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rotman magazine

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared in Rotman Magazine, published by the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

The key to solving complex problems lies in figuring out when–and how–to ask for help.

"These problems are too big for us to solve alone. We need to collaborate like we never have before."

The person responsible for these words might surprise you: Beth Comstock is the chief marketing officer at General Electric–a company that no one would accuse of having a laid back or laissez-faire culture. Yet Ms. Comstock, along with GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt and fellow senior executives, have embraced the fact that the challenges they face – in areas from health care to energy to transportation – are too 'wicked' to be solved by GE alone.

From climate change to spiralling health care costs, from global poverty to food and water shortages, wicked problems and their ramifications also impact organizations and their employees. As a result, the broad solutions we need might just come from market-driven companies seeking to out-innovate and out-perform their competition.

The key to solving these complex problems–as well as narrower, more industry-specific challenges–lies in figuring out when–and whom–to ask for help.

For Esther Dyson, the answer to the question of when to ask for external help is pretty simple: start now. A leading angel investor who focuses her attention on spaces such as health care and biotechnology, Ms. Dyson says the pace of innovation and change is woefully slow in a global business culture that too often rewards the status quo. Many executives–particularly those managing large companies with complicated daily demands–find it challenging to focus too far into the future for fear that the present might get away from them.

Additionally, the massive complexity of wicked problems can paralyze rather than inspire. For Ms. Dyson, the way to overcome this collective catatonia is to break down the tasks into smaller, more bite-size pieces. "We should be aware of the enormity of these problems," she says, "but that's how we'll solve them; that's how you change systems."

Overcoming the understandable tendency to focus solely on answering the pressures of the next earnings call will not help to diminish the agony of necessary transformation later.

"Mostly, the future is unknowable," says Ms. Comstock. "You can have the best-laid plans, but you have to have contingency plans, too." The more clear-minded you are about what's ahead and when problems are likely to become most pressing, the more likely you are to survive the only real certainty: the imminent onslaught of change.

Finding the right helping hands

In 1999, Chris Meyer co-authored Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy. A keen observer of network effects and the changing skills businesses need to thrive, Mr. Meyer remains unequivocal about the challenges posed by the wicked problems of our age. As he put it in a recent interview, "In effect, people should only be paid to solve wicked problems. Others can be solved by robots." In practice, executives urgently need to focus on finding the right people to tackle the right tasks at the right time.

That's no small matter. "For us, resources are not just about money, but also about finding the right people," acknowledges GE's Ms. Comstock. Getting staffing right early on is critical for future success. She adds: "You have to spend a lot of time upfront on figuring out who does what–and you have to take the time to set up governance."

When Ms. Comstock was based at NBC Universal, working with a team from News Corporation to develop the streaming video service, she soon realized they needed to hire a leader from outside of the television industry. "It was important to hire someone with a fresh perspective," she says of the ultimate decision to hire former Amazon senior vice president Jason Kilar as CEO of the new venture. Hulu might not have solved any deep societal problems, but it did succeed in tackling a huge problem facing companies that needed to figure out how to thrive in the new, digital world.

Practical ways to ask for help

In the past decade, 'open innovation' has become a popular term describing how executives might reach beyond the walls of their own organizations to seek help.

Source from the crowd

Some projects can usefully harness the rambunctious 'crowd' made famous in the popular press in recent years. There are different ways to think about using the crowd, including for its scope, its speed, its diversity of opinion and its scale. Since 1999, for instance, SETI@home has used home computers to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The experiment taps into the machines when they're not in use, and currently has over three million individual participants. This large, faceless crowd is a useful resource for such a large-scale project, which requires more programming power than human insight.

Alternatively, executives can think about tapping the crowd specifically for its intelligence. As Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy famously commented in 1990, "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else." Many companies have sprung up to create systems that promise access to those who might know better than you do.

Alph Bingham, for instance, founded the Massachusetts-based consultancy, InnoCentive, as a systematic way to get smart people to solve wicked problems. To date, the company has registered more than 250,000 'solvers'–people who might submit solutions to the challenges posed.

Ask the experts

Some projects specifically require deeply- knowledgeable experts to contribute critical input. As technology and networks have scaled and become more robust, it is easier to find and access trained professionals who can be brought in to help on a case-by-case basis, rather than have to be hired full-time. A number of companies have sprung up to promise access to just the right people at just the right time. For example, long-time media maven John Winsor set up Colorado-based Victors & Spoils as an alternative to what he sees as the wasteful practices of the advertising business. The company's structure invites individual creative talent from all over the world to pitch for marketing and advertising campaigns from clients such as Harley-Davidson.

