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Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

“Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.


The challenge is connecting the players and closing the gaps.

William Eggar s Global Public Sector Research Director at Deloitte, speaking at Lab Works 2015

I had one huge takeaway from Lab Works – an annual event that brings together the growing international network of innovation labs, units, offices and teams working inside and alongside Government on society’s biggest challenges.

It’s this:

So many of us, right around the world, are working on solving exactly the same problems.

From Singapore to Malaysia to Denmark to Mexico to India to the UK- we are all working on the same things.

That’s huge amounts of global talent seeking to address climate change, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. All uncoordinated and fragmented.

In Great Britain – the third most populous island in the world after Java and Honshu – it fragments even further. Health, Housing, Social Care, Education and the rest go about their business largely in isolation. They congregate on an annual basis at conferences (separately), they lobby politicians (separately), they communicate their ‘message’ (separately). Even on borderless platforms like Twitter they self-organise using their own hashtags.

Undoubtedly digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

So – who is doing the joining up? Who’s making it their job to prevent duplication on a massive scale – to co-ordinate the research, the tests, the pilots and the learning from failure?

William Eggars made the answer to this very clear:

No-one. No-one is doing this.

So who’s job is it?

And it could be yours?

I reckon this sector silo thinking, this lack of knowledge sharing at national and international level, is one of the most wicked problems we face. So how can we reframe it as a wicked opportunity?

Let’s take this right down to a practical, organisational level. Here’s four suggestions for how we could at least get started:

Identify the problem


First of all we need to identify our wicked problems. A lot of organisational strategies actually aren’t focused on wicked problems. They are often solutionist (e.g we’ll achieve this by 2020 or we’ll implement these things in the next three years). Wicked problems are different , they can be difficult to get to grips with. Often they won’t have a stopping rule, the search for solutions never stops. Ageing is a good example, you’ll never “solve” it. It requires a different way of looking at it.

Reframe them as opportunities


Seeing them as opportunities automatically shifts your mindset into a far more expansive and creative state. An organisation that sees problems as opportunities will develop a much more positive relationship with our world of volatile change. We need colleagues as innovators and entrepreneurs rather than adopting deficit based behaviours. A good example is the UK social housing sector – which generally adopts an attitude of “no-one likes us, no-one will fund us”. Rather than being a problem that’s a wonderful opportunity. No-one in that sector has a brand value of an Apple or Amazon. Any one of 1500 players could step forward to claim it.

Engage your people


Once we’ve identified our opportunities – let’s open up our organisations and work out loud. Silos emerged out of efforts to make our organisations more efficient. In 20th Century command and control management it made sense to operate an industrial mentality of division by function and department. But wicked problems are , by their nature, extremely complex . We need to embrace this complexity and form people around them with range of skills. Your organisational structure chart won’t help you here. We need a much more fluid and collaborative model that allows people (employees and citizens) to swarm around the opportunities they are most engaged with.

Embrace the network


People are working on the same things as us across the globe. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. Our sectors , our organisations , even our teams. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections , energy and the ability to fast track implementation. Most of us have hundreds , thousands or tens of thousands of connections. Worldwide. Let’s put them to work.

Turning this problem into an opportunity won’t be easy. We face a hugely competitive funding environment and an incredibly crowded social space. Everyone is fighting for attention.

Removing the huge duplication might mean we don’t all need our own website, back office teams, or even chief executive. We might not all need to exist – someone might be better placed than you or I to grasp the opportunity.

But if we are serious about attacking real problems there’s no room for vested interests. To address wicked problems our organisations must be reshaped in the shadow of the network. The wicked opportunities lie at the heart of it.