The Convergence of Steve Blank’s Lean Methodology and Wicked Problems

**Finding and Identifying Wicked Problems**

In our “Wicked” Entrepreneurship class at Imperial College London, we aimed to tackle complex problems that do not have obvious solutions. These wicked problems, such as homelessness, climate change, and disinformation, require innovative thinking and a multidimensional approach. Our goal was to combine Lean methodology with the tools developed for solving wicked problems and systems thinking, and to get students to actively work on solving these problems rather than merely admiring them.

**Scouring the Globe for Wicked Problems**

To provide students with a diverse range of wicked problems to work on, Professor Cristobal Garcia searched organizations across the world. He presented these problems to organizations in the Netherlands, Chile, Spain, the UK Ministry of Defense, the BBC, and aerospace companies. The result was a curated set of ambitious and international wicked problems:

1. Increasing security and prosperity amid the Mapuche conflict in the Araucania region of Chile
2. Enabling and accelerating a Green Hydrogen economy
3. Turning the Basque Country in Spain into an AI hub
4. Solving Disinformation/Information Pollution for the BBC
5. Creating Blue Carbon projects for the UK Ministry of Defense
6. Improving patient outcomes for Ukrainian battlefield injuries
7. Imagining the future of a low-earth-orbit space economy
8. Creating a modular architecture for future UK defense ships

**Recruiting the Students for the Challenge**

In order to take on these wicked problems, we recruited students from both Imperial College’s business school and the Royal College of Art’s design and engineering programs. During an info session, we explained the problems and introduced the unique aspects of the class. Students were not going to spend their time researching these problems in the library; instead, they would utilize Lean methodology and get out of the building to observe and build MVPs (Minimum Viable Products). Within six weeks, the students would actively work on solving these problems.

**The Class and the Tools Employed**

The structure and teaching methods of our class were similar to the Lean/I-Corps and Hacking for Defense classes we had previously taught. The class was team-based, Lean-driven, and experiential. Each team was required to talk to 10 stakeholders per week, and weekly presentations included what we thought, what we did, what we learned, and what we planned for the upcoming week.

The major difference in this class was the inclusion of additional tools to understand and tackle wicked problems. This suite of tools included Stakeholder Maps, Systems Maps, Assumptions Mapping, Experimentation Menus, Unintended Consequences Map, and the Wicked Canvas – a derivative of the Business Model Canvas. By using these tools, the teams gained a holistic understanding of the problems and developed minimum viable products to experiment with potential solutions.

**Flow of the Class**

Throughout the five weeks of the class, we covered various topics and employed different tools to facilitate the problem-solving process. Here’s a breakdown of the class flow:

**Week 1: Building Foundations**
– Definition of simple and big ideas
– Understanding wicked problems and their complexity
– Innovation in startups, large companies, and governments
– Introduction to systems thinking
– Mapping stakeholders and understanding systems dynamics

**Week 2: Tools and Methodology**
– Presentation and feedback session for teams
– Introduction to Mapping Assumptions Matrix and unintended consequences
– Guest lectures on AI ecosystems and smart grids
– Lecture on Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) and experiments
– Homework: conducting experiments outside the building and the country

**Week 3: Problem to Solution**
– Presentation and feedback session for teams
– Introduction to “How Might We…” builder and initial solution experimentation
– Wicked Canvas and understanding its significance
– Homework: further experimentation with MVPs and validation of the Wicked Canvas

**Week 4: Tackling Business Models**
– Presentation and feedback session for teams
– Validation of all building blocks of wicked business models
– Understanding the geography of innovation and its historical context
– Exploration of acupuncture maps for regional system intervention
– Lecture on storytelling and pitching
– Homework: validation of MVPs and reflective lessons

**Week 5: Presenting Lessons Learned**
– Teams present their final lessons learned journey
– Reflections on initial and current understanding of the problem
– Proposed solutions based on gained knowledge
– Discussion on key insights and learnings

**Results and Reflections**

Although we were unsure of what to expect from the students, they exceeded our expectations. Despite the initial shock of realizing the level of commitment required, the teams actively engaged with the problems and leveraged Lean methodology to conduct stakeholder interviews and build MVPs. Some teams even traveled to different countries to gain first-hand insights from key stakeholders.

The incorporation of wicked tools and systems thinking provided the students with a holistic understanding of the problems they were tackling. These tools allowed them to develop minimum viable products and experiment with potential solutions. Overall, the class successfully combined the principles of Lean with the unique tools of Wicked problem-solving, enabling students to actively work on solving complex challenges.

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