stakeholders must include representation from implicated professions, institutions, and systems, and include those with lived experience related to the wicked problems.
  2. Common Agenda: Stakeholders must develop a shared vision or joint understanding of the social change they want to achieve.
  3. Interdependence: To sustain the partnership, organizations must be interdependent. This is fostered by constructing mutually reinforcing activities, meaning that while not all partners are doing the same thing, each partner relies on the work of the others to successfully complete their own work.
  4. Shared Measures: Establishing a set of shared measurements for evaluating success across all participating organizations also facilitates interdependence and accountability. Continuous evaluation offers the partners the opportunity to evaluate whether their approach is producing the sort of outcomes they envision and whether adjustments need to be made.
  5. Backbone: Finally, this work is ongoing and requires constant coordination across stakeholders. To make it sustainable, the initiative needs a backbone. The backbone is often a separate organization with staff skilled in organizing and orchestrating the various activities while not directing or overshadowing stakeholder work.

Collective impact is a useful framework to help us think about the coordinating and communicating structures that must be in place to bring together stakeholders that have often never worked together. However, we know that wicked problems demand more than just working together; they also demand learning together. Because no standard solutions exist, stakeholders must innovate together. To innovate is to experiment—to try, fail, and try again. And then to learn something from that process. A second framework, improvement science, can tell us something about how to learn together effectively.

Improvement Science

Improvement science is about learning, especially about accelerating our collective learning by doing. Getting good at getting better necessitates shifting from thinking of improvement as the endpoint of intervention to investing in formal continuous methods to achieve it. Improvement science offers a process for co-creating solutions to persistent and wicked problems of practice within complex systems by combining practitioner knowledge with a disciplined, iterative process for inquiry and change management.

Improvement science involves six principles, but one—plan-do-study-act cycle (PDSA)—is of particular import to those endeavoring to address wicked problems through collective impact. A PDSA is a four-step process for problem-solving designed to create change and then improve upon it. In this cycle, the Carnegie Foundation layouts three key questions stakeholders must ask:

  1. what specifically are we trying to accomplish;
  2. what changes might we introduce and why; and
  3. how will we know that a change is an improvement?

They proceed through each PDSA, treating it like a brief experiment. First, you plan or identify a change and hypothesize the outcomes. Second, you execute the change or do and document what happened. Third, study what you predicted would happen (or previous results) to your current results. Finally, you decide what to do next based or how to act based on what you found. Multiple PDSA experiments function like a scientist experimenting in the lab. Collectively stakeholders learn something about how they understand a wicked problem and approaches to addressing or mitigating its effects. Combined with the structure outlined by the collective impact framework, improvement science can be a powerful tool to facilitate collective learning.

Wicked problems are daunting and unlikely to ever be “solved.” This is all more reason to invest in a structure that helps communities work better together and processes that also help communities learn together. The combination of collective impact and improvement science is instructive and challenges professionals, organizations, and institutions to consider how we fail to effectively collaborate, partner, and learn together now, and the possibility to do better. It encourages the realignment of established systems, broader engagement of stakeholders from those affected to those working on the frontlines, and potential innovation when knowledge is pooled and learning is collective.