Wicked Problems for Today’s Leaders


My wife and I wanted to get a motion detector in our backyard. We had a backlight on the house already. The house was a new construction. The motion detector would be additional security. We estimated the price to be under $200.

When the electrician arrived, he talked with us about our needs and did a thorough inspection of the home. He came back with an estimate of over $600. He rationalized this price due to the configuration of our home and the difficulty of wiring this fixture.

My wife and I both wanted this motion detector. However, we were unwilling to pay the price for this addition. Thus, we needed to redefined the problem. We wanted this motion detector as extra security for the home. We asked the electrician what it would cost to change out the light fixture. He mentioned less than $80. The motion detector was about $50. By redefining or refocusing the problem, we were able to carryout a better solution. 

In search of more lucrative markets, today’s companies are looking for more opportunities across the globe. The United States is a land where dreams come true. Individuals from across the globe come to this country for possible opportunities. Yet, companies fail every day in the marketplace.

According to one study, the failure rate for new startups is about 46%. Botch understanding of your business competencies and market opportunities may put to be fatal. On the contrary, businesses that provide value to customers by solving their pressing problems are rewarded.

By solving someone’s challenging problems, individuals are compensated very well. Thus, solving ‘wicked problems’ could yield greater rewards.  In this session, we will discuss the concepts of wicked problems and introduces how organizations can solve them with effective leaders who provide a burst of innovative thinking.

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Sustaining Creativity and Innovation

 When I arrived at Southern University A&M, I looked forward to my new engineering journey. I had envisioned myself being like Scotty on Star Trek, providing Captain Kirk with life-saving innovative solutions for any galactic jam.  However, I was quickly awakened to the systematic and predictable sides of engineering. 

In fact, faculty advisors would frown upon us deviating from the engineering catalog to take business or non-traditional courses.  Sadly, it wasn’t until my senior year that I was allowed to use creativity. Yet, this reality was not out of the norm for most engineering schools. 

Today, U.S. engineers are fighting to maintain dominance as engineering tasks are now being outsourced to countries all over the world.  In fact, America is increasingly losing its pioneering edge because it lacks the human capital resources necessary for success.

Several key factors illuminate the downturn of America’s competitiveness across the globe: (1) several key agencies for U.S. scientific research and development will face a retirement crisis in the near future; (2) less than 6% of high school seniors are pursuing engineering degrees, down 36% from a decade ago; (3) the number of China’s undergraduate degrees in the hard sciences were 56% compared to 17% for the United States in 2000; and (4) in the next several years, China will likely produce six times the number of engineers as the United States. 

Currently, there is a national loss of between 40% and 60% of undergraduates from science, mathematics, and engineering majors into non-science disciplines. Traditionally, engineering schools have taught engineers to build their skills in a linear fashion over time. Sometimes organizations can be too rigid in their organizational design; they lose their mission.

Therefore, the consequences of overly emphasizing structure can be dangerous. Universities cannot afford the same old strategies. An environment needs to be created where these working parts can co-exist in an information era.

Today’s engineering organizations, including academic institutions, must instill students and employees with innovation and creativity for a competitive advantage.  Twenty-first century engineering and science departments must address the needs of students as they relate to globalization and future opportunities in an international market. In 2004, the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers while other countries such as China (600,000) and India (350,000) are graduating far more engineers. 

Creativity can provide this economic weapon. Creativity is defined as the “generation of novel ideas that may be converted into opportunities.” Gareth Morgan, author of Imagination, argues that empowering people in organizations stimulates imagination and innovation.  James Gibson, John Ivancevich, James Donnelly, and Robert Konopaske,  authors of Organizations: Behavior, Structure, and Processes, suggest that organizations can foster creativity in the following ways: (a) managers can look for ways to absorb the risks of creative decisions made by their employees; (b) organizations can give people time off to work on a problem and allow them to think through them; (c) managers can give half-baked or unsophisticated ideas a chance; (d) organizations can encourage everyone to think of ways to solve problems; and (e) organizations can let employees see and interact with many managers and mentors. New strategies like these need to be utilized to turn today’s engineering organizations into global innovators.

Describe how traditional organizations such as engineering organizations can infuse creativity into their organization and how to sustain these activities.

 © 2011 by Daryl D. Green