Why wicked problems are great opportunities for innovation

Photo by iStock

What are wicked problems? How do businesses stay ahead of the curve? Professor Richard Hall, Deputy Dean Leadership and Executive Education, talks innovation, next-generation problems and the future of business.

How would you define next generation business problems, and what are some that will face Australian businesses?

Next-generation problems are the result of some of the meta-trends that we are witnessing – globalisation, urbanisation and digitisation – and often present as “wicked problems” to which there is no known, ready-made solution.

How can Australian business adjust to the new China – one marked by a sharp decline in demand for resources, but a massive increase in demand for services? Or build businesses with decreased dependence on fossil fuels, that reduce waste and use resources more responsibly?

How do we rethink our business models for a future of lower growth? How do we get cut-through and brand recognition in the crowded global marketplace?

Ultimately the future will belong to businesses and organisations that are agile, resilient and innately innovative – ones that thrive in the VUCA world – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And that means creating the conditions under which you can get maximum innovation from as many of your people as possible.

What new issues are going to arise for companies due to advancements in technology?

New technologies are creating massive challenges and opportunities. Digital disruption means your disruptor might not have been born yet – or they might be currently playing in a totally different area but will leverage their assets, experience or data to take on your market.

But digital disruption is just one dimension of the challenges presented by the digital revolution. Smart machines, machine learning and the Internet of Things means that devices can be both used as appliances and data collection, analysis and automated decision-making, with the algorithms generated representing the real gold – the killer IP of the future.

One of key issues here is who owns, controls and best exploits the platforms on which all these smart machines run.

How can you best anticipate them?

It’s possible to make some predictions about technology futures – global connectivity will continue to accelerate, data storage and processing capacity will increase at a lower cost, an increasing proportion of data consumption will be mobile. But the main thing is to prepare for volatility.

In the end it’s also about leadership – cultivating the organisational conditions under which our employees and teams have the freedom, resources and trust to experiment, innovate and create the future.

Some changes are already with us –  disintermediation, for example, where brokers, agents and mediators are replaced by direct consumer to provider transactions (travel agents superseded by direct booking).

But even that is complex. New aggregating mediators often emerge – think tripadvisor or Webjet. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of moving beyond either/or thinking to a both/and mindset.

How do you build a workforce that is adaptable to change?

Building an adaptable, agile and resilient workforce fit for the future requires a pretty fundamental rethink of our individual mindsets, learning and development methods and our organisations.

Your best workers will be flexible, adaptable and constantly be asking how they and their people can learn from experiences, setbacks, new data and insights. We also need to be able to see problems as challenges and opportunities.

Wicked, next-generation problems are great opportunities for innovation. When it comes to management development and for us, MBA teaching and executive development, we need to recognise that real business problems don’t normally come in neat disciplinary boxes.

In the end it’s also about leadership – cultivating the organisational conditions under which our employees and teams have the freedom, resources and trust to experiment, innovate and create the future.

Published on 6 Oct 2017