Why wicked problems need advocates

Friday June 3, 2016 0 comments Tags: Tom Higley, 10.10.10, Wicked Problems


By Tom Higley

10.10.10 Founder 

Alzheimer’s. Climate change. Global water shortages.

Wicked problems like these are all around us.

We hear about them in the media almost every day. And a significant amount of our time is spent thinking about them, talking about them and even debating them. But as a society we do relatively little to address them, generally leaving the truly Wicked Problems to taxpayer-supported government programs and nonprofit organizations.Tom_Higley

If the rare entrepreneur decides to invest time and money in creating a market-based solution to a Wicked Problem, they’re the exception to the rule – a much different kind of “unicorn.”

I founded 10.10.10 to engage the entrepreneurs who are willing to take on our most difficult challenges.

It’s no small thing to convince an entrepreneur to build a market-based solution to a Wicked Problem. For one, Wicked Problems are often large, multi-faceted problems that are difficult to define and about which we have only incomplete knowledge. On top of this, the prospective CEOs that have chosen to take part in 10.10.10 must be persuaded to invest the next 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years of their lives in the development of a market-based solution to a Wicked Problem.

It would not be wrong to think of these startup CEOs as “investors,” and it is worth pointing out that they have far more at stake than most venture capitalists who make a decision about a seed, Series A or Series B round of financing.

If our startup CEOs are the real investors here, we need to be pitching to them (not the other way around.) As savvy investors, these CEOs are beginning their own process of due diligence – investigating risks and weighing them against the potential opportunity being presented.

But who can we find to make these “Wicked Problem” pitches? It takes a special kind of person to convince entrepreneurs to take on a Wicked Problem. At 10.10.10, we call this kind of person the “Problem Advocate.”

Problem Advocates are people who care deeply and passionately about a particular Wicked Problem. This passion has often led them to develop an expert understanding of their Wicked Problem that may reach to the finest levels of detail. Many problem advocates have studied a problem for years, some spending their entire careers to better understand an aspect of a particular problem.

This was the case with Dr. Huntington Potter, a world-renowned Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Colorado, who served as a Problem Advocate at the inaugural 10.10.10 Health in 2015.

Other Problem Advocates may only have a personal connection to their Wicked Problem. While Dr. Bill Marsh, the executive director of the Permanente Foundation, advocated for health maps at last year’s 10.10.10 Health, he was inspired to do so not from his own research, but from the experience of a colleague who was trying to find the best way for her ailing father to get well.

Whether their connection to a Wicked Problem is professional or personal, their depth of passion and knowledge turns the Problem Advocate into a guide of sorts and a champion of possible solutions. 

But it’s not enough to be passionate and knowledgeable.

To be effective, the Problem Advocate must persuade prospective CEOs to dedicate a good portion of their lives to the pursuit of a market-based solution to their particular Wicked Problem.

And to achieve this, the Problem Advocate delivers a presentation to prospective CEOs that informs, challenges and inspires them to take a chance on their Wicked Problem.

These presentations generally touch on the problem, the pain, the potential market, the entrepreneur’s potential leverage for creating a solution to the problem, and their incentive to chose this particular problem over the others.

Incidentally, the best Problem Advocate presentations also engage the audience, the press, the validators, the ninjas, and the other 10.10.10 volunteers. At last year’s 10.10.10 Health, Dr. Arlen Meyers of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs set a portion of his presentation on antibiotic resistance to a hip-hop beat.

And that got everyone’s attention.

We had a number of high-level healthcare professionals serve as Problem Advocates during the last 10.10.10 Health. Kelly Dunkin, the VP of Philanthropy at the Colorado Health Foundation, presented on childhood obesity. Lisa Brown, the CEO of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurses Association, pitched to entrepreneurs about patient engagement. And Russell Branzell, the CEO of CHIME, talked about patient and data matching.

(To give you a good sense of what a good problem advocate does, take a look at Russ Branzell’s National Patient ID Challenge. Clearly, Russell is a person who cares deeply about the issue of patient identification – and the errors caused by misidentification, and we applaud his initiative.)

Each of these distinguished individuals embraced the role of Problem Advocate because they wanted the startup CEOs and the entire community in attendance at 10.10.10’s “Big Reveal” to share their concern and interest in solving these Wicked Problems.

When our Problem Advocates are able to persuade a prospective CEO to tackle their particular problems, they are ecstatic. Why? Because a CEO tackling one of the Wicked Problems can mean that a network will grow around that CEO, a network committed to the eradication of a Wicked Problem. A network that includes talented co-founders and team members, executives, institutions, organizations, corporations, researchers, volunteers, government agencies, policy analysts, and the growing numbers of investors looking for both return on invested capital and substantial social impact.

Problem Advocates are hugely important because without them – without their commitment, passion and advocacy – we shouldn’t be surprised if impact entrepreneurs remain even harder to find than unicorns.