For most people, the word wicked conjures images of evil villains and dastardly deeds. Minimally, it brings to mind the Wicked Witch of the West either in her “I’ll get you my pretties” version from the classic movie or the more recent, just as green, but more melodic version made famous by Idina Menzel’s performance in the musical Wicked. Unless, of course, you hail from Boston where wicked has morphed into a substitute for extremely.

And then, there are wicked problems.

Wicked problems aren’t evil or bad, although they are very likely to drive you nuts. Think complex, difficult, murky, and shifting. Unlike other simpler problems, wicked problems do not have cookie cutter solutions because their very nature makes them resistant to simple solutions. In an interview with NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, Dale Evans, co-author of Designing Your Life, noted that “A wicked problem is one where the criteria are changing all the time; even if you come up with a solution, you don’t get to reuse it over and over again; the status of what you’re working on changes constantly and never is stable.”

Without any doubt in my mind, I can say that raising children falls into this category of wicked problems. As our children develop, change, and have new experiences, solutions that worked yesterday no longer work today. We constantly have to shift our thinking, engage our creativity, and bring our tools of innovation into play.

Certainly, there are aspects of raising children that fall not into the wicked problem category, but rather are gravity problems. These are problems that don’t have solutions because they reflect parts of reality that we cannot change. If you are pedaling a bike uphill, you can change the gears on the bike and adjust your effort, but you can’t change gravity.

The challenge then is what do we do about wicked problems, particularly if the wicked problem is raising our kids?

Certainly, we don’t want to continue to admire the problem. Sitting, staring at it only breeds more stress and as parents, we’re all about reducing our stress. As our children develop, change, and have new experiences, solutions that worked yesterday no longer work today. We constantly have to shift our thinking, engage our creativity, and bring our tools of innovation into play.

The Principles of Innovative Parenting

Innovative parenting applies the tools of design thinking to the wicked problem of raising children. It involves four key mindsets that help us rethink ambiguous parenting problems into challenges of design and innovation.

It’s about People

At its heart, innovative parenting deals with people. We need to bring our empathy with us and our understanding of how the problem impacts them. This isn’t kid-centered because we’re part of this wicked problem as parents and we need to think about all of the players.

Positivity Is Important

Innovative parenting stalls when you slip into “Debbie Downer” mode. While our parenting challenges may sap our energy and push us towards negativity, we need to be in a place where we are additive, not subtractive. Think “yes, and” and not “but no.”

Curiosity Leads to Progress

While curiosity may have killed the cat, it fuels innovative parenting. We need to think “how might we” and wonder what might be possible. Wonder fuels innovative parenting and brings us closer to developing plans to address the wicked problems of child-rearing.

Bias towards Action

Innovative parenting is not about sitting back and waiting for something to happen. It’s about giving ourselves permission to experiment, to fail forward, and to learn from our failures. By trying things, we learn more about parenting and raising our kids.

Raising children might be a wicked problem, but innovative parenting puts us on a path towards dealing with those problems. Raising children is wayfinding, not navigating. Most of us good at navigating, but we struggle with wayfinding because it is ambiguous. We can’t navigate our way through parenting because the signs just aren’t as clear as we want them to be. But we can use innovative parenting as a wayfinding tool and continually adjust and change our plans and strategies.

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