Award a prize

Not every organization can fund multimillion dollar investments, but offering a prize has become a common tactic to spur innovation. For example, in 2009, Netflix famously awarded $1-million to a globally-diverse team of engineers that improved its movie-recommendation algorithm, and in 2000, Goldcorp founder Rob McEwen put his company's geological data online and offered a prize to anyone who could suggest an effective way to find the next significant source of gold. The worth of the resulting gold mined to date has exceeded $6-billion – not a bad return on an investment of just over half a million dollars.

Launch a joint venture

Joint ventures are nothing new, but the way in which executives have begun to approach them to tackle complex challenges has evolved to become less about 'command and control' and more about 'watch and learn'. In 2004, GE Aviation and Honda Aero launched a joint venture to design, manufacture, sell and support a new class of light jet engines. "We both knew it was risky in that it wasn't a proven market, but we also knew the trends were going that way," says GE's Ms. Comstock. "We both brought something to the table; so we provided joint funding and created a joint venture." The result of the partnership, the Very Light Jet, a new entry to the world of business aviation, is scheduled to come to market soon.

Create shared value

In the January/February 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer made the case that companies should reinvent capitalism by focusing on creating shared value. In essence, they argued that executives should look outside of their own walls to innovate around key global, systemic issues. It's an important argument that has real bearing on how we will solve some of society's most pressing problems.

Regulators can often help. The United States Green Building Council created LEED certification as a way to advise and reward those creating sustainably-designed buildings. Meanwhile, for-profit companies are also getting in on the act. Porter and Kramer pointed to the GreenXchange, an online platform that aims to accelerate sustainable innovation by sharing intellectual property and resources. Partners include Nike, nGenera, Best Buy and Salesforce, all of which are individually concerned with their own bottom lines but realize the benefits to be generated from developing new practices that create more sustainably-minded businesses.

Be the platform

Some companies have already learned to look beyond the obvious, product-centric value chain to create platforms on which others can build, thus strengthening the host company. For example, Amazon, Apple and Google have created robust ecosystems in which to ensnare companies that might instead have been competitors.

Being a member of a robust ecosystem can pay off for participants, too. Zynga, a company whose value relies almost entirely on Facebook's social platform, filed for its Initial Public Offering in December 2011. The company, maker of games such as Farmville and Words with Friends, was valued at $7-billion. These types of symbiotic relationships can be ways for executives to think about diversifying without having to bear the risk and cost of expansion alone.

Go straight to the source

The idea of embedding oneself in a problem becomes even more important as companies look to expand globally. Understanding a local culture intimately is the only way to innovate there effectively.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin moved with his family to Vietnam to work with Save the Children on a truly wicked problem: childhood malnutrition. Mr. Sternin and his team worked closely with residents in the Quong Xuong District, some four hours south of Hanoi, where 64 per cent of children under the age of three were malnourished. Applying a philosophy known as 'positive deviance', they stayed with the villagers and focused on those who were raising the healthiest children in order to learn what techniques were already working–and disperse these practices among the other villagers.

As Mr. Sternin wrote later, what residents did and what they said they did were often quite different. "This wasn't the result of their being disingenuous, but rather, their not being conscious of all their actual practices." Only by being there were Mr. Sternin and his team able to observe the problems first hand – and develop potential solutions. In the years since, they report an 80 per cent reduction in childhood malnutrition in Vietnamese communities.

In closing

Every organization has the capacity to attack the world's wicked problems –or their own complicated, intractable challenges–by welcoming collaborators. After all, all of us are smarter than any one of us.

Our advice is to open the doors of your organization and discover what external contributors can offer you. Be sure to offer them something in return, frame your problem in a smart way to attract the right people, and pursue the tactics outlined herein that make the most sense for your company and your situation.

All of this is important because there is another truth at work here: tackling the wicked problems of our age is not optional. We will have to face up to them eventually–or we will pay the price for ignoring them.

Bansi Nagji is a senior partner at Monitor Group and leader of the firm's global innovation practice. He can be reached at Helen Walters is a writer at Doblin, part of Monitor Group. The former editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg Businessweek, she can be reached at