Tom Wujec opens his talk with a statement: “Tell me about a wicked problem, and I will help you make toast.”

He uses toast-making to help people understand the nodes and links within a system. He asks individuals to draw how to make toast. 

Most individuals draw a loaf of bread in a bag, butter and a toaster. Occasionally, a creative individual will outline the car or grocery store in the background where the individual purchased the loaf. 

When he asks people to work together, the system of how to make toast emerges. People start to think about how toast is an output or outcome. It is the final product. What does it take to make toast? Suddenly the system of process and production becomes visual. Nodes and links were identified as the system of making toast was designed. Nodes represent the things in a system, and links illustrate interactions and influences. 

Wujec says, I’m convinced that those who see their world as movable nodes and links really have an edge.” 

The work that he is leading is called business visualization. The wicked problem is the headliner. Then using a considerable wall and a whole lot of Post-it Notes, solutions and actions become more evident. 

A leader asked me to help them solve a wicked problem. I shared that the best way to solve problems is to make toast. While he was not 100% sure what that meant, he trusted me and the process. As the team gathered, I had sheets of paper plastered up on the walls of the conference rooms. In the middle of the tables were Post-it Notes, pencils, markers, crayons, reams of white paper and squeeze balls. The squeeze balls are for those who want to jump immediately to solutions. I ask them to put their energy into the ball instead of what they think is the correct answer. 

A dominant voice often pronounces the answer, limiting others to see other possibilities. 

As we worked together to make toast, creative energy was bubbling up. Teams gathered to think about how toast becomes toast. Some went upstream to the fields of wheat and the start of bread. Others focused on the milling of the grain into flour. A few refined the purchasing process for the consumer. They were thinking in terms of a system — looking and nodes and links.

We were ready to tackle the wicked problem. Before we dove into the activity, I worked through the following:

  1. When tackling a wicked problem, the first question is whether everyone agrees that this is the wicked problem. 
  2. When defining the wicked problem, call out biases that might be underlying in individual minds. When I pushed further, it came out that people did not believe that the wicked problem was solvable. 
  3. Think upstream/downstream of the wicked problem. Remember, wicked problems are made up of nodes and links. Like toast, there are processes before the bread becomes toast and indeed after the toast is consumed.

After we agreed upon not only what was the wicked problem but also whether it could be solved, we dove in. At my one year check-in with the facility, the wicked problem was solved. They had achieved their desired reductions in pressure injuries. 

Since my time with them, they have developed their own facilitators for wicked problem discovery. They call themselves “WPTs = Wicked Problem Terminators.”

Do you have a wicked problem? Ever consider how to make toast? 

Martie L. Moore, MAOM, RN, CPHQ, is the president/CEO of M2WL Consulting. She has been an executive healthcare leader for more than 20 years. She has served on advisory boards for the National Pressure Injury Advisory Panel and the American Nurses Association, and she currently serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing and Sigma, International Honor Society for Nursing. She was honored by Saint Martin’s University with an honorary doctorate degree for her service and accomplishments in advancing healthcare.

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