New Skills, New Behaviors

When no one can tell anyone else what to do, how do we come up with solutions to wicked problems? Environmental scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote about this challenge in his great book The Ingenuity Gap more than twenty years ago.

That’s the problem we set out to solve when I started at Purdue University in 2005.

Why it Matters

If we do not change our approaches to solving problems, there’s little chance we will respond any better than we have in the past. Our main obstacle is rooted in our traditional approach to problem-solving.

It’s linear and analytic.

In other words, we need to precisely define the problem before we can act. (Measure twice, cut once.)

We think of solving complex problems the same way, but our traditional approach doesn’t work well.

Complex problems are different. They cannot be easily pulled apart. They are entangled.

And there’s another problem.

We need to work closely with other people to come up with a solution. And they have their own ideas, which can easily be different from ours. After all, we each see reality from a different perch.

Dig Deeper: New Skills and Behaviors

At Purdue, we learned that solutions to wicked problems emerge from collaborations through a process of recombinant innovation. We develop and test solutions from the assets we already have at hand.

But doing this is harder than it sounds. Productive collaborations require new skills and behaviors.

Although it starts with individuals, a “collaborative culture” emerges from new patterns of thinking, behaving, and doing our work together. New routines. New “learning by doing” networks. New coaching connections and nudging networks.


We discovered that by following a set of simple rules, we can accelerate the volume and velocity of productive collaborations. We can form these collaborations quickly, move them toward measurable outcomes, and make adjustments as we learn by doing.

We also learned that we can teach these new skills and behaviors, so we can scale this learning across organizations, networks, ecosystems, communities, and regions.

Last week, I worked with several different teams tackling complex challenges:

>> Can we design a replicable and sustainable approach to a new “civic infrastructure” for smaller manufacturers to accelerate their digital transformation?

>> Can we leverage the convening power of a research university to provide a platform for the development of an innovation ecosystem in logistics?

>> Can we design and manage a network of research teams working across five distinct technology areas to accelerate our nation’s energy transition?

>> Can we share what we have been learning at Purdue with companies facing their complex challenges?

Next Steps

I’ll continue to post our progress across these multiple projects. If you would like to connect to Purdue to learn more, reach out to the Purdue Research Foundation and Gregory Deason.

They are masters of collaboration.