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  • Duncan McLachlan

do you know you have a wicked problem and do you know how to solve it?

Updated: May 28, 2021

Oil & gas projects are some of the most complex in the world; they are often a series of interrelated problems which are increasingly difficult to solve. Bringing value and certainty to the oil & gas industry requires approaching these challenges in an innovative fashion and cognisant of their complexity. In 1973 two Berkeley professors, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber[1], introduced the concept of a ‘wicked problem’. A wicked problem can be defined as a “problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.” Rittel and Webber provided ten characteristics to differentiate wicked problems from hard but ordinary problems, including:

  • Ordinary problems have a solution whereas, with a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops.

  • Solutions to ordinary problems can be evaluated as correct or incorrect whereas wicked problems have solutions that are subjectively judged as good or bad.

  • Wicked problems are not isolated, they are enmeshed with other problems, none of which has a single root cause.

  • The interrelationships of wicked problems mean every attempted solution has consequences which cannot be undone throughout the system of problems.

  • A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, all with different value drivers and ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.

Clearly the challenges facing the oil & gas industry are a series of wicked problems, so how do we solve them?

breadth of experience

The interrelated nature of wicked problems and the nest of root causes, requires a multi-faceted approach. No single discipline can be relied upon to provide good solutions. At io, we have built a team of experts covering all the full scope of field development, from petrophysicists to economists and from geologists to study managers. The io team has worked at all levels of the oil & gas supply chain, from operators to consultants. The team also draws on expertise from a variety of industries other than oil and gas, including aerospace, automotive, electronics, banking, shipping and management consulting. The team works collaboratively, often using a systems thinking approach, to model the interrelationships between the constituent sub-systems of a full-field development. This allows the effects of solutions to be understood as they ripple through the system of wicked problems. By leveraging this breadth of experience in such a collaborative manner, io develops the best possible “good” solution to the challenges facing the industry.

However, at io we go much further than simply relying on the breadth of our people, we strive to build a culture and environment that supports our team of experts to perform at their creative best when solving wicked problems.

flow and creativity

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the theory of flow states. Flow is analogous to the concept of being “in the zone”, where we are fully immersed in what we are doing. One of the many definitions of flow is that it is an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”[2] In their book, Stealing Fire, Steve Kotler and Jamie Wheal discuss the need for creative responses to provide solutions to wicked problems. To support this view point, they present evidence from research into Tibetan Buddhists from the 1990s which showed long term meditative practice produced gamma brainwaves. Gamma waves normally occur when novel ideas come together and create new neural pathways[3]. Kotler and Wheal also reference neuroscientists at the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Advanced Brain Monitoring who used neurofeedback techniques to induce flow states and discovered that soldiers solved complex problems and mastered new skills up to 490% faster; this correlated with a McKinsey study of top executives who reported being 500% more productive in flow.[4]

The research is clear, flow states enhance creativity and facilitates the solution of wicked problems - but how do we create flow? In Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Owen Schaffer proposed seven conditions for flow:

1) Knowing what to do

2) Knowing how to do it

3) Knowing how well you are doing

4) Knowing where to go

5) High perceived challenges

6) High perceived skills

7) Freedom from distractions[5]

Recognising the benefits to our individual team members, the collective io organisation and our clients, io strive to foster an environment conducive to flow states. This includes; starting with the end in mind to ensure the goals for every activity are stated and understood, feedback is provided on a continuous basis rather than only following a set appraisal process and encouraging growth of all our team members by providing stretch challenges that balance opportunity and capability. In addition to this, research has shown that access to flow states is an individual trait, with some individuals finding that flow more easily attained through creative activities, others from group activities and others from perceived high-risk activities such as extreme sports. This is also recognised at io, with employees supported and encouraged to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities that foster flow states, including sensory deprivation tanks, ultra-endurance events such as Ironman triathlon, surfing, creative writing, photography and meditation.

deep work

If we consider the seventh condition for flow, freedom from distractions, this is supported by cognitive psychology which asserts there are limitations on the amount of information that can be processed by the human mind[6]. In a 2004 TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi proposed that limit to be approximately 110bits of information per second, for context, decoding speech requires 60bits of information per second[7]. The need to address distractions are explored further in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In the book, Newport argues that peak performance for knowledge workers requires extended periods of absolute concentration on a single task;

“we need to spend more time engaged in deep work – cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”[8]

Similar to flow states, Newport identifies three key benefits of deep work:

1) “Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.

2) An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

3) Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.”[9]

Deep work fosters flow states which in turn increases creativity and the development of solutions to wicked problems. However, in this increasingly connected world, it can be difficult to free ourselves from the distractions that break us away from the singular focus required for deep work. At io, we recognise the value of deep work and strive to facilitate an environment that allows our team to free themselves from distractions wherever possible. As well as obvious behaviours such as minimising the number of meetings, which can fracture the day and encouraging productive email practice, our team is encouraged to focus blocks of time to projects to help mitigate the cognitive overload that can come from multi-tasking. As everyone has different circumstances and a 9-5 working day does not suit their situation, let alone our global client base, io operates a flexible working policy.

This allows the team to work when they can best serve our clients and work free from distraction. io’s approach to deep work extends to its bespoke office, which has been designed with consideration to the hub and spoke concept. It includes private and quiet areas and small meeting rooms that are all connected to the communal coffee bar. This design facilitates an environment where the deep worker is able to concentrate, free from distraction, the open communal area that fosters collaboration between our diverse disciplines and the inspiration that can arise from impromptu encounters.


The Denning Institute describe collaboration as being essential to the resolution of wicked problems[10]. This is no surprise when we consider wicked problems as involving many stakeholders, all with different value drivers. Collaboration is core to io’s approach, whether it is working with our client’s to identify key value drivers and enable starting with the end in mind, drawing on our parent’s know-how and expertise to generate insight to the problems we are solving, or building contractor led solutions. The io way is built around the decision quality framework, which draws on the Strategic Decision Group’s dialogue decision process (DDP) to foster a collaborative approach to solving wicked problems. DDP involves two teams, the decision team with the authority to allocate resources and an investigative team consisting of people with relevant experience and expertise[11]. This diverse group of stakeholders with different perspectives and responsibilities comes together and uses the structured decision quality approach to bring greater certainty through better decisions when selecting the best solution for wicked problems.

The oil & gas industry now exists in a lower for longer environment and competes with disruptive factors from unconventionals and renewables, electric vehicles, accelerating technological advancement and climate change. Traditional ways of working will not be successful in this context of increasingly wicked problems. The low hanging fruit has been harvested; now the industry needs to work in new and innovative ways to build certainty and increase value by providing solutions to the wicked problems. The ethos at io is exactly this, embracing new and positively disruptive ways of working to transform the industry. As such, we have built a team with an unparalleled breadth of experience whose aim is to change the industry for the good of all. io looks to other industries, the latest research and newest concepts to ensure it works innovatively to provide the greatest certainty and deliver value on client’s projects.

To find out more about how io can help you solve your wicked problems, contact us on

[1] [2] [3]Kotler, S. & Wheal, J. (2017), Stealing Fire, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 47 [4]Kotler, S. & Wheal, J. (2017), Stealing Fire, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 49 [5]Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International. [6]McLeod, S. A. (2008). Information Processing. Retrieved from [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]



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