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Harry Hertz


I Have a Wicked Dream

No, not that kind of wicked

Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2023 - 12:03

Yes, I have a wicked dream. No, not that definition of wicked—I mean wicked in the sense meant by scientists when they discuss “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are those that typically involve a combination of technical, social, and economic challenges. Wicked problems are daunting. They’re complex with many interdependencies. Typically, their solution involves collaboration among people with different technical disciplines and different self-interests.

The realization that what I have had for years is a wicked dream hit me recently when I read an article in the July-August 2022 American Scientist, “The World Needs Wicked Scientists.” It’s the basis for much of the information presented below.

My wicked dream is about a world in which every geographic community is a community of excellence. Why is creating a true community of excellence like solving a wicked scientific problem? Let me share some of the characteristics of a wicked scientific problem, and you’ll see the parallels to achieving communities that are vigorous and resilient.

Wicked problems

Wicked scientific problems aren’t narrowly defined by a need for interdisciplinary scientific research. They’re shaped by broader challenges that affect society. Examples include curing cancer, addressing climate change, and solving population health or food insecurity.

Wicked problems:
• Resist simple solutions
• Create tensions among potential solvers
• Have a political component
• Are always changing or evolving
• Are hampered by limited imaginations
• Suffer from different perceptions of the basic problem being addressed
• Are multicausal
• Are connected to other wicked problems
• Have interim solutions that aren’t good or bad, but better or the best for now
• Are rarely solved completely

Wicked problem solvers

Wicked problem solvers are a unique group of interdisciplinary thinkers. They accept and celebrate interim successes. They enjoy collaborative thinking.

Wicked problem solvers:
• Are action-oriented
• Aren’t afraid to make mistakes and learn from them
• Love a challenge
• Recognize that they’re key stakeholders as well as solvers
• Work well with a diverse group of collaborators and stakeholders
• Are committed for the long term
• Are adept at systems thinking

Communities of excellence

Back to my wicked dream. Imagine a world in which every community is characterized by good health, no poverty, a vibrant economy, and a great quality of life. That is my wicked dream. Achieving that dream requires addressing wicked problems and requires wicked problem solvers who meet all the requirements described above.

Fortunately, there are now 25 pilot communities and many contributing community problem solvers who have taken up the challenge. They have banded together in a learning collaborative, Communities of Excellence 2026. I have been fortunate to serve on the faculty of this collaborative.

While all these communities know the challenges they face and the interim victories they have achieved, I believe the characteristics of wicked problems and problem solvers has helped me gain a new perspective on communities of excellence. Our challenge is just like many other wicked problems, and we’re not alone in wanting to solve these problems.

There is progress

Credit: Communities of Excellence 2026

I recently returned from the Communities of Excellence 2022 Fall Conference. I returned refreshed and exhilarated by the progress I saw. There were communities that responded to crises, such as the pandemic, as a team and brought holistic solutions for their inhabitants. They were building true community resilience. They each have a solid mission, vision, and values that guide their community leadership (both elected and volunteer) and engage their community members in action. These communities have scorecards that allow them to measure their progress. They have strategies and action plans to achieve their objectives. (And many of them realized they weren’t as great as they imagined when they started the journey.)

Equally important, they have a framework document, based on the Baldrige Excellence Framework, to guide their journeys. Furthermore, on Aug. 9, 2022, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 was signed into law, authorizing communities as the seventh category eligible for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. This is the first big step toward the future implementation of this award category.

Would your community benefit from addressing its wicked problems? Consider joining the next cohort of Communities of Excellence 2026. In the meantime, get your community organized and explore some of the tools available to you through the Communities of Excellence 2026 website.

First published Nov. 29, 2022, on Blogrige: The Official Baldrige Blog.


About The Author

Harry Hertz’s picture

Harry Hertz

Harry Hertz retired in June 2013 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he had served as director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 1995. For more than 15 years he was the primary architect of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, responsible for expansion of the Baldrige Program and Award to healthcare, education, and nonprofits, including government. Hertz serves on the advisory group for VHA’s Center for Applied Healthcare Studies, and on the adjunct faculty of American University. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T.