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Wicked Problems need Wicked Solutions

I had the pleasure of delivering a mindfulness session at a HR conference last week, and one of the speakers talked about “Wicked Problems”.  A wicked problem is one that has multiple causes, and that means that there is rarely one solution, or a solution that is not easy to implement for a variety of reasons. Global warming is a wicked problem – yes increased greenhouse gases is agreed to be the main cause, but there are many sources of greenhouse gases. Even if we can agree on an effective solution, then implementing it can be difficult – we might all want lower emissions but will we all give up our cars or flights. Wicked problems need handling in multiple ways. Single solutions cannot alone solve the problem, and sometimes may be counter-productive.

Diseases can be wicked or not. A cold or even a nasty bacterial infection are not wicked as they are finite and can be addressed – for a cold just treat the symptoms and wait, for a bacterial infection then antibiotics should clear it up. Cancer or type 2 diabetes are wicked. Diet, environment, genetics and sometimes luck influence whether someone will get a wicked disease, and usually it does not go away easily. Chronic diseases need to be managed, cannot be easily cured, and every instance is subtly different.

It struck me that mental health is a wicked problem. The same life events can push one person into a positive life, and another into depression or even psychosis. There are so many factors, and as we see with depression there is no cure-all. Each case is unique. What works for one can be damaging for another.

It seems to me that the idea of wicked problems is really helpful in framing a response. I have found that yoga has stopped my recurrent sciatic pain, but to conclude that yoga cures sciatica is wrong. When I am asked as a mindfulness teacher if meditation will solve a problem, I rightly avoid a definitive answer – try it and see is the best advice. Meditation and mindfulness practice are general tools, and there is strong scientific evidence that they can provide positive benefits. However, those benefits are not guaranteed.

Which then led me to thinking that wicked problems need wicked solutions. We all have wicked problems, from big ones where we may be in some crisis to small ones such as habits that we would like to change. What mindfulness practice does is help us to recognise those problems that are wicked and those that are more easily addressed. Our natural propensity to want to fix things is moderated by mindfulness practice, and instead of focusing on solutions we focus more on the problem. Then, with mindfulness attitudes such as patience, acceptance and letting go we can work through our wicked problems without rushing too quickly to a solution that does not work and which can produce disappointment (thereby adding to the wicked problem).

A wicked solution is one that does not rush to a conclusion, that takes stock, that perhaps needs to react to emergencies but which takes time to respond, that tries to see the big picture. Mindfulness fits the bill in many ways. One meditation is not going to fix anything. However, as attention skills and awareness grow, so the ability to respond grows. As attitudes change, reactivity diminishes. Wicked solutions are not quick, but in time they are probably the only way most of us can deal with wicked problems.

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