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  • Santiago Garcia

The Agile-Systems Approach to Problem Solving

In product/system development environments where it is not uncommon to plateau, become complacent, avoid change, and be plagued with seemingly unsolvable ‘wicked’ problems, many leadership challenges arise that often have no prescriptive solution. Several methodologies are in place to help facilitate effective project management in professions where these issues are prevalent. Two of these, agile methodology and systems thinking work particularly well together to solve wicked problems in design thinking. Boeing, Walmart, and Chrysler have continued to advance their organizations by implementing this collaborative strategy. The increased agility has helped Chrysler reinvent their steering system and allowed Boeing to produce the brand new KC -46.

While daunting, these categories of problems can be resolved with the proper passion, resource allocation, and commitment. Wicked problems in design thinking are classified by ten characteristics:


1. No definitive formula/solution

2. No stopping rule (no way to know if the solution can be permanent)

3. Solutions are not black or white/true or false

4. There is no way to receive immediate feedback

5. Every potential solution is a “one-shot operation”

6. Unlimited number of potential solutions

7. Every problem is unique

8. Every problem can be a symptom of another problem

9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem

10. The designer is fully responsible


There are wicked problems that affect our lives every day, and recognizing that the solutions to these problems comes from innovation and collaboration is essential.

The first component of this solution is systems thinking. Thinking in this manner helps to understand the relationship between components and their role in the grand scheme. This framework is the ability to analyze a system in its entirety, and understand how each of its components work together to accomplish a specific mission. A car, for instance, has multiple components (engine, multimedia, safety, steering, electronics, and wheels) that function in sync to accomplish its purpose (safe and effective transportation). Systems engineers and designers apply this methodology to everything from spacecraft production to designing a water bottle.


The second part of this problem solving proposal, is agile methodology. It may help to think of this method as the ‘Doer’ or ‘Ricky Bobby’ problem solving approach; doing whatever it takes, maximizing resourcefulness, exerting one’s will, and exemplifying a burning passion to succeed. The irony in this, is that ‘agile methodology’ isn’t actually a methodology. A methodology consists of methods, procedures and rules in a particular area. Agility is defined in this sector as the ability to continuously adapt and make improvements to the task at hand. Allocating any and all resources to the identification of a solution, is the core of this process.

Systems thinking and agile feedback are connected by an iterative feedback loop. This feedback loop presents itself as a guide for choosing the strategy, procedures, and outcomes for the respective problem. It works not by prescribing a step-by-step solution, but by emphasizing communication, interaction, and critical thinking. These two processes can best work together to attack wicked problems by isolating where they (systems thinking & agile methodology) are applied. Applying each one at three different phases (defining the problem, creating solutions, and acquiring feedback) of this problem solving system ensures the design team has no creative boundaries while following a structured course of action.

The most important step in solving wicked problems is to properly define the problem. Many of the issues plaguing leadership teams in the business and social sectors result from not asking the right questions, or improperly defining the relevant variables. It is impractical to attempt to implement an advanced problem solving approach, if the problem cannot be clearly defined. The combination of these two problem solving frameworks ensures the problem is defined to the fullest extent because of its emphasis on continual iteration. By first applying the systems thinking approach to complex problems, it provides a structured way to analyze individual components of the system, identifies the area of improvement and creates a communal level of understanding.


Once the nature of the problem is identified, teams can begin brainstorming solutions and producing mockups. Agile methodology is an ideal model to use during this phase of the process because of the freedom to think creatively. Agile methodology is ideal for solving complex problems because it doesn’t limit or encapsulate the team’s thinking. Design is inherently creative, and this problem solving strategy leverages the team’s inventive nature while maintaining the discipline needed to arrive at a solution that meets requirements and exceeds standards. This method is not bound by specific requirements and allows the design team to take a ‘by any means necessary’ mentality. Adding subject matter experts to the team, allocating diverse resources, seeking broad perspectives, and challenging the unknown are a few examples of how this approach produces innovative solutions.


After action has been taken to solve the problem/improve the situation, reengaging the systems approach is necessary. Acquiring feedback from the stakeholders and iterating the proposed solution(s) are processes best suited for the systems methodology framework. With an emphasis placed on individual components and changes interacting with each other, the design team can reevaluate the end state and make adjustments as needed to achieve the goal.

Developing streamlined approaches to solving wicked problems in design is an area of focus we are just beginning to understand. As the relationship between humans and technology expands, the amount of problems that will arise may soon become infinite. With the proper foresight and problem solving solutions in place, tackling these issues won’t be simple, but it will certainly be doable.

Relevant Media:

Wicked Problems: 5 Steps to Help You Tackle Wicked Problems by Combining Systems Thinking with Agile Methodology:

https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/wicked-problems-5-steps-to-help-you-tackle-wicked-problems-by-combining-systems-thinking-with-agile-methodology


Tom Wujec: Got a Wicked Problem? First, tell me how you make toast:

https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_got_a_wicked_problem_first_tell_me_how_you_make_toast?language=en

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