Marcus conversations

A Conversation with Marcus Kirsch, Founder The Wicked Company

Wicked problems, in my opinion, are the new future. This is what we have to solve. Classic organisations can’t solve it as they are structured to solve tame problems.

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You’ve had an interesting career in Design and Innovation, can you share with us how it all began and why?

Yes, eclectic indeed. I think I was always interested in how the world works. To do that, one needs to look at a variety of things and use a variety of tools. Design was my first tool to observe the world and respond to it. I come from a small town. After the first half of my studies, I grew restless and wanted to go to Hamburg. Big city in the north, I am from a small town in the south-west. Things there were more prominent and different. The .COM boom was happening, and I started to code and build websites and combined it with Design. Few people were designers and coders at the same time. When I graduated, I had the opportunity to start a company with a friend, but I wanted to see different things. So I applied for an MA at the Royal College of Art. They were very experimental with art and technology, all based on people’s behaviour. After that, I was a researcher at an MIT branch in Dublin. Things just evolved, and I followed my curiosity. Worked at the big museums in London designing experiences, worked in advertising building brands and campaigns, then leaving full-time employment to work on innovation projects in various industries, automotive then healthcare. Eventually, I got interested in creating contexts for innovation. So I got into management and business consulting and have now done a range of successful projects on bringing change to companies to improve their products and services by training people and processes.

So I am still learning and trying to understand how people and society works. Same curiosity, different place.

What’s the thought behind the name the Wicked Company? I assume it was coined from the Wicked problem as used in Design?

Yes. Wicked problems, in my opinion, are the new future. This is what we have to solve. Classic organisations can’t solve it as they are structured to solve tame problems. COVID19 has been the single most significant proof to show us that our markets are incapable of dealing with a moving target and its secondary effects like a pandemic. We will have 1000 more of those challenges in the next few years. I want to help create wicked companies so that we can go into the future. If we keep running tame organisations, we will fail more.

If we keep running tame organisations, we will fail more.

There are existing methodologies that many in the design industry use, to go about tackling wicked problems, from your experience, what is the best way to address wicked problems? Do you have a set framework or process for it?

The closest to my background is design thinking, which was created in Standford to help solve wicked problems, a term Horst Rittel shaped. However, Design thinking has to evolve, and we have many other practices that we can learn from like enterprise architecture, behavioural science, organisational Design, deliberate practice, etc. , etc. , etc. They are all aiming to do the same thing: understand reality and come up with better solutions for organisations to both function and deliver services that customers want.

How would you say Design is evolving, and what are the opportunities for companies to leverage, for them to stand out and impact their bottom line?

Find better ways to measure the impact of Design. Speaking to Doug Powell Vice President for Design at IBM who just hired 2,000 designers globally, that is their most significant gap.

Find better ways to measure the impact of Design.

Help companies implement sustainable failure, which essentially means to help them experiment faster than their competition.

Seeing that you have a podcast that hosts deep conversations around great business and innovation books, can you recommend great reads for business leaders looking to solve challenges innovatively?

Follow my podcast. We are trying to collect some of the best books and dig deeper into appropriate actions with the author. I probably read about 40+ books a year and its hard to get through all the hype and fads. Often, several books tend to describe the same challenges with different words. We try to reduce that at The Wicked Podcast by referencing the right things together. Organisations are complex and unique animals so that a single book won’t solve it. We are working on a meta-reference or place where you can more easily filter. We are planning to expand this to a Slack community as well, so it’s worth following our podcast or email newsletter. There is my book ‘The Wicked Company’ that tries to introduce a new mindset and actions for the future.

If I had to recommend one book that gives you some understanding of what we are going through at the moment and which is not my own, it would be Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shocks’. It is half a century old but describes the last mindset shift in business. He foresaw self-organising teams and a version of the internet. It’s my favourite book.

What is an #innovation moment you’ve experienced in your career so far? (We define an innovation moment as something you have done or have been a part of or have witnessed that has been life-changing and impactful to others) can you share?

Two years ago, I worked on a massive transformation project at BT as Design Principal. Within a year, we built 14 design teams, launched an equal amount of new services and created a pipeline of 20 more services. We saved BT millions with human-centric insights. However, the most significant shift was that we formed teams of non-designers into self-organising design thinkers. This required a whole new way of management concept. We applied System Y, which assumes that people want to work and bring themselves in along a purpose, rather than System X, which implies that people only work when they are managed. 

Given the success of the programme and the fact that it is still growing across BT, it showed that System Y could bring company-wide innovation. It is always a concept that few companies apply. Seeing it transform people and creating excellence across such a big business was genuinely inspiring. A company that runs like that can innovate whatever they want, because the teams have a new mindset, and that is what every company is looking for, a growth mindset.

Two years ago, I worked on a massive transformation project at BT as Design Principal. Within a year, we built 14 design teams, launched an equal amount of new services and created a pipeline of 20 more services. We saved BT millions with human-centric insights. However, the most significant shift was that we formed teams of non-designers into self-organising design thinkers…Seeing it transform people and creating excellence across such a big business was genuinely inspiring.