The adaptive loop: Working with wicked problems

What is the strategy of your organisation? What is the right policy for homelessness? What is the service to support children who are disabled in state care? Can prisons be centres of learning and excellence? These are what you can call wicked or ill-structured problems.

In these kinds of problems, the problem definition is not clear nor is the solution. Different individuals in a team working on the problem will have different opinions of what it is and at the same time which solution works. There is no one right way to solve the problem. In fact, any solution we create will change the nature of our understanding of the problem.

Adaptive Loop The Adaptive Loop

These kind of problems require a adaptive process.  The process is the key to solving these problems.

The adaptive loop is the way to implement the process.

A good way to go about doing this is to think about two spaces. The first one is the problem space and the second one is the solution space. It’s worth spending time to understand the problem space. The key to this is to understand people and their context.

What is the nature of the challenge?  Who is the customer? What is the context of the customer? Where is the problem located?

After spending a bit of time here, we move to the solution space. We try to understand and imagine,

What has worked before? What are the possible solutions? What does the customer value? What is the right mechanism of delivery?

Then we go back to the problem space. Can we reframe the problem? Have we learned something new by working in the solution space? With the new reframing, what is the problem now? Moving into the solution space, what is the simplest thing we can try to understand how we can solve the reframed problem. The way to go about doing this is to prototype the solution.

By creating solutions that we can test we can understand whether it is in the right direction to solve the problem. This continuous dance between the problem space and the solution space is the key to the adaptive loop.

The second mental model for the adaptive loop is what Steve Blank calls in the office and out of the office. The best we can do in the office is to imagine stuff, question the chain of logic, get inspiration from other places and collaborate with our colleagues. In the end, you cannot really understand problems or test solutions in the office. It can only be done in the real world of customers, society and markets.

The third mental model is to remember that all our ideas are nothing but a set of hunches. Some of them are stronger than others but in reality they are assumptions that need to be tested in the real world.

As Drucker suggests:

The danger is acting on what you believe satisfies the customer. You will inevitably make wrong assumptions. Leadership should not even try to guess at the answers; it should always go to customers in a systematic quest for those answers. 

We frame assumptions in the office and we test them out of the office.

The adaptive loop is fundamental to solve wicked and ill structured problems but more importantly to innovate and create value.


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