Lean Meets Wicked Problems

This post previously appeared in Poets & Quants.

I just spent a month and a half at Imperial College London co-teaching a “Wicked” Entrepreneurship class. In this case Wicked doesn’t mean morally evil, but refers to really complex problems, ones with multiple moving parts, where the solution isn’t obvious. (Understanding and solving homelessness, disinformation, climate change mitigation or an insurgency are examples of wicked problems. Companies also face Wicked problems. In contrast, designing AI-driven enterprise software or building dating apps are comparatively simple problems.)

I’ve known Professor Cristobal Garcia since 2010 when he hosted my first visit to Catholic University in Santiago of Chile and to southern Patagonia. Now at Imperial College Business School and Co-Founder of the Wicked Acceleration Labs, Cristobal and I wondered if we could combine the tenets of Lean (get out of the building, build MVPs, run experiments, move with speed and urgency) with the expanded toolset developed by researchers who work on Wicked problems and Systems’ Thinking.

Our goal was to see if we could get students to stop admiring problems and work rapidly on solving them. As Wicked and Lean seem to be mutually exclusive, this was a pretty audacious undertaking.

This five-week class was going to be our MVP.

Here’s what happened.

Finding The Problems
Professor Garcia scoured the world to find eight Wicked/complex problems for students to work on. He presented to organizations in the Netherlands, Chile, Spain, the UK (Ministry of Defense and the BBC), and aerospace companies. The end result was a truly ambitious, unique, and international set of curated Wicked problems.

  • Increasing security and prosperity amid the Mapuche conflict in Araucania region of Chile
  • Enabling and accelerating a Green Hydrogen economy
  • Turning the Basque Country in Spain into an AI hub
  • Solving Disinformation/Information Pollution for the BBC
  • Creating Blue Carbon projects for the UK Ministry of Defense
  • Improving patient outcomes for Ukrainian battlefield injuries
  • Imagining the future of a low-earth-orbit space economy
  • Creating a modular architecture for future UK defense ships

Recruiting the Students
With the problems in hand, we set about recruiting students from both Imperial College’s business school and the Royal College of Art’s design and engineering programs.

We held an info session explaining the problems and the unique parts of the class. We were going to share with them a “Swiss Army Knife” of traditional tools to understand Wicked/Complex problems, but they were not going to research these problems in the library. Instead, using the elements of Lean methodology, they were going to get out of the building and observe the problems first-hand. And instead of passively observing them, they were going to build and test MVPs.  All in six weeks.

50 students signed up to work on the eight problems with different degrees of “wickedness”.

Imperial Wicked Problems and Systems Thinking – 2023 Class

The Class
The pedagogy of the class (our teaching methods and the learning activities) were similar to all the Lean/I-Corps and Hacking for Defense classes we’ve previously taught. This meant the class was team-based, Lean-driven (hypothesis testing/business model/customer development/agile engineering) and experiential – where the students, rather than being presented with all of the essential information, must discover that information rapidly for themselves.

The teams were going to get out of the building and talk to 10 stakeholder a week. Then weekly each team will present 1) here’s what we thought, 2) here’s what we did, 3) here’s what we learned, 4) here’s what we’re going to do during this week.

More Tools
The key difference between this class and previous Lean/I-Corps and Hacking for Defense classes was that Wicked problems required more than just a business model or mission model to grasp the problem and map the solution. Here, to get a handle on the complexity of their problem the students needed a suite of tools –  Stakeholder Maps, Systems Maps, Assumptions Mapping, Experimentation Menus, Unintended Consequences Map, and finally Dr. Garcia’s derivative of the Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas – the Wicked Canvas – which added the concept of unintended consequences and the “sub-problems” according to the different stakeholders’ perspectives to the traditional canvas.

During the class the teaching team offered explanations of each tool, but the teams got a firmer grasp on Wicked tools from a guest lecture by Professor Terry Irwin, Director of the Transition Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon (see her presentation here.) Throughout the class teams had the flexibility to select the tools they felt appropriate to rapidly gain an holistic understanding and yet to develop a minimum viable product to address and experiment with each of the wicked problems.

Class Flow
Week 1 

  • What is a simple idea? What are big ideas and Impact Hypotheses? 
    • Characteristics of each. Rewards, CEO, team, complexity, end point, etc. 
  • What is unique about Wicked Problems?
    • Beyond TAM and SAM (“back of the napkin”) for Wicked Problems
  • You need Big Ideas to tackle Wicked Problems: but who does it?
    •  Startups vs. Large Companies vs. Governments
    • Innovation at Speed for Horizon 1, 2 and 3 (Managing the Portfolio across Horizons)
  • What is Systems Thinking?
  • How to map stakeholders and systems’ dynamics?
  • Customer & Stakeholder Discovery: getting outside the building, city and country: why and how? 

