Albert Einstein famously said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” With our rapidly technological world, healthcare marketers and strategists have to to figure out how to deal with social media, personalized health, patient data, and other previously unforeseen challenges. These types of problem have a name. They are called wicked problems and they are everywhere.

What are Wicked Problems?

Wicked problems are complex and often have conflicting values from stakeholders, incomplete information (of which any available may be confusing), and ill-formulated definitions. These are problems where no single person understands completely and no single player, be it a company, organization, or government entity, can solve on its own. 

Overcoming Wicked Problems

In order to tackle wicked problems effectively, new methods of thinking and doing must be utilized.

In a recent article published in the Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmondson studies several cross-industry collaborations and how they approach their wicked problems. Her analysis revealed four leadership characteristics that led to successful solutions:

  1. foster an adaptable vision but consistent values,
  2. ensure psychological safety and promote risk-taking,
  3. encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration, and
  4. promote execution as learning and welcome change

According to Edmondson:

“[For leaders] to succeed in this world, they must strike a difficult balance: They need to advance their vision by looking beyond their own industry perspective and engaging a host of potentially antagonistic experts with distinct industry mindsets. They must be flexible, open-minded, and humble on the one hand and filled with fierce resolve on the other.”

Although the challenges in healthcare are unique, there’s a lot of value in understanding other industries, particularly when they are at the center of the wicked problems we are trying to solve. And that’s where design thinking comes into play. With design thinking, we can become more creative with our resources, more human-centered in our solutions, and more effective through our solutions. 

According to Richard Buchanan, design thinkers are inherently well-suited to deal with wicked problems:

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters.

One tool design thinkers often use to make sense of indeterminate and wicked problems is Analogous Thinking—identifying connections between seemingly unrelated products, services, brands, and experiences that offer a fresh perspective to identify and solve problems in healthcare. By doing so, we can look for and adapt innovative problem-solving methods to our needs. 

Key Takeaway

As healthcare marketers, we face wicked problems every day. From population health management to comprehensive healthcare reform, we are constantly faced with new challenges that test our abilities to make sense of a turbulent and often contradictory industry climate. 

The good news is that healthcare marketers who embody strong leadership characteristics and utilize fundamental design thinking principles are best positioned to overcome wicked problems with solutions that are in the best interest of their consumers.

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