Mapping the Problem(s), Stakeholders and Systems –  Wicked Tools

Week 2

  • Teams present for 6 min and receive 4 mins feedback
  • The Wicked Swiss Army Knife for the week: Mapping Assumptions Matrix, unintended consequences and how to run and design experiments
  • Prof Erkko Autio (ICBS and Wicked Labs) on AI Ecosystems and Prof Peter Palensky (TU Delft) on Smart Grids, Decarbornization and Green Hydrogen
  • Lecture on Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) and Experiments
  • Homework: getting outside the building & the country to run experiments

Assumption Mapping and Experimentation Type –  Wicked Tools

Week 3

  • Teams present in 6 min and receive 4 mins feedback
  • The Wicked Swiss Army Knife for the week: from problem to solution via “How Might We…” Builder and further initial solution experimentation
  • On Canvases: What, Why and How 
  • The Wicked Canvas 
  • Next Steps and Homework: continue running experiments with MVPs and start validating your business/mission/wicked canvas

The Wicked Canvas –  Wicked Tools

Experimentation Design and How We Might… –  Wicked Tools

Week 4

  • Teams present in 6 min and receive 5 mins feedback
  • Wicked Business Models – validating all building blocks
  • The Geography of Innovation – the milieu, creative cities & prosperous regions 
  • How World War II and the UK Started Silicon Valley
  • The Wicked Swiss Tool-  maps for acupuncture in the territory
  • Storytelling & Pitching 
  • Homework: Validated MVP & Lessons learned

Acupuncture Map for Regional System Intervention  – Wicked Tools

Week 5

  • Teams presented their Final Lessons Learned journey – Validated MVP, Insights & Hindsight (see the presentations at the end of the post.)
    • What did we understand about the problem on day 1?
    • What do we now understand?
    • How did we get here?
    • What solutions would we propose now?
    • What did we learn?
    • Reflections on the Wicked Tools

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We pushed the students way past what they have done in other classes. In spite of what we said in the info session and syllabus, many students were in shock when they realized that they couldn’t take the class by just showing up, and heard in no uncertain terms that no stakeholder/customer interviews in week 1 was unacceptable.

Yet, everyone got the message pretty quickly. The team working on the Mapuche conflict in the Araucania region of Chile, flew to Chile from London, interviewed multiple stakeholders and were back in time for next week’s class. The team working to turn the Basque Country in Spain into an AI hub did the same – they flew to Bilbao and interviewed several stakeholders. The team working on the Green Hydrogen got connected to the Rotterdam ecosystem and key stakeholders in the Port, energy incumbents, VCs and Tech Universities. The team working on Ukraine did not fly there for obvious reasons. The rest of the teams spread out across the UK – all of them furiously mapping stakeholders, assumptions, systems, etc., while proposing minimal viable solutions. By the end of the class it was a whirlwind of activity as students not only presented their progress but saw that of their peers. No one wanted to be left behind. They all moved with speed and alacrity.

Lessons Learned

  • Our conclusion? While this class is not a substitute for a years-long deep analysis of Wicked/complex problems it gave students:
    • a practical hands-on introduction to tools to map, sense, understand and potentially solve Wicked Problems
    • the confidence and tools to stop admiring problems and work on solving them
  • I think we’ll teach it again.

Team final presentations

The team’s final lessons learned presentations were pretty extraordinary, only matched by their post-class comments. Take a look below.

Team Wicked Araucania

Click here if you can’t see the Araucania presentation.

Team Accelerate Basque

Click here if you can’t see the Accelerate Basque presentation.

Team Green Hydrogen

Click here if you can’t see the Green Hydrogen presentation.

Team Into The Blue

Click here if you can’t see the Team Blue presentation.

Team Information Pollution

Click here if you can’t see the Team Information Pollution presentation.

Team Ukraine

Click here if you can’t see the Team Ukraine presentation.

Team Wicked Space

Click here if you can’t see the Team Wicked Space presentation.

Team Future Proof the Navy

Click here if you can’t see the Future Proof the Navy presentation.

9 Responses

  1. Hello Steve, I have been working on wicked problems for the last 20+ years and I have been using the Lean Canvas and your other methodologies for at least half that time! As a trained futurist I also meld in other foresight tools like you did with this class. Your tools are timeless and adaptable to multiple contexts, problems and geographies. And I just want to say thank you for sharing them so freely with the world.

  2. This is fantastic and I appreciate the push to get start interviewing immediately and stop”admiring” the problem! (Problem in its self). The level of complexity and consequence considerations is so important for the constantly changing environments we are now in. It’s not just attempting to address a wicked problem but flexing the muscles for continuous reinvention and cross mapping on an ongoing basis.

  3. Thanks for the insightful and inspirational post on Wicked Problems. Are the tools mentioned in this post (along with a list of the “Swiss Army Knife” of traditional tools to understand Wicked/Complex problem) available to learn more about the process? I see some of the completed tools in the post which I can use if not, but curious what other resources might be available to begin to learn and apply this process? Thank you again

  4. I guess a BHAG is a new concept for some. Geez, how boring. Let’s talk instead about tools for solving them, and especially ones that don’t require guessing. Brainstorming doesn’t and never worked. Sad.

  5. A creative approach to some the biggest challenges in our Wicked world. The sharing of tools, lessons learned, and outcomes is a gift – as always from SB – to the world of entrepreneurship, life long learning, the social sciences, and much more. Greatly appreciated. Valuable stuff to leverage in my classes on deep tech commercialisation and in my Life Leap Workshops. Grazie Mille!

  6. How did the students identify stakeholders and convince them to participate?

  7. I really like the mantra “stop admiring problems and work rapidly on solving them.” How did the students go about identifying and contacting the key stakeholders? Very much interested in this portion of the project.

  8. I don’t suppose you have higher-res images available?